FINNERAN K. MUZZEY, MA
I have a distinctly vivid memory from when I was younger: I was going to leave the house and when I grabbed onto the front handle, the I noticed the doorknob was loose in my hand. I looked at the doorknob and saw that a screw was hanging loose from it. My mother was knitting on the couch and I said to her, “there’s a loose screw in the doorknob.” My mother must have misheard me because she began screaming at me to never talk like that again; that the word screw was a disgusting word to use. I was confused. I thought I was being helpful by letting her know that there was a loose screw in the doorknob. It wasn’t until later that I realized that the word screw had multiple meanings, with one of those meanings being a sexual innuendo.
I’ve long contemplated why such a seemingly benign memory has stayed with me. Of all the memories that have had an incredible impact on me, why have I hung onto a memory about a loose screw? Truthfully, I think this was the first time that I realized that words have a deeper power. I’ve always been the kind of person that questioned the power of words. I have often stayed with a mantra of: words are a series of letters put together in such a way that they produce a sound. And, at their most simple level, that’s true. That is all words are, just letters that produce sound.
But behind being “letters that produce sound” is meaning. We socially ascribe meaning to words and sometimes we ascribe multiple meanings. It is not the words that become problematic, but the meanings we attach to words. We sometimes attach meaning to words to praise and uplift people (such as calling them beautiful or intelligent) and we sometimes attach meaning to words to hurt and denigrate people (such as calling them stupid or ugly). The words with the most powerfully profound impact, however, are those that are used to punish or keep people in a socially inferior position. There are several of these types of words that have been leveraged against multiple groups of marginalized people, but the one I’m going to discuss now is queer.
I’m going to admit something: for the longest time I was a passionate advocate against the use of the word queer in any context. Anytime I heard the word used, even as a person’s personal identification, I cringed a bit inside. I always respected another’s choice to use that word for themselves, but I secretly hoped the word queer would disappear from our collective lexicon. If you’ve read my about section, this might confuse you because I now openly identify my sexual identity as queer and my gender identity as genderqueer. The path I’ve taken to get to these using these terms has been complicated and I’ve had to wrestle with it internally.
Queer was a word thrown at me as frequently as dyke was when I was a teenager. Both were meant as insults and made me feel ashamed of myself. These were words that were only ever used to inflict maximum pain and they worked. When I started hearing people “take back” the word queer and using it as a self-identification, I viewed it as a way to further disenfranchise ourselves.
What I came to learn and accept was that the word queer was only an offensive term when it is used with the meaning ascribed to it by cisgender, heterosexual society. If we (the broader sexual and gender diverse community) take back that word and ascribe a new meaning to it, we are letting go of the painful power of the word and attributing a new, beautiful, and empowering meaning to the word. For me, being queer is no longer something to be ashamed of, but something to celebrate and experience. (For clarity: I’m not advocating for the entire sexual and gender diverse community to start using the word queer; I understand how painful that word is to some. I am only describing my personal path toward accepting the word queer).
I don’t use the word queer to describe merely an identity. I use the word queer to describe an experience. An experience that has been extraordinarily painful and extraordinarily beautiful. I use the word queer as an act of resistance; to force a dominantly cisgender, heterosexual society to see me and respect me.
Being queer doesn’t just describe how I sexually identify, it does, that is one meaning, but more importantly, being queer describes my experience in life.
I have been rejected by family for being queer.
I have been rejected by churches for being queer.
I have been told I am going to hell for being queer.
I have been rejected by society for being queer.
I have had food thrown at me and been spit on for being queer.
I have been kicked out of and banned from restaurants for being queer.
I have been told that I needed to show my genitals so someone could figure out if I had a penis or not for being queer.
I have been homeless for being queer.
I have been beaten for being queer.
But that’s only half of the experience.
I have been loved because I am queer.
I have been embraced by strangers because I am queer.
I have found a community of people that is beautiful and unique because I am queer.
I have gained immeasurable amounts of strength because I am queer.
I have learned to love my weird quirkiness because I am queer.
I have found my voice because I am queer.
I have had the most profoundly beautiful and life-altering experiences because I am queer.
I have discovered a passion in life because I am queer.
I have learned how to love unconditionally because I am queer.
This is my experience being queer and I won’t be quiet or ashamed about it. I will speak loudly and strongly about being queer and insist on being heard, understood, and accepted. As I am able, I lift the voices of other queer individuals so that they can be heard, understood, and accepted. It’s a radical shift in thought and love when we embrace queer identity as a queer experience and I cherish each moment of it.