Melissa Harris-Perry: Thanks for being with us on The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. It's June, pride month. In some ways it's not all that different here at The Takeaway, we'll be always work to bring you diverse stories from LGBTQ+ communities. We've got another instalment of our ongoing series Black Queer Rising. Today we have the next piece of our series, Aging While Queer. In his new Hulu film, Fire Island, comedian and writer Joel Kim Booster transports the story to the queer mecca of the movie's title.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We notice a common refrain there. Yes, out of my mouth, over and over again. Queer. During a recent editorial meeting, David Gebel, who, let's be honest, basically keeps The Takeaway ship afloat, posed a bit of a challenge to our team.
David Gebel: I think if we would take everyone on The Takeaway team, and we are a very diverse team, and have them each write down the definition of queer on a piece of paper and one by one read them, we would get wildly different answers. What does it mean?
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's when it got really interesting. What does queer mean to a team of radio folks? Some from the academy, some from Broadway, some seasoned journalists, some young reporters, some X-gen, some millennials, some zoomers. A team of those who are in the community and those who are allies. What does queer mean to you? Here's what some of you told us.
Santi: Hi, this is Santi from Petersburg. How do I feel about the word queer? I love the word queer. I wear it as a badge of honor. It was one of the first words that felt like home to me.
Sarah: Hi, this is Sarah calling from Oakland. I use the word queer to identify myself. I think of the word queer almost as a surname to denote that I am part of a much bigger family.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Of course, this doesn't mean anyone is ignoring the hateful history of the word.
Speaker 1: I identify as queer and I think it's fine if someone's in the LGBTQI+ community to identify or use the word queer, but if other people use that it could be taken as a derogatory thing.
Dawn: Hi, I'm Dawn from San Diego, California. I was working at a gay and lesbian bookstore in the '80s. I couldn't stand the word queer. Then a friend came by wearing a Queer Nation shirt. I said, "What is this? How can you do this? That's the word they call us." He said, "My dear, they're going to call us queer no matter what. I'm taking back the word and I'm proudly wearing it and you should too." I did, I proudly identify as queer.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Here to help us untangle the painful and powerful politics of queer is Michael Bronski, longtime activist, author, and Professor of the Practice at Harvard University. Thanks for joining The Takeaway, Michael.
Michael Bronski: Thank you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Michael, queer can be used in so many different ways, as a noun, as an adjective, in some cases as a verb. Walk us through some of this. It's pretty hard to imagine queer being used as a noun in anything other than a slur context. Is queer still deployed as a slur against folks?
Michael Bronski: I'm sure it is in certain places. Its history as a slur is quite well established. I think actually to be a little bit academic, since I'm an academic, the first recorded use of queer as a slur is actually from Lord Queensbury in 1868. [chuckles] In a letter where he refers to somebody as a snob queer. There's a long history. History is always been used by people who were homophobic, mostly against gay men, I believe, but also against other people that they considered deviant. Curiously, in the 1920s, the queer was used within the queer community as a term of description or affection. Then really faded away by the '50s, but it was always seen as a derogatory term. It began being reclaimed in the '80s as a positive term.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Your latest book is titled A Queer History of The United States For Young People. I don't know, first of all, I'm assuming it's probably banned in at least 20 states. Talk to me, what is queer history? How does using that as an adjective, and I assume also that you're queering history, helped folks who aren't academics understand what that word is doing?
Michael Bronski: When I wrote the book, I was fairly determined to be historically accurate, and to use the terms people would use at the time they were living to describe themselves. Walt Whitman would not be a homosexual since the word was not in use. Emily Dickinson would not be a lesbian because the word was not really used then. When we had to come up with a title, we discovered that we couldn't actually have an endless amount of words at the title. Queer was a useful term to be all encompassing of all of these identities, even though it was not historically accurate.
One of the projects of the book was to queer, a verb, history. The etymology of the word queer, really going back to the 16th century, doesn't mean as a verb to disrupt. What my project for the book was really to disrupt our commonly held notions of American history.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let me zero in on two things here. One is this notion of to disrupt. Talk to me about how this broad term queer can be so disruptive. What does it mean to embrace disruption rather than ask for inclusion, or are they part of the same project?
Michael Bronski: I think it's very instructive to think about where the first use of the word queer as a reclaimed word is 1990 from a group called Queer Nation. That happens after 10 years of the HIV AIDS epidemic, in an ocean of enormous anger and hurt and pain. At that point, people, activists were so angry that of government inaction of common apathy towards men with HIV and AIDS, that they needed a word that would actually disrupt the more common civil discourse of gay rights or gay politics. Queer did that, queer was shocking, queer was in your face. Queer said, "We're queer and we're angry, we're not going away." In that way, if you look at a politic of queer disruption meaning to upend the system, very different than to assimilate into the system.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I was a baby academic just finishing my PhD back 20 some odd years ago. In 1999, when Michael Warner published The Trouble with Normal. I think I'd understood inclusion as the primary goal of a social justice campaign, if you think, having been trained in African American politics, sitting at the lunch counter is in part for full inclusion. Warner's book really challenged that idea for me, this idea that, actually, the norm might itself be so troubling because of the ways that it reproduces inequality, and therefore that there's a value and an ethics to disruptive life, queer as disruptive life, that benefits even folks who are perhaps not within LGBTQIA community.
