The State of the Nation: Queer as You Want to Be

I read HuffPost Gay Voices Editor Noah Michelson's piece "Why I Never Want to Be Just Like Straight People (And Why You Shouldn't Either)," and it got me wondering about the peculiarities of our fine queer nation, with the so-called radicals and assimilationists duking it out in the ring, and the vast majority of noncombatants eating popcorn and occasionally getting up to collect on a bet.

Assimilationists have been around as long as I can remember. They're usually comfortably situated on the gender continuum, with nice middle-class diction and other appropriate skills that let them blend in. Too often they attack other queers who are out there enjoying their queerness. At their worst, they rail at big-mouthed activist queers who are messing up their discreet lobbying attempts and ruining the homoname that they're trying so hard to sanitize to prove that they're just like everyone else. Why on Earth do we make such a big deal about being gay?

Blissed-out on activist endorphins and a history of gay power and gay pride, I used to find that the wonderful fact of our queer difference was self-evident. It was an honor to cry out in the wilderness, an obligation, even. Later on I'd think that maybe it wasn't all about choice and conscience. Maybe I was out there because I'd found out early on that I couldn't pass as straight and made a virtue out of it, like plenty of others. It was just as well. Out among the cactuses is where you often find artists and activists, the ones who do the heavy lifting of creating LGBT identities and LGBT politics.

But the longer I spent in identity politics, the more I wondered what I had in common with my cohorts, and I kept coming around to the same questions: You're a dyke. I'm a dyke. So what? What's the big deal about being gay? What's so straight about straight society? What's so queer about ours? What meaning does whom you sleep with have? Does it necessarily shape your politics, or your taste in ice cream, television or poetry?

However, considering these questions doesn't mean I'm going to end up in the other camp, declaring that sexual orientation means nothing at all, because God knows that if you spend your whole life pointed in one direction while the rest of the world is pointed another way, it's going to have some effect. At least I hope so. It's why I've always preferred the phrase "sexual orientation" over "sexual identity." It has a kind of frisson of the pioneer to it, like I'm going to go out there and explore.

In a way, I guess, it is the experience of difference of sexual orientation, and not necessarily the act of homosex, that makes a person queer. And that difference can make us rebel against the straitjacket of hetero society, with all its other bigoted customs, and sometimes gives us queers an edge in seeing that the emperor has no clothes (and not just because we've had a lot of practice imagining him that way).

This queerness is a gift that not all LGBT people have. It's certainly not inherent in that amorphous thing sometimes called the LGBT movement. We are a political, social and sexual minority, and maybe even a cultural one, but we're held together more loosely than most other minorities, and we might need to start thinking differently about ourselves if we want to mobilize a new generation beyond a few isolated issues.

After all, we're not born into gay families. We can't necessarily recognize each other across a subway car. We are not taught to worship rainbow-colored deities. It is unlikely that one of our parents is gay. For many people, gayness is a second language, learned from a shared, impersonal experience of legal inequality.

Queerness is a minority inside that LGBT experience. It's gayness squared. It's partly about sex, and sometimes about tragedy. It's not afraid of a little perversion, and it embraces joy and love and laughter and, above all, freedom.