No matter where I go, there’s something about my hair that screams, “Please offer me unsolicited feedback.”
“Bieber wannabe.” “Mesbian [male lesbian].” “So retro!” I’ve heard it all. Sometimes I can even complete my eye roll before the sentence is finished.
To be fair, my hair isn’t exactly inconspicuous. Longish and sideswept, it stands out in a town where traditional masculinity and rugged looks still prevail. Even in Denver’s gay bars, where one might expect a little more latitude, you’ll find the “no fems” mantra is alive and well.
The most striking reaction, though, has come from a particular guy I’ve bumped into at several events since moving here early this year. With each encounter, smirking, he asserts that I need to cut my hair. With each half-joke, it gets a little more awkward — as if he has some compulsion to lead me to the apparent promised land of looking like a standard dude.
Time after time, it’s as if this guy and others who have chimed in along the same lines are telling me I need to get my act together. To “man up,” if you will.
But I won’t.
Here’s the issue: I don’t see myself as strictly male. Or strictly female, either. At the end of the day, I’ve realized I’m a little bit of both.
There are moments, for example, when I see my own body in the mirror and think,: Wow, I like my chest hair. Or the masculine shape of my legs. Or whatever unspoken manliness that people have been drawn to in me.
“Queer” is not the temporary language of overreaching youngsters in some sort of phase. It’s a final and deeply personal destination.
Other times, my feminine spirit takes over. From a fairly early age, I’ve had an instinctiv desire to experience powerful aspects of motherhood, such as breast-feeding. I also have a decidedly uncomfortable reaction to being labeled a man. On one memorable evening in particular, a then-lover’s seemingly affectionate remark that I’m “a good man” had the unmistakable effect of a thousand nails on a chalkboard.
All over the map, right? Which raises the question: What the heck am I?
Looking at a few textbook definitions, I started to chip away at that question.
Stop number 1 on the journey: “transgender.” Although it’s often used as an umbrella term that covers a wide range of identities, the more narrow definition of a transgender person is someone whose psychological self — or “gender identity” — differs from the social expectations for the physical sex assigned at birth. As an example, this would include a person who was born a female but identifies as a man. While not wholly unrelatable, this more specific interpretation of transgender didn’t resonate fully with my own, more seemingly nuanced identity.
Then I came across the term “genderqueer,” which is defined as “a person whose gender identity is neither man nor woman, is between or beyond genders, or is some combination of genders.”
Bingo! I’m genderqueer. Ready to solve the puzzle, Vanna.
But there are a few hiccups. Some really loud ones, actually.
For so many of us — spanning all sexual orientations and gender identities — “queer” is a word with a very complicated history. It has been used for decades to reduce and denigrate those who are — or are perceived to be — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or otherwise non-normative in some way. When hurled as a pejorative in the predominantly straight world, “queer” can carry a unique pain and shame.
But some have sought to reclaim the word in order to heal and ultimately move forward. They’re joined by a growing movement across the country and around the globe that embraces “queer” as an inclusive term encompassing folks like me, who feel their gender identity or expression isn’t adequately reflected by the traditional male-female binary.
And although plenty of LGBT and non-LGBT folks have being using the Q word to self-identify for years, there is no better example of its still-mixed reception than what happened right here in Colorado just a few weeks ago. It started when 66-year-old John Kichi, who was applying for a job at Colorado College, made headlines with his outrage at the use of the word “queer” in a question on a job application.
Kichi was upset that the private liberal arts college provided five options for a voluntary inquiry about gender identity: not disclosed, male, female, transgender, and queer. Having been made a target of past discrimination due to his sexual orientation, Kichi disparaged the word “queer” as outdated.
The college’s response? That the inclusion of the word is “intended to represent the college’s commitment to and acknowledgment of diversity related to gender,” and that while the term is still used as a slur by some, “others have reclaimed it and are comfortable using it to describe themselves.”
The college’s explanation speaks far beyond its Colorado Springs campus. Because, like it or not, rising generations are coming to understand “queer” in an entirely different way than the John Kichis of the world. And the number of people who grow up identifying as queer or genderqueer will only continue to rise, as the term — or the reality behind it — becomes more comfortable and accepted outside the Ivory Tower.
You can add my name to that tally. And I know I’m not alone. Without question, we are many.
Think of all the people in our lives — brothers, sisters, parents, cousins, friends, acquaintances, co-workers — who were handed the boy-girl dichotomy on day one and expected to make a choice. I think it’s safe to say that each and every one of us knows at least one person like me, for whom that choice was ultimately false to begin with.
So, what do we do about it now? How can we move forward in a way that helps these people be honest with themselves and with others, while still honoring and respecting the journey of those who came before us — those whose connotations and experiences don’t necessarily look like ours?
For starters, it’s important to allow for open dialogue — where we actually commit to listening to each other. Despite my initial frustration with Kichi’s comments about the term “queer,” I did try to pay attention to what he was saying and came across an interesting nugget. Expanding on his feelings, he said, “The current generation of 20-somethings may be kicking the word around and having fun with it, but it’s not a gender.”
And here, there may be an opportunity for bridge-building. I wonder what Kichi would think if he had the chance to speak to some of my older friends who identify as genderqueer. Brave, honest people who understand and can even relate to his discomfort with the word, but who’ve also fought tooth and nail to understand whom they truly are.
For them, “queer” is not the temporary language of overreaching youngsters in some sort of phase. It’s a final and deeply personal destination. And I think it’s important for folks like Kichi to hear that — just as we’ve heard them out.
It’s not always going to be easy. As the head of communications for One Colorado, the state’s largest LGBT advocacy group, I know firsthand the balancing act that advocates for equality face. On one hand, it’s my job to make sure our movement is using persuasive, relatable language in talking about our lives and our community — because we’re still being asked to convince a non-LGBT majority that we deserve full recognition under the law. Truth be told, “queer” is still a tough word for a lot of people to hear.
On the other hand, we have a duty to stand up for everyone in our community, and that includes the many LGBT people who also identify as genderqueer or gender-nonconforming. As more find the courage and support needed to walk this path, it’s vital that we make intentional space for their lives and their stories, even when it means having challenging conversations with those who aren’t quite with us yet.
Ultimately, it’s not just a label — or the first letter of that label — that we need. But the label is a start. Being in the company of those who have blazed trails before us gives us an important opportunity to talk about the history of our movement and the evolution of the words we use.
And if this conversation is handled respectfully and honestly, maybe that sometimes controversial, all-too-often mysterious Q — which has long dangled at the end of LGBT, not always sure of itself or the space it occupies — can finally be understood for the powerful clarity and self-acceptance it’s brought to lives like mine.
JON MONTEITH is the head of communications for One Colorado. This piece originally ran on The Colorado Independent.