Michael Bronski: Yes, I think one thing we used to say back in old, old being 1970s, Gay Liberation meetings is that we don't want to place at the table. The table's completely corrupt, and the food is terrible.
Melissa Harris-Perry: [laughs]
Michael Bronski: Looking for a place of the table brings up the question of who actually owns the table, who's actually serving the food at the table, who's actually in charge. Whether it be Black Lives Matter, whether it be Me Too, whether it be trans liberation and trans equality rights, a place at the table is not always a good place for many, many, many people.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to me a little bit though about the question of identity. As an African American, I'm obviously in a community that has had various public words from colored to Negro, to Black, to Afro American, to African American. I was taking your point about history that if I'm discussing a particular period of history, you might use the word colored or you might use the word Negro, because that is how people in that moment would have self-identified. What I don't want to do is say, "Hey, queer is a liberatory word, I'm just going to use queer, here we go."
What does it mean in the context of ensuring that within a broad community and diverse community, that a word can be used to self-identify or that folks can choose not to?
Michael Bronski: Sure. I think queer is a great example of that. Certainly I'll admit there are people I know, mostly men my age, who are still grossly offended by the word queer. Not everybody claims it or not everybody reclaims it. I think that the power of queer is that it's used as a reclaimed word in 1990. Really, by 2000 we have TV shows called Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. We have magazines called Queer, queer is being used commonly in the mainstream media. I think in some way, it's great. It's wonderful that in fact the queer movement came up with a word that has actually accepted, but also to me it's somewhat mystifying that it was accepted so very, very quickly.
Now you put on the TV and people say queer all the time. Not all the time, but on RuPaul's Drag Race or other places. It has been very quickly accepted, in this long time of history, 30 years is very quick for any acceptance. The glorious thing about language is that it changes all the time and has multiple levels of meaning each of those times. Words that were antiquated words, such as negro, are no longer used ever, except if you're reading an essay by James Baldwin, or an article in Time Magazine from 1968. What I think is fascinating is why some words get accepted quickly and some not.
It's quite amazing that the New York Times, I believe, began using Black rather than negro somewhere in the 1970s, and yet it was only until 1987 that they stopped using homosexual and began using the word gay. New York Times has not been using queer at all. Language being so dynamic, it interacts with the culture, it interacts with the media, it interacts with everybody's personal lives. We're at a moment in history in which queer has become accepted, even as some people don't like it. Language has to be useful, a great function of queer is that it's incredibly useful in terms of people accepting it as a designated identity, but also as a commonly understood meaning.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Michael, stick with us. We're going to take just a quick break, but we'll be back with more of this conversation, and some voices from Brooklyn pride, right here on The Takeaway.
Jim: Hi. This is Jim from Dayton, Oregon. I use the word queer a lot. I believe it's more inclusive. As much as I appreciate the LGBTQIA moniker I don't want to divide our community into different subsets or groups. I want us all to know that we are on the same page and fighting for the same freedoms.
Speaker 2: Hello. I do use and identify with the word queer. For me, I came out as a lesbian in 1997. What we loved about the word then is that it was all-encompassing.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We've been talking about the word queer, and the work it does in contemporary movements. Now our producer Katerina Barton headed out to the Brooklyn Pride Parade in Park Slope last weekend and talked to people about the word queer.
Speaker 3: Everybody knows that the best pride happens in the center of the universe is Brooklyn, New York.
Speaker 4: I use the word queer to describe myself. I think that it's an all-encompassing description of a community, and I think it brings us all together.
Speaker 5: I love it. I think it's powerful. I think it's like an umbrella term, whoever wants to use it, uses it.
Katerina Barton: How do you feel about the word queer?
Sarah: I know the young people have reclaimed it, but it really doesn't work for me.
Speaker 6: At first, when the word queer came out after high school for me, it was strange for me to hear that, but once I find out the definition of it, I think it's beautiful. I think it's good.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Still with me is Michael Bronski, Professor of Practice at Harvard University, and author of A Queer History for Young People. Michael, Katerina was out talking to folks at the Parade. I want to have an opportunity to hear some of those voices, and get you to walk us through some of that. First, let's hear from Jude.
Jude: I think queer inherently is permission to be in a community of individuals that don't want to be a part of the status quo, can't be a part of the status quo, and are just fulfilled and happy being themselves and with other people. Exploring who they are as individuals outside of the confines of what it means to be in like a binary, whether it's gender or sexuality, or whatever.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Michael, what do you hear in the ways that they're making use of queer there?
Michael Bronski: It's a liberatory word. I think if you look at the history of the gay movements, because I believe there are multiple movements that have always been happening in the United States, there's a gay liberation movement that started right after Stonewall with the Gay Liberation Front, which actually has its roots in the Black Liberation Movement and Women's Liberation Movement. Then there's the Gay Rights Movement. Both of these are completely valid movements, and both of them sometimes work in concert, and sometimes rub up against one another. What queer does, it really speaks to the impulse of gay liberation, meaning to be liberated from the norm.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In that sense, is the word too much of an umbrella? By creating space for so many, does it remove specificity about very particular histories and experiences?
