I remember the first time I was called queer. It wasn’t a slur, actually, but a well-meaning professional email that landed in my in-box maybe three years ago, when I was a freelance writer: a mass solicitation from an editor I followed on Twitter looking for pitches from “queer voices.” I also remember reading the email in bed and making a face at the phrase. Me — queer?
If anything, gay, an identity I wasn’t always comfortable with, now feels as reflexive as “male” or “New Yorker.” The child of Taiwanese immigrants in a Los Angeles suburb, I grew up haunted by “gay.” I’d hear it — even when it wasn’t about me, it was — at recess, in the locker room, on the dance floor. As a teenager, I modulated my behavior to fit in. I kept my adoration for Michelle Kwan a secret and put away my Phantom of the Opera T-shirt. I relearned how to pronounce my sibilant name (Jasssson) in high school, moving the tip of my tongue so it hit below the gumline. As I moved through my 20s, though, these adaptations started feeling less like survival and more like internalized homophobia. Now, a little older, I no longer temper my upspeak, or hide my retinols, or fret about my Céline Dion playlists. I live in Brooklyn with my boyfriend and work a job that’s fashion-adjacent; my friends and I go to Fire Island, where some of us down Truvada with vodka-sodas. I am, in short, as gay as I want to be.
But “queer” and its demands were different. A child of the ’90s, I’ve always considered it something else, a reclaimed slur laden with a legacy I could never lay claim to: of activism rooted in ACT UP and political outrage as AIDS killed people like me (see the David Wojnarowicz show at the Whitney to witness one hero of the resistance); of queer theory emerging in the ’90s as an academic discipline interrogating the tyranny of heteronormativity — when I wasn’t yet a teenager. Queer was rebellion and Eve Sedgwick and art house, a set of politics — a matter of taste — that situated its adherents outside the mainstream. I could never call it home.
But as gay became mainstream, queer, too, has moved from the edge of the culture toward its center. I’ve noticed the word nestle itself in the vernacular, not just in headlines of The Advocate or Out but in the New York Times and the Washington Post. The Huffington Post’s LGBTQ vertical Gay Voices is now Queer Voices. Condé Nast’s digital publication Them is dedicated to the “best of what’s queer.” These publications use it (as I have) not to describe a band of renegades but as an umbrella term — a more efficient way to capture the multiplicity of non-straight, non-cisgender identity than alternatives.
But what does queer even mean now? Several stories have been written in recent years asking that question, though few have satisfyingly answered it. Shannon Keating wrote for BuzzFeed that queer “has sharp edges; it still makes a lot of people uncomfortable; it conveys certain politics just as much as it connotes something other than heterosexuality.” Them created a YouTube explainer applying the term to “a wide range of LGBTQ people and other sexual minorities [who] call themselves queer as a more expansive and expressive umbrella term for their sexualities and genders,” while Jenna Wortham, writing in The New York Times Magazine, noted that queer “has come to serve as a linguistic catchall for [a] broadening spectrum of identities, so much so that people who consider themselves straight, but reject heteronormativity, might even call themselves queer.” Political and not, straight and not, queer’s rather sophisticated linguistic feint is that it resists definition, even as it bears the weight of new recruits.
Certainly in my real-life conversations it’s cropped up more and more, delivered in a tone that’s neither ironic nor earnest but something interstitial (“Pose is the greatest show in the history of queer television”). But as the word has permeated the parlance, it’s also been adopted by more gay men — and society generally — as a synonym for what I would call simply gay. Can’t we acknowledge that Love, Simon is just a gay movie? Or ask why a show hosted by five cis-gay men is called Queer Eye? Maybe a 19-year-old who lands in the emergency room after sucking a ten-inch dick is in fact a gay hero? Even as I laugh at memes poking fun at gay men who appropriate queer, I do wonder: Why does the conflation bother me?
Maybe it’s that, as a conscientious rule follower, someone so studiously concerned with reading and buying and wearing the right things that he turned it into a vocation, “queer” feels unearned. I can’t reconcile striving toward an institution as heteronormative as marriage, or wanting kids, or spending $37 on Bloodies at Joseph Leonard with a claim on queerness. My blithe participation in all the conventionalities of New York life certainly doesn’t accord with anyone’s version of radicalism, unless you count dabbing on concealer in the men’s room. For more than a decade now, I’ve been totally happy to call myself gay. It’s sublimation as identity: my badge of honor for braving the schoolyard taunts and coming-out conversations; my recompense for the lost teenage years.
And so I bristle at the idea that, in the midst of queer’s renaissance, gay should come to feel traditionalist, or even, some would say, conformist. “There’s an unfair sense that gay as an identity is somehow only associated with white, cis, masculine gay guys,” says J. Bryan Lowder, editor of Slate’s Outward and author of the upcoming Farrar, Straus and Giroux book The Point of Pride, “but I think gayness can be more complicated than that. It’s unfortunate when the two words are then pitted against each other.” In these conversations, I’m exasperated by the myth of monolithic gayness. You can be a gay whore or a gay monogamist; a gay man who loves football or one who loves figure-skating; a gay who’s white or one who’s black or Latino or Asian. (How could gay not mean Asian when it was all I was ever called ..?) “Someone I was talking to was very offended recently,” says Michael Arceneaux, author of the memoir I Can’t Date Jesus, and regular contributor to The Guardian and the Root, “because I’d said I was gay rather than queer. It was like I was taking some assimilationist stance because I didn’t use the word.”
What optimism to call gayness assimilation when Pulse was only two years ago, or when the Supreme Court just sided with the Colorado baker-cum-homophobe, or when you can still get fired in 28 states for being gay. But to identify as gay when I have the option of queer does carry a tinge of quaintness that feels, if not retrograde, then slightly out of step with the progressivism of our current cultural mood.
As much as I would like to rebrand gay as not just compatible with a modern society’s ideas about inclusiveness and individuality but as emblematic of them, queer has already superseded it as the word that signals those values. You can see the trickling in Generation Z; less than half of 13-to-20 year-olds identified as straight in a 2016 study (compared to 65 percent of millennials who did). They read Seventeen and Teen Vogue, which use queer as the term designating such non-straight identities. GLAAD, the North Star from which so many institutions take cues about how to discuss LGBTQ issues, calls queer “an adjective used by some people, particularly younger people, whose sexual orientation is not exclusively heterosexual.” It’s a matter of denotation of course (that’s what happens with an umbrella term) but also one of connotation. For an upcoming generation, queer is not hard-edged but fuzzy, not separatist but expansive. As it concerns semantic utility, gay is simply too limited by comparison.
And so while I’m not particularly young, I’ve become less resistant to the idea of queerness. I will never stop calling myself gay, but there are situations in which — especially when describing myself as part of a group — I can see myself using queer. Context matters of course, the same way in which, depending on whom I’m addressing, I’m American or Asian-American or Chinese or Taiwanese. I’ve adopted a calculus of amenability to the term — a sliding scale of acqueerescence. If a good friend wants to refer to me as queer; if a person of color wants to call me a queer writer/editor; if a trans person wants to use it as an expression of solidarity — fuck yes. If a straight person uses it, I will likely grimace, though it would depend on the situation (just please not ever as a noun, the syntactic form the pejorative always takes). On some days, I feel completely at ease inhabiting a queer persona. On others, it feels inappropriate, ill-fitting, undeserved. As the discourse around identity continues to shift, I’ve come around to the idea that self-identification doesn’t have to be so fixed either. Maybe sometimes you feel queer, and sometimes you’re just gay.