(This piece was published on HuffPost.)
I applauded and breathed “yessss” as an explosion of rainbow-hued virtual fireworks filled my apartment. My party-of-one celebration was triggered by the email I received Tuesday from HuffPost welcoming me to its “Queer Voices” page. Yep, HuffPost Gay Voices had changed to HuffPost Queer Voices, and this was huge.
The editorial staff had embraced inclusivity and given voice to a word that I believed would be empowering to many of today’s youth. I’m not a queer person, but I have tried to understand the term and see it from a broad perspective.
As the mom of a child who defies labeling, queer gives my son a place in a richly diverse community of people living as their authentic selves.
I’ve learned that queer can be used as an umbrella term that covers both gender and sexual orientation without having to declare any of the above. Queer is my son Harry’s answer when asked to describe how he* identifies. My kid is a person whose total expression as a human encompasses characteristics we all possess, but which most of our society has deemed specific to only maleness or femaleness.
But people have varying views on the word, and, for some, queer has an entirely different connotation. Reading the comments to “Voices” Editorial Director Noah Michelson’s article about the name change, many commenters found the word queer in a banner headline offensive. For them, it was the painful reminder of a hurtful slur; they preferred the word gay.
I get the same shocked response when someone my age (read: older) asks if my son is trans. When I explain that my kid is queer, people are often horrified I would use such a “derogatory” word. They haven’t heard queer used as a term that describes various communities whose orientations are not heterosexual and/or not strictly male or female.
To be honest, I remember being surprised myself in 2008 when my son Harry came home from freshman year in college to tell me he was queer.
Queer was the word my mother had used in the 1960s and 1970s to describe her hairdresser, interior designer and an artistic friend of the family. She never used it in a mean-spirited or disparaging way; she only intended to convey that someone creative was homosexual. To her, queer just meant different. And once she learned the word gay, and understood queer to be disparaging, it disappeared from her vocabulary. I learned from her it was just synonymous with homosexual or, as she would say, “bent.”
So to hear my then-18-year-old son use the term queer to describe his identity caught me off guard. But there was such satisfaction in his statement. I could see that for him it was a sweeping term that encompassed all facets of their developing humanness – degrees of maleness or femaleness, body image, gender identity, sexual orientation, attitudes, and behaviors. According to Harry, queer was proudly oppositional to the dominant gender binary framework. (I remember having to ask him what “gender binary” meant.)
Harry explained that queer was non-linear; it was nebulous, a term in flux. And in the context of their artistic identity, I understood queer to be a space where my kid had the freedom to continue evolving as a whole person. I had a sense those eight years ago of a generational shift within that one word.
For queer people in my generation, survival was often dependent on blending in, so it’s quite exciting these days for queerness to be so visible and uplifting.
I believe babies come into this world knowing everything about themselves. So I think becoming who you are meant to be is about accessing your true inner self and editing out who other people say you are or who you should be. As I watched Harry grow into adulthood, I realized that life’s development is really about understanding your sense of self and learning how to articulate it.
Labels are just plain limiting, and that’s why I applaud the broadness of queer. Surely there are thousands of teens and young adults exploring their own authentic selves. It’s my wish that queer gives young people the same wide berth it did my son to discover themselves with joyful, cheering abandon.
*Note: My son uses the pronouns “he/him,” “she/her” and “they/their” interchangeably, so as Harry’s mom, I do as well.
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