queer (adj.) 1500: strange, peculiar, eccentric, oblique,
off-center, oblique, from PIE root *terkw- to twist.
At twenty-one, I wrote the first draft of a personal essay, “On Blackening the Queer.” In the essay I traced myself alongside a term I found myself circulating slowly, beginning to form with my lips, skeptical to pull at the tongue, couldn’t quite say, swallow. Wouldn’t. Not without placing “Black” within its vicinity.
My younger selves climb up these words now, peering over my shoulder.
I’m constantly straddling the line separating these communities.
My selves melt into a unit, now a person peering into a screen. She doesn’t want to be a member of a word attached to a group she equated with white, another failing of popular culture, an internal failing in not searching alternative mediums further: the assumed whiteness within queerness and the continuous erasure of the black queer identity is polarizing, leading me to privilege black over queer.
When I speak of this person, I’m referring to an Ashley writing about a younger self at nineteen years old, an Ashley using the pronouns “she,” “her,” and “hers”; an Ashley tapping between channel ORANGE and Paramore, lodging herself onto Sam, Charlie, and Patrick when watching The Perks of Being a Wallflower; an Ashley enrolled in a Black literature class for the first time in her formal education, insecure in her Blackness—in 2013, in the state of Iowa, in the fold of a two-term Black US president—what this means and how to express it.
The essay was an attempt to record a recent history, a way of assembling myself in print, to remember before it was too late: this is where I am at this moment in time.
I write: there’s an allegiance to black before queer because my racial identity is overwhelmingly evident while my sexuality can be hidden.
And: the heteronormativity and male-centered discourse in the recollection of black movements and the conception of black studies is infuriating.
Even though queer people of color was a phrase with meaning—a living manifestation contained in whispers used to speculate about people in my family, people in public, people on the periphery on screen, Is Sheila from Love Jones queer, or just single? both? there, simply?— there was always that modification, the Black before the queer, the person of color after the queer, that additive that didn’t quite meet the word, but was close, meant something similar—but separate, different—even if queer of color might fit under the umbrella of queer.
Ashley will learn that everything she does is Black, that she doesn’t need outward approval: checking the times for the nearest bus to campus, writing historical fiction, YouTubing James Baldwin and Malcolm X debates, binge-watching episodes of Victorious.
But this isn’t new. Is this a tiring narrative? You’re familiar: a result of a suburban story, its own kind of tragic, Oreocity. You don’t want to hear this, read about it, fictional or not.
Jodie Landon did just fine, I imagine. Angela Moore, Dionne and Murray.
Quinta Brunson jokes on Twitter: “Some of you have never listened to fallout boy with an Asian guy named Vince in high school while people questioned your blackness and it shows.”
There are more pressing matters, the physical and psychological harms on a different plane of severity: the ten-year-old who was hit by a bus on the way home from school, sixteen shots in Laquan McDonald’s frame dispensed by the finger of an officer, blocks and blocks and blocks on Chicago’s South Side without a single trauma center, blocks and blocks and blocks of food desert, housing projects with stairwells smelling of urine, parents working overtime, parents split, parents elsewhere.
My father has the house to himself now. Bachelor pad. He’s purchasing slices of salmon and tubs of spinach at Whole Foods. My mother works in another state, shops at Wegmans. Aisles and aisles of fresh produce and ready-made meals, a hot bar, bakery and restaurant, shelves of alcohol and vitamins.
You’re thinking about the kind of reality that can propel you to claim where you’re from with a brand of audacity I’ll never scream, can make you escape poverty, and hope to never return. Or maybe you do. Then you’re thinking about Donald Glover, Phoebe Robinson, Jessica Williams, Morgan Parker. Maybe Lena Waithe. Her mother moved them from the South Side to Evanston, Illinois.
You’re tired of us.
A violation must occur.
When I speak of Ashley at nineteen, she has not stretched in the word “queer” yet. She believes she is straight, and this soon morphs into the unnameable. It’s magnetic. When she is near the door of twenty, in 2014, she doesn’t want kids. Ferguson is happening on the TV, just outside.
