Queer/Trans vs. Gay/Lesbian

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Talk Given at the Women’s Pre-Conference of the 25th World Conference of ILGA in Sao Paulo, Brazil by Haven Herrin

My queer community can feel a lot like a linguistic playground.  All the words and turns of phrase that we use to talk about ourselves are, in some sense, illusory, but they also point to the nuances of communities built out of ever-more complex and self-determined identities.  It is a beautiful freedom to witness.

Today I want to talk about how language in part creates communities with its particularities of place that it gives a people.  I also want to address the tension between infinite possibilities for identities and the need for unity and collective struggle.

I will keep my comments to where I come from, the twin cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul in Minnesota in the United States.  My sense of queer self and the words I use to convey that queer experience are borne out of this particular place.  I can’t speak with much detail or honesty to other places and how they grapple with the evolution of language and to what ends queer people use it.

Some days I am a fag, some days a trans, every now and then a high femme, never a woman, always female-bodied, a bit butch and nearly always genderqueer.  I am a changeling but it is more internal shifting than external changes for you to see.  The Twin Cities is where I first began to really grow into my queer self.  Specific places, ideas, languages, and communities of people have supported me there in becoming my whole self.

Even keeping my comments to the Twin Cities, I will get dangerously close to generalizations that obscure more than they reveal.  It is difficult enough to even talk about my individual experience, let alone another human’s.   But I will try to travel with you from the very personal to thoughts about how I work to create solidarity, community and mutually supported liberation.

Me.  In addition to my queer identities, I am 28 years old.  I am white.  I am usually able-bodied.  I have always had more than enough resources.  My language, my passport, my education and my familiarity with Christian culture have generally met with acceptance in the mainstream culture of the United States.  In short, I carry much privilege where I live.  My community has helped me see this and has challenged me to articulate where my politics and my way of life do not fit the mainstream model.  In fact, this is one of the defining characteristics of the Queer/Trans community in the Twin Cities, to think and talk about identity from many angles all at once, support self-determination and deep reflection, and examine how identities are working in concert or creating dissonance vis a vis mainstream culture.

For example, I get incredible support around my gender identity.  It’s common in my community – the Queer/Trans community – to ask, “What is the gender pronoun you would like me to use for you?”  There are a lot of options: he, she, ze, they, none at all and more.  I use “they” and “them,” and it feels pretty amazing to have friends who will honor that, English grammar rules be damned.  I use it because it reflects the multiplicity I feel in my gender expression.

My chosen community, the Queer/Trans community, challenges and cares for me. We share a lot of dinners as we organize for social change…topics of dinner conversation almost always touch on race politics, poverty, capitalism, patriarchy, ableism and classism in some way. We call each other out when needed, and it always feels like there is space to change and grow ourselves.  We see each other as people with multiple, evolving identities.  We are not singly-defined by our gender or sexuality… and this is how I have learned what solidarity can look like.  WE do not live within singular identities, and our community’s work is not single-issue.  I am learning how to hold space in a conversation for the complex reality that white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy all have something to say about gender and sexuality – and vice versa.  I am trying to juggle all of it, not privilege some forms of oppression over others, and keep a wide perspective on all of it simultaneously.

There are many communities in the Twin Cities that contain LGBTQI-identified people of course.  I will share a story to characterize the difference between the Queer/Trans group and the other large population, the Gay and Lesbian community.  The organization that hosts the Pride Festival that’s been taking place for 20 years invited people in the Twin Cities to give their feedback on the festival and its future.  I decided to attend because the Pride Festival is actually not a place I enjoy.  I don’t feel it reflects my priorities: it is expensive, it has a lot of vendors who seem to want the “gay dollar” more than our liberation, and it is overwhelmingly white and male.  Around the same time of this meeting, I had been doing a lot of work with my [queer] friends to unionize a chain of sandwich shops.  It would have been the first labor union of a fast food restaurant in the United States.  Their demands included an end to racism, transphobia and homophobia in the workplace and better pay.