Michael Bronski: It has that potential, and it certainly has had that actuality in many people. I can remember being at a queer studies conference at Harvard in 1990. At the end of the conference, a lesbian stood up and she said, "I hate the word queer. It's one more way for gay men not to say lesbian."
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to hear from Sarah and Sheb, both in their 70s, really around this issue.
Sarah: I find it offensive. We were beaten for too many years and called queer. I'm a lesbian. I'm proud of being a lesbian, I find the word queer offensive.
Sheb: I know young people like it, but if they were victims of homophobia back in those days and being called queer, they would not like it so much. I don't like when they say reclaiming it, because it was never ours to begin with. Not reclaiming it, they're co-opting it from heterosexuals who use it against us.
Michael Bronski: Sheb's argument that it's not reclaiming but its co-opting is really interesting, this argument I've never heard before. I think what we're hearing is differences of experience. What Sarah was saying, I think it's quite correct, that if people had lived through a certain time period, that creates an identity that is very specific to the time period, and that identity may not adapt to the present or what younger people are feeling. I completely respect people who are uncomfortable with it, I respect their experience and their opinion. They're fighting an uphill battle against history because it is so commonly used now.
On the other hand, I think it's incredibly important to actually acknowledge that it is not a term that everybody agrees on, nor is it a term that is going to go back to your earliest suggestion. It is not an umbrella term without problems.
Melissa Harris-Perry: One might point out that fighting an uphill battle against history is the holy impossible, in which LGBTQIA+ movements specialize.
Michael Bronski: Yes, completely. At the age of 73, I identify as gay, I identify as queer, somewhere deep in the heart of me I identify also as a homosexual, which is the word that I grew up with in the 1950s, and liked. Language and identity is very, very, very closely connected.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to take two more beats here. One is, I want to go back on the word lesbian for a moment because I think there is a specific history and relevance worth mentioning here, that lesbian is also a particular word meant to do particular kinds of social and political work. I've been reading Audre Lorde this month. I just want to remind folks or maybe inform folks who don't know about the ways that that woman-loving woman identified is a really critically relevant part of these broader movements.
Michael Bronski: Completely. The history which I'm sure and many of our listeners might know as well, in the early days of feminism, Radical Feminist Movement in New York particularly, lesbians were not particularly welcomed at all, and they left the radical feminist collectives. They went to join the Gay Liberation Movement, which, again, mostly run by white men, did not really accept them either. They formed what was called Lesbian Feminism. Rita Mae Brown and other women wrote a piece called The Woman-Identified Women because, in fact, the particularity of lesbianism in the culture within the 20th century is that it is quite distinct from the other movements. It was quite distinct from the goals of early feminism.
In fact, Betty Friedan, the head of NOW for many years, had a purge of lesbians from NOW. She called them the "Lavender Menace". Certainly, within gay liberation, there were many women but they really had to fight to have their voices heard. There's a particularity with a lesbian identity and it may be true of other identities as well. Certainly, there were fights in the '80s about the inclusion of bisexual along with gay and lesbian, now completely accepted as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender. I think it's always the case. If we're using umbrella terms that there's a potential and a probability of erasing particularity, and we have to be very aware of that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: For folks who are allies, how should we think about the responsible use of umbrella terms and more particular terms?
Michael Bronski: Language evolves, and it evolves in conjunction with and in opposition to what the media wants to do, what feels that is able to do. Having endless discussions about what this means and how people feel is always a good way to approach this. Again, I want to point out that in fact, the New York Times, this works on different timelines. The New York Times would not use the word gay, really, at least a decade, maybe 15 years after Time Magazine and Newsweek were using it yet, they actually dropped the word Negro and began using Black and then quickly changed then to African American.
These all functioned on different timelines and I'm sure was the subject of endless New York Times editorial board discussions during the time. Actually, they used the word gay in 1987. I think this is very important because a group would still exist called GLAD, heavily lobbied and criticized the times and really pushed it through. Language not only changes because of common usage or common understandings or common misunderstandings sometimes, but because of activism. In fact, society changes because of activism because when I teach a class at Harvard called the Power of the People, which is, looks at black power, radical feminism, gay liberation in the 1965 to 75, the first point that I make is nobody ever gives up power willingly.
People who have power are forced to give it up. I think when we're looking at language, it's a bottom-up situation where people who are not in the mainstream, people who are excluded, or the people who should and do often define what language is being used. If it's being misused, they can complain. If it's antiquated language, they can protest, but they should be able to set the standard for that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Michael Bronski is a professor of the practice in media and activism in studies of women, gender, and sexuality at Harvard University. His latest book is the Queer History of the United States for Young People. Thank you so much for joining us, Michael.
Michael Bronski: Thank you, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Thanks to everyone at the Brooklyn Pride who shared with us as well. As Michael might say in his class, all power to the people.
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