Picture my selves sprouting from my shoulders, liquid and lengthening, the intermittent sound of droplets pecking at the floor.
In her essay on the word “Queer,” in the “Postposttranssexual” special issue of Transgender Studies Quarterly, during which she questions the location of queer in transgender studies, English and gender studies scholar Heather Love describes “queer” as “nonnormative desires and sexual practices,” understanding the arena of queer studies as “a critical field that questions stable categories of identity.”
Queer is fluid, doesn’t adhere to a rigid definition, is simple to say.
She tracks the history of the term, beginning with the 1980s—the AIDS crisis and social movements—to the reclamation of a slur, and an institutionalized study working to capture gender and sexual nonconformity and the contents within a dense container for the abject, outliers, defiers, and crossers: what doesn’t it hold?
The term’s broadness is what also makes it frustrating.
Probe the before.
queer (v.) 1812: to spoil, ruin. related: queered;
queering. 1790: to puzzle, ridicule, cheat.
I had friends who struggled stepping into queer, or wouldn’t, for reasons similar to mine.
One referred to herself as “nonhetero,” argued that Black people are already queer. We are queered—the living aftermath of being assigned a form of other, a visceral embodiment of disturbance—even as queer may seem inaccessible when it comes to sexuality.
The other friend simply was.
“Black” it is.
To address the absence of race and class consciousness in the world of queer studies, and the absence of gender and sexuality nuance in Black studies, cultural studies scholar E. Patrick Johnson termed:
quare (n.) 2005: meaning queer; also, opp. of straight;
odd or slightly off kilter; from the African American
vernacular for queer; sometimes homophobic in usage,
but always denotes excess incapable of being contained
within conventional categories of being; curiously
equivalent to the Anglo-Irish variant of queer.
(n.) a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered person of
color who loves other men or women, sexually and/or
nonsexually, and appreciates black culture and
(n.) one who thinks and feels and acts; committed to
struggle against all forms of oppression.
(n.) one for whom sexual and gender
identities always already intersect with
I remain at a politicized center where black, queer, and woman argue with one another and relentlessly compete—as if they exist in isolation, as if they are not intertwined. I want to ask Evelynn Hammonds if the desire to prioritize is healthy.
Stick a finger in the strange, the odd. Feel a pull of muscle, how your finger reacts to one angle’s soft cold, another’s stiff warm. If you stay long enough, the muscle squirms and calms, soothes.
Activist, Black Feminist, and political scientist Cathy J. Cohen links the movement from queer theory to queer politics in her essay “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The
Radical Potential of Queer Politics?”—noting early guides Judith Butler, Eve Sedgwick, Teresa de Lauretis, Diana Fuss, and Michael Warner—where there is an embrace of travels within different kinds of sexual behavior, a rejection of the static, and the generation of activists who brought a new approach—biting in the urge for cultural shifts.
I’m fixated on the claim of queer theory at its peak: when it concentrates on “not only the socially constructed nature of sexuality and sexual categories, but also the varying degrees and multiple sites of power distributed within all categories of sexuality, including the normative category of heterosexuality.”
My interest lies in a capacious understanding of the queer: a word that adapts based on the need to refer to any sort of marginality, disruptance, oddity—mercurial. But also this question of power: who holds it, what determines the axis of power and privilege to lean heavily on one side?
There is a puddle at my feet, a goop of selves. They grip my heels and soles, pace routes up my thighs, lines and spheres and prints of movement.
The 1990s demanded an opening. Alongside the frequent usage of “queer” in the academy, in social spheres, and in activism, the social landscape lengthened with the becoming of queer politics. Queer politics is transient, an object that twirls, doubly signaling the act of altering one’s expression, behavior, partner—no matter how gradual or frequent—and resisting the modes of power that work to erase those on the margins, interpersonally and societally.
Twist and pull the unfamiliar and perplexing and eerie and bizarre.
queerness (n.) 1680s, “strangeness,” from queer
(adj.) + -ness. meaning “homosexuality” is from
Queer paints an expanse of mass. How should we build?