So I went to this meeting with the Pride organization, and for lunch we had the sandwiches from the same restaurant I was helping to unionize.  It was a rough meeting besides: no one asked my gender pronoun and they referred to me as “she” even after I told them I prefer “they.”  That to me, right there, says that self-determination will not be respected in this space.  The leaders of the meeting asked us, essentially, why we think Pride tends to be very white and solidly middle class in what is a diverse city, I asked them how they determine what is and what is not a “queer issue.”  Looking at my activism, you could determine that I see fighting racism and workers’ rights as queer issues.  But there we were, eating the sandwiches that pay the people who perpetuate the unhealthy workplaces my [queer] friends go to 5 days a week.

I share this story as a way of describing the dividing line between the Queer/Trans community and the Gay and Lesbian community.  The titles themselves are not meaningful, for surely there are people who claim the word “gay” in all kinds of communities.  Like the Pride Festival, the Gay and Lesbian community trends toward being more white and more middle and upper class. The agenda is more narrowly defined to rights and protections attached specifically and only to sexual orientation gender identity and gender expression, such as marriage equality, being able to serve in the military, and hate crimes laws.  These are the priorities, often to the exclusion of the difficulties LGBTQI people experience as a complex product of one’s class and race alongside sexuality and gender.  Examples of these more complex LGBTQI issues may include poverty, homelessness, worker’s rights, healthcare, and job access.

These latter issues seem to get more care and attention in the Queer/Trans community.  I think it comes out of that sense of solidarity among many issues, identities, and social justice movements.  All issues are queer issues, more or less, because we are just about everywhere.  So when we are willing to have complex conversations about white supremacy and heterosexism and capitalism and ask people, “Hey what pronouns do you use?” we can see people as the multidimensional beings that they are.  It becomes harder to fight one kind of oppression without fighting the other.  If I am working for the liberation of my community, then I am working against more than just homophobia, am I not?

So if I were to generalize the differences between these two communities, I might say that the Queer/Trans community allows a lot of space for self-determination and bringing the whole self to the work.  The Gay and Lesbian communities focuses less on the nuances of identity and more on issues that are circumscribed by sexual orientation and, to a lesser extent, gender identity and expression.  To be transparent, I am sure there is an unhealthy amount of judgment from both sides about which community is more desirable.

So why do I bring this up?  It is not just to point out yet another division and not just to play word games.  Living in Minneapolis, I have seen the value in allowing the space for an infinite number of ways to self-identify and having an infinite number of words available to explain our lived experiences in the Queer/Trans community.  This encourages identities to come first, then agendas and priorities to flow from that.  In the reverse, to set the agenda and then expect identities to get in line…well, what I see is the clear delineation of the center and then the margin when our lives our organized in that way.  The people at the margin continue to be the very old, the very young, the differently-abled, the people of color, the trans, the gender non-conforming, and any folks so bold as to uncategorizable.

The Gay and Lesbian community in the Twin Cities seems to put the agenda first too often, narrowly defined and not based in complex and diverse lived experiences.  So, despite its simplification of what the movement’s agenda, I find it fracturing and divisive in the ways it excludes people who don’t fit a mainstream mold.  In my own queer activism, I find myself working on housing foreclosure, sandwich shop unions, bathroom and school access and anti-police brutality measures.  In the Queer/Trans community, we push to see the people in our midst first, and then define our direction and agenda by what we, as a collective, care about and why.

I have framed this essay in terms of language and its power, not just in creating it but allowing room for it to evolve and to be heard, because respecting, embracing, and exploring with enthusiasm the maze of words – tomboi, bearded femme, diesel dyke, two spirit, fag, genderqueer, and on and on – seems to be way to invite in everyone to the center, supporting not chaos and fragmentation but unity and diversity.

Haven Herrin is an artist, activist and teacher who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota in the United States.  Their energy largely goes toward are making drawings for political and aesthetic reasons, tromping through the snow on sunny days, and seeking out challenging new people and books. Haven brings an anti-racist and genderqueer lens into all of their activism.  Haven works with Soulforce as the Director of Development, a non-profit organization that challenges patriarchy and white supremacy by engaging religious attitudes that discriminate against LGBTQI people.  They also serve on the board of the International Lesbian and Gay Association as a representative from North America.

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