During last week’s Greek Ally Week, Blue Devils United hosted a student panel about being both Greek and LGBTQ on Duke’s campus. The next day’s Chronicle article incorrectly identified one of the African-American panelists as “queer,” which made her uncomfortable. “What is ‘queer’ supposed to mean?” she asked me later. The term is vague, politicized, and simultaneously lacking a concrete meaning while burdened with decades of history.
Picking a label is one of the most difficult parts of coming out. Speaking in stereotypes, “lesbian” calls to mind masculine-of-center women with buzz cuts and motorcycles. “Gay” often refers to flamboyant, cisgender men. Many people believe “bisexuals” don’t exist, but when they do exist, they’re hypersexual animals—for example, when I came out to my parents as bisexual, my mother thought I just wanted to have a boyfriend and a girlfriend at the same time.
When I was a freshman, I identified as “queer” and moved primarily within the LGBT community, where people knew what the term meant. PFLAG (Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) defines queer as “an umbrella term…[anyone] who feels somehow outside of societal norms in regards to gender, sexuality or/and even politics.” Academic E. Patrick Johnson, however, believes that “queer” is only for white people, and that blacks should identify as quare: “Odd or slightly off kilter…one for whom sexual and gender identities always already intersect with racial subjectivity” (Quare Studies, 2001).
As my friend groups changed and I transitioned socially to Duke’s “Black Community,” I couldn’t leave behind my sexual orientation. As I came out (or was outed) to new people, I had to pick a label. When I picked no label, people assumed I was a lesbian. When I said “queer,” people didn’t understand. “Bisexual” was the most familiar; people had at least heard of bisexuals, even if they didn’t understand the particulars, and so that’s what I’ve chosen for the past two years.
This isn’t to say that black people are unenlightened or homophobic—we’re no more “unenlightened” than any other racial group in the United States. And some of the most progressive, gay/bi/queer/quare/anti-oppressive, anti-normative, anti-labelist activists I’ve ever met at Duke are black. To that end, I also don’t say “queer” to white folk; if I had joined a PanHellenic or Multicultural sorority instead of NPHC, I would have come to the same conclusions. I don’t even say “queer” to myself anymore.
Maybe it’s my job to educate people about the nuances of the LGBTQIA community. I should start conversations about the differences between being genderqueer and genderfluid, the subversiveness of drag, the dynamics of being capital-A Aggressive versus capital-F Femme, and the politics of polyamory. The list goes on and on. The LGBTQIA (and I’m still missing letters) community is diverse and lovely and confusing. By hiding its nuances, I’m doing it a disservice and erasing people from the conversation.
I’m getting better about starting these conversations, because I know that I don’t give people enough credit. As I have come out to people within the Black Community and within Duke’s campus at large, they have accepted me. They have wanted to learn more. And some have even come out to me, confused about their place in the broader LGBT community.
I no longer identify as queer because I feel that it doesn’t apply to me, but the next time someone asks, I won’t be afraid to have that conversation.