Words by Terry Hughes
Perhaps because looking up the word gay figures so pivotally in my own itinerary in identifying as such, my first instinct in meditating on the meaning of queer is to refer to the musty, standardising dictionary — a flawed and dangerous method, if conservative fixation on a standardised definition of marriage should have taught me anything. And yet, I think the dictionary, especially for its etymological insights, may be a useful, stocktaking resource for queer critique, not least in the academy and its classrooms.
To begin, however, queer is of course, as this special issue of On Dit uses it, a broad catchall term for LGBT folk and those who identify more fluidly or ambiguously between or beside that for which those four letters stand. Both queer and the foregoing, ever-expanding initialism are politically useful in their coalitional capacity, but there is a reason why the latter predominates in state-based civil rights campaigns. The particular verve concomitant with queer goes beyond an anti-homophobic or bi- or trans-affirmative stance, which is more or less the extent of what the initialism signifies politically. Queer does more.
Consistent with its history as pejorative connoting deviance and perversion brazenly embraced as a scandalous banner under which to publicly assemble, queer has historically designated a political orientation distinguished by an emphatically transgressive style of thought. Being queer, in this sense, means constantly questioning what’s considered normal, how that’s regulated and who it benefits. This includes slash-and-burn critiques of mainstream, “assimilative” sexuality activisms. Champions of same-sex marriage under this rubric, for instance, come in for criticism for coveting an irredeemably heterosexist institution. No less spared are identity categories, such as gay and homosexual, for their collusion in perpetuating oppressive binary logics of gender and erotic desire. “To queer” a norm is to expose the taken-for-granted cover under which its necessarily contingent and incoherent character eludes serious challenge and change. Disrupting common sense and the status quo, demonstrations under the sign of queer are powerfully denaturalising, counterhegemonic, non-identitarian and antinormative.
As valuable — indeed, indispensable — as these demonstrations are and have been, note the prefix of each adjective just previously applied to queer: denaturalising, counterhegemonic, non-identitarian, antinormative. The concern, advanced by a growing number of queer critics, with Robyn Wiegman at the forefront, is that this ethos alone leaves queer defined primarily in the negative, unclarified without reference to that which it opposes. Queer is what is queer is against: the arch-enemy normativity.
But to crack the spine of the dictionary is to retrieve an alternative orientation. At the Indo-European root of queer is -twerkw, from which we derive not the adversarial preposition against but rather, as Wiegman puts it, the “more intimate and complicit gesture of moving athwart” (from side to side or across).
The point, then, may not necessarily be to found queerness in some freestanding fashion, independent of the norms it is known for leering at, but to reconsider the relation it conceives of having to norms in the first place. After all, to be “against norms” would imply at least two shaky premises: that norms are essentially constricting, controlling or tyrannical, and that they have a readily inhabitable outside from which we can launch attacks on them. I don’t think either of these things are true, and yet they are themselves the normative assumptions of queer critique.
What would it mean to unsettle these notions? To think athwart norms may be a harder and riskier engagement than thinking against them, but it may also, to quote Wiegman in closing, foster a more progressive generosity around “which norms a minoritized community can and cannot live without, and why its choices are never its alone”.