Who Can Own 'Queer'?

Some of us are old enough to remember a time when the least fashionable thing to be was part of the LGBT community. You know, right when HIV broke, or in the UK under Section 28, when the press had a free hand to sensationally out people just so they could cover the fallout while spewing vitriol at the poofters, rug munchers and filthy, depraved queers.

The national press was full of hate when I was a kid. As the heterosexual majority aggressively pursued a path of vehement hate and fervid violence, queer bashing was a weekend sport for our hetronormative, knuckle-dragging cousins, and like many other gay men and women, I took my beatings both from my parents and from strangers on more than one occasion, having my face pummeled amid an onslaught of insults: "dirty queer bastard," "fucking queer bitch."

They've used the word "queer" like a rock, and they've stoned us with it for years. Now that it's cool, they want in on the action, and I say that's wrong.

"Queer" isn't just a word. It isn't just a lifestyle choice. It's a label that has been violently written into LGBT history. Our history. Over the years the LGBT community has fought for and gained ground in the fight for equality, understanding and acceptance. We've found strength and visibility. We gained legal rights, and some of us would become politicized for the first time while making painfully slow headway in a still unbalanced world. In doing this, we defined ourselves outside the social norms and built our own society, culture, art. We define ourselves away from the norms that advertising companies want us to believe, and we find strength enough to take these insults and own them proudly.

I'm a hermaphrodite; that's how I was born. I'm female-bodied, 185 centimeters tall, a slim size 10 and androgynous to the point that I get called "sir" quite often. I love queer counterculture. I smile when I hear that conversation in the supermarket between two people wondering if I'm a man or a woman. I am a genderqueer lesbian who's also a masculine-looking woman.

For me, the hetronormative trying to take ownership of "queer" just because they have an avant-garde lifestyle choice is wrong, no matter how much they know of our history or empathize with the struggles of the people who went before me and fought for the groundbreaking changes and recognitions that we take for granted today.

A friend of mine said that you don't have to be gay to be "queer," and I have to agree, but you can't be straight either. I have the view that for our educated, empathic straight allies, claiming "queer" is as deluded as me, a 40-year-old, white, middle-class Jewish woman, claiming to be black because I know when the Windrush landed. I have no idea what it was like to grow up black in the '70s and '80s, when the TV still used words like "coon," "wog," "nigger" and "paki." I have no idea what it's like to be disenfranchised because of the color of my skin. I have no idea of the prejudices that black people face today -- in exactly the same way that straight people don't know what it's like to be spat in the face for holding your partner's hand, to feel fear and unease when kissing your same-sex partner, to feel as though you don't have the same freedoms as straight people, to be made to feel threatened because you have a different gender expression from those peddled by the advertising industry.

There are so many labels around these days, a lot of which I wouldn't want to claim, labels that sound contrived and ridiculous -- "heteroflexible," for example, which to me sounds like an upmarket yuppie way of saying "I'm bi." I can't grumble though. I think that heterosexuals exploring sex and gender is a great thing, and the more educated they are around the variance in sex, gender and sexuality, the more the LGBT community will benefit and gain more ground in our fight for equality. But as they explore and educate themselves, it's up to us to draw a line in the sand, so that we don't forget our roots and they never forget how they treated us.

Moving away from the rigid bipolar model of sex and gender is a great thing. As the LGBT community has a range of identities, so I hope eventually will the heterosexual world, and I'm sure they'll overlap. But until we have full equality across the board, I wish they'd not steal our identities.