What queer studies taught me

the voice and vision of a new generation

What queer studies taught me

September 11, 2018

At the GLAAD Campus Ambassador Summit in 2017, we were asked to finish the sentence “my queer story is...” Inspired by the sociology and queer studies classes I’ve taken, I wrote that “my queer story is... ongoing.” This was a lesson I learned in my queer studies courses.

Queer studies taught me that queerness is fluid — it looks different across various historical time periods and places. In my Queer Literature & Theory class during my sophomore year of college, we read Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. This book showed me how the United States and Europe had different culture climates in relation to queerness and homosexuality in the 1950s. We also read articles by scholar Michel Foucault, who believed that sexuality for the ancient Greeks was not based on who you were attracted to and what sex and gender they had, but on if you took an active or passive role during sex. While Foucault has been criticized for only focusing on male sexuality, scholars tend to agree that societal attitudes on sexuality and queerness vary over time and across regions.

When I first came out as a gay, I believed that I only liked girls and that I would only ever like girls. When I began to like boys and nonbinary people in high school, I was confused. Once I learned that queerness was more fluid and malleable than I had previously thought, I realized that my identity too could change throughout my lifetime. I learned from scholar Eve Sedgwick that queer refers to a multitude of identities and experiences that live outside of society’s norm and current conceptions.

However, sometimes I don’t feel “queer enough” or like I’m queer in “the right way.” While I always blamed this on internalized biphobia, my college classes helped me learn that this feeling of not being queer enough is related to the larger issue of our society’s concept of “normal.” We tend to view sexuality and many other things as dualisms — two opposing things. Straight or gay is a dualism, which is built on top of the dualism (or binary) of male or female. One dualism tends to be normal and if you don’t fall into the normal category, you are marginalized or othered. No one wants to live on the margins of society, so those of us who are different sometimes try to fit into being normal. Often, our queer experiences are portrayed as normal because many people believe that making a “new normal” will lead to acceptance. Queer people deal with being a minority group, with hate, with discrimination. We have different experiences and lives than straight people and should not have to portray ourselves in ways that will make straight people feel more comfortable.

After my head was swimming with all of these ideas from my classes, I wondered how I could find my own queerness. I love the word queer because it has many definitions and allows me to be my past, my present, and my future. Similarly, queer studies allows us to grow by expanding our beliefs and challenging society’s ideas of normal.

Queer studies aims to dismantle “normal” and the power it holds and helped me see that we should deconstruct normalcy, not reinforce it. My queer is a universe of possibilities for identity, love, and the future. 

Image credit: Weslyan University

Further Reading in queer studies:

Queer: A Graphic History by Meg-John Barker: A great book for anyone just starting to get into queer studies! It explores LGBTQ history, key concepts, terms, and scholars, with fun pictures.

Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers by Lillian Faderman: recalls the history of lesbian life in the United States. Faderman is an LGBTQ historian who also wrote The Gay Revolution, which chronicles the LGBTQ rights movement in the United States since the 1950s.

Gender in a Transnational World by Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan: A beginner textbook on women’s and gender studies with articles on sex, gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and their intersections.

Exile & Pride by Eli Clare: part memoir, part academic book on living as a queer person with a disability.

“How Intersectionality is Being Colonized by White People” blog post on Thinking Race by Jamie Utt: Examines how white people use the term intersectionality in incorrect ways which ignore white privilege and hold up white supremacy.

Zami and Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde: Lorde is an extremely influential writer, scholar, and activist. Zami is an autobiography on her life as a black lesbian and recounts her relationships with other women, while Sister Outsider is a collection of essays that discuss oppression, black feminism, and other topics.

Zipi Diamond is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and junior at St. Olaf's College studying Sociology/Anthropology & Women's and Gender Studies. Zipi has worked with GLSEN Maryland and the GLBT Community Center of Baltimore to create safer school environments for LGBTQ students.

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