Don Sherfick

Of Imus, Virginia Tech, Anna Nichole and the Q-Word

Filed By Don Sherfick | April 25, 2007 8:00 AM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: Anna Nicole Smith, Don Imus, queer, Virginia Tech

Remember the Don Imus firing over his despicable description of the Rutgers women's basketball team? The one that was going to redeem the nation by provoking a long delayed serious dialogue about racism and sexism? The story that suddenly and tragically got replaced by the shootings at Virginia Tech....the one that is going to redeem the nation by provoking a long delayed serious dialogue about gun control, violence and what prompts people to go over the edge?

If that suggests bit of cynicism on my part concerning our national attention span, let me confirm it fully by adding that the Imus firing cleared away our prior preoccupation with the Anna Nichole Smith episode that was going to redeem the nation by provoking a long serious dialogue about ......hmmm, don't even remember.

The Imus happenings, with their attendant discussion over when and why the use of a particular word is awful when used by Group A about Group B but is a nice reaffirming gesture when used between members within Group B, prompt me to venture into something likely to brand me with a scarlet letter on this LGBT-identified website: I DON'T MUCH CARE FOR LGBT FOLKS USING THE WORD "QUEER" TO REFER TO THEMSELVES, AT LEAST IN A PUBLIC FORUM.

There, I said it. And I'm glad.

Do I put the "q-word" in the same category as the racial one beginning with "n" or the one beginning with an "f" and ending with a "t?" Not at all. In fact, for some curious reason, I find I cringe much less or not at all when I see terms like "Q-Bomb"; I think it's kind of clever.

But the full word "queer" itself? Particularly when I see it multiple times within the same couple of paragraphs? I've got to say it makes me uneasy. And while I haven't taken anything approaching the Zogby poll, my sampling of friends in my general age group (Mezo Paleolithic: 55 to 75) indicates that I'm not alone in my reaction. But I realize that many, if not most of my much younger brothers and sisters likely don't share my feelings.

I'm not sure why they don't and I do. I believe I understand the theory that one way to deal with an oppressive word is to embrace it and turn it around. I also understand that my malady may be diagnosed as a senior form of lingering, deep-seated, internalized homophobia. (And here I thought I was an out, openly proud gay man!)

In any event, have at me. Tell me why, when non-LGBT readers come onto this and other sites (as we know they do) I shouldn't feel a little squeamish about their seeing the q-adjective/noun. In glancing at the dictionary I see definitions that include "odd", "suspicious", and "strange". That just doesn't feel very uplifting and affirming to me, and brings back some flashes of having been called that word by folks who weren't exactly trying to cheer me up. But I'm open minded on the subject, and perhaps we need to have a long, overdue, and serious national dialogue about this.

At least for the next 36 hours or until John McCain "starts bomb-bomb-Q-bombing Iran".


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Marla R. Stevens | April 25, 2007 8:59 AM

Language is so not just about words and a word's intent is conveyed by so many of those things. For queer for me it's the intent that counts -- and I know if it is merely descriptive of someone who is hard enough to pigeonhole that the broad catch-all usage is what's meant or if it's meant to convey empowerment or if it's a pejorative. I think most of us know these differences because, well, we're humans with an amazing capacity for communication.

According to linguistic psychologist Laurence Wylie, our labels "only offer us an opportunity to communicate with each other. To understand this, we must know the basic meaning of the words common, communicate, and communication. They are derived from two Indo-European stems that mean 'to bind together.' In this ordered universe, no human being ... can live in isolation. We must be bound together in order to participate in a organized effort to accomplish the necessary activities of existence. This relationship is so vital to us that we must constantly be reassured of it. We test this connection each time we have contact with each other.

The words need not have their ordinary significance. This exchange is mercurial yet "... long enough for our amazingly rapid and complex nervous systems to record and process thousands, perhaps millions, of messages about each other that permit us to draw conclusions about one another and about our relationship. This communication, this binding together, is accomplished in many ways -- some conscious, most unconscious. We have no special organ for the purpose of communication; we communicate with every means at our disposal. ... We utilize our total behavior and environment for communication."

So we can know the subtleties of intent enough not to have to worry about using the word to mean different things at different times -- and so can those we might otherwise worry might not understand.

"So we can know the subtleties of intent enough not to have to worry about using the word to mean different things at different times -- and so can those we might otherwise worry might not understand.
But can they? Because if they could, wouldn't we be able to skip over the Don Imus, Kramer, Mel Gibson quotes or the "He's articulate" comments, etc? After all, I don't know how many times I've heard one of our daughter's friends call another one "nappy headed" or a "ho." (Her friends are black, btw.) Just yesterday, for example. But when Imus does it he loses his job... What's the difference? If it's degrading when Imus does it, and the kids are using it to insult each other, isn't it degrading then too?

And while "queer" has hit the mainstream almost as much as "nigga" has for African-Americans, does that make it right? We've reclaimed with Queer Studies programs, Queerty, and even Queer Nation, but why didn't anyone choose "faggot?" If the idea is to reclaim the word and render it toothless, why aren't Jewish groups calling themselves "kykes" and Italian groups "Wops" and so on? Where do we stop? What draws the line? And who gets to decide when we're going to "reclaim" the word?

I see Don's point. I'm a little uncomfortable with the word "queer" too, although I use it quite a bit (even more since knowing Bruce and Alex who use it often in the "Queer studies" sort of way). But in the end, I think it's harmless compared to "faggot" or "dyke" or any of the other insults hurled our way.

Here's one I don't know though - is "trannie" a pejorative?

In an ideal world and on my best days, I would hope my words could express my thoughts and feelings as clearly as possible to others. I would also hope that my words would assist others in expressing their thoughts and feelings as clearly as possible to me.

If I am serious about communicating, then I need to know as much about the listener as possible in order to know which words will best express my thoughts and feelings to that person.

Therefore, I can say things to my partner/spouse, that I would not say to anyone else.

There are words that I would use with my gay friends that I would not use with my straight friends.

There are words that I would use with my church friends that I would not use with my non-church friends.

There are words that I would use with Republicans that I would not use with Democrats (and vice versa). There are also words that I would use with either Republicans or Democrats but that I would not use in a bi-partisan or non-partisan situation.

And in public places or blogs, where I know very little about who may be listening to my words, when the purpose is to communicate a thought or feeling (not to provoke, convince, or defend) I try (not always successfully) to choose words that to not trigger emotional responses, or have different connotations to different people, or are preceived as "code words" because the listener could then misunderstand the thought or feeling I was trying to communicate.

Even though I like the word queer, and use the word with some people, I would probably avoid using it in public spaces where I do not know who is listening because it means different things to different people and then my true thoughts might be misinterpreted.

Marla R. Stevens | April 25, 2007 1:50 PM

Some words seem to be more inherently offensive than others -- perhaps due to origin or use. Queer meant odd but odd is not necessarily bad. Faggot, on the other hand, had its gay roots in mass murder. We recoil from it -- and despair at reclaiming it -- because the road back to benign firewood is longer than it's worth.

"Here's one I don't know though - is "trannie" a pejorative?"

As far as I know- unless you are one- it's not to be used.

I'm the same way about its use in public (read: straight) forums. But I get tired of writing non-straight or gay-peoples, they sound strange to me. Queer I am, queer I shall always be.