Tuesday, August 17, 2010

New Title and a Little Queer Reflection

Keeping It Queer
By Erica Chu

New Title and a Little Queer Reflection

After over a year of running this column under the title Feminist Thoughts, I’ve decided to switch it up a little and offer more of an accessible title for all the people who think feminists are just hairy-legged, bra-burning lesbians. (But for the record, though I do have hairy legs and am not currently wearing a bra, if my partner T were a man, transman, bi-, pan-, omni-, or ungendered person, I’d totally be into her/him/hir).

My first article for Gay Chicago Magazine addressed the word “queer,” and since my blog and new column title are both Keeping It Queer, I think it’s fitting we return once again to that term.

A lot of people are offended by the word “queer,” and I don’t blame them. If someone goes around menacingly calling you ugly, it isn’t pleasant when one of your supposed friends calls themself or others ugly. If for you the word queer is tinged with accusations, shame, and pain, I’m sorry. Try though if you can to understand how and why others may choose to reappropriate and use that word.

In its original contexts, “queer” just means different, strange, eccentric, maybe even suspect. It later acquired more negative connotations, leading eventually to its perhaps familiar usage as a derogatory term for homosexuals. My question, and the question a lot of people are asking is What’s wrong with being different, strange, and maybe even suspect?

In this world, gender variant and same gender loving people are despised, and when they are tolerated, they are expected to at least stay out of the way and act as much like straight people as possible. In recent years there has been so much attention on topics like gay marriage and adoption by monogamous gay couples that other kinship structures are ignored and often criticized. LGBT people are normal—that recognition is what we’re fighting for, right?

Choosing to be known as different or strange and aligning oneself with what is suspect is a way of trying to resist the social structures that mark some people as inside the norm and others outside. If all respectable people have good table manners, claiming to be different/strange/suspect means showing up at the table making use of your elbow patches and chewing with your mouth wide open.

In my first article in Gay Chicago Magazine, I used “queer” as an umbrella term for LGBTQAI identities. Over the course of my time writing this column, though, I’ve realized I was wrong.

Queer has so much of its own specific cultural and political meaning. People who identify as queer (not as say “gay” or “bisexual”) tend to understand themselves as relating to a community quite a bit smaller than the larger LGBTQAI crowd. Queer-identified folks tend to spend more time with trans and gender variant folks and many from those subsets consider themselves queer. There are specifically queer dance parties, social groups, blogs, zines, discussion groups, artistic collectives, political organizations and more.

When I identify as queer, I like that saying “I’m queer” allows me the ability to identify the group of people I share political and social kinship with but also the freedom to name myself with as much or little detail as I feel comfortable sharing. I’ve quickly found that to use “queer” as an umbrella term is as insufficient as calling the LGBTQAI-and-all-the-rest community “gay.” It often gets the meaning across, but it’s not really accurate.

I hope to keep the title Keeping It Queer longer than I did Feminist Thoughts. Though I’ll still be writing feminist articles, I write for the unity and encouragement of the LGBTQAI community as a whole and from a distinctly queer perspective. From what I can tell, there isn’t a thing wrong with being different, strange, or eccentric, and if aligning oneself with the suspect can help other disenfranchised folks find commonalities with our communities, well, I hope you too will lend a hand in keeping it queer.

Erica Chu is a student at Loyola University Chicago and is seeking a PhD in English with a concentration in Women Studies and Gender Studies. She manages the blog and can be reached at

Misperceptions and the Media

Keeping It Queer
By Erica Chu

Misperceptions and the Media

How often are there big-name actors playing gay roles in movies you can see at any major theater franchise in the country? Well, there was Philadelphia (1993), Brokeback Mountain (2005), and Milk (2008)—all receiving incredible box office success and at least two Oscars each. And movies about gay women? Well, there are fewer to choose from, and even fewer portraying the lives of transgendered or queer people (notable among these are Boys Don’t Cry and Transamerica).

Into this relative void of sympathetic representations of lesbian life comes Lisa Cholodenko’s new film The Kids Are All Right, which has been getting a lot of attention in part because the lead actors are incredibly famous and talented. Julianne Moore and Annette Bening play a partnered couple who have two teenage children.

This past week, my partner and I decided to go check out this movie even though up to that point we’d heard nothing about it. I was prepared to like the film, and as I settled into the characters, story, and plot, I became more and more disappointed. (Spoiler Alert—in what follows I will mention some of the important plot elements). The disappointments I just can’t get over are:

1 – Despite their acting talent, the version of intimacy this film produces looks very much like two strangers putting their arms around each other in desperate attempts to convince the audience they could have lived in the same house for twenty years.
2 – The couple’s son asks if they thought he was gay. They both reply “Of course not!” as if being gay were a completely unnatural thing that no good mother would ever suspect their child of.
3 – When Moore’s character makes the unfortunate choice to cheat on her partner with a man, she looks at his penis like she’s been pining away her whole life in distressing need of what only a male’s genitals can offer.
4 – There are three characters in the film who aren’t white. Each one is a canned stereotype (lazy manual laboring Latino, exotic and sensuous racially mixed woman, and nerdy and passive Asian American male), and each is casually used and abruptly dismissed by one of the white main characters.

What bothers me so much is not that these things happened in a film that I was watching but that they happened in a film that everyone is raving about. Yes, I was thoroughly impressed with quite a few aspects of the film. Yet as the lights turned on and all the upper middle-class white heterosexual couples started jabbering about how this was such a powerful film and how Moore and Bening should both win Oscars, I started to feel a little queasy. All these people were fooled into believing this film depicts life as lived by lesbians—even a pair of very messed up ones. And it seemed to me that the audience was congratulating themselves on having such progressive views. Of course they don’t mean lesbians and racial minorities any harm, but limited and skewed assumptions do harm against individuals and communities every day.

As a queer woman of color, it’s disturbing that their view of our lives could be so inaccurate and even offensive. It makes me angry. It hurts. It gives others leeway to render me invisible.

It would be easy to just throw up my hands, spit complaints of fire, and go on, but this whole situation also makes me a little terrified about my own views. What do I quietly congratulate myself for? How do I know that my thoughts about particular kinds of people aren’t canned images thrown at me so frequently that I accept them as reality?

Confronting our cultural views with suspicion is one of the most difficult things we can do, but it’s necessary if we are going to see the world for what it really is and if we’re going to work toward any kind of justice. I hope movies, television, and the media at large make us angry sometimes, but let’s not lose sight of where that momentum can take us. We who’ve been misperceived also have may be guilty of similar crimes.

Erica Chu is a student at Loyola University Chicago and is seeking a PhD in English with a concentration in Women Studies and Gender Studies. She manages the blog and can be reached at

Are You A Closet Feminist?

Feminist Thoughts
By Erica Chu

Are You A Closet Feminist?

I’m contemplating changing the name of this column because I’m afraid the “Feminist” bit might seem a little scary to some and too specific to others. Before I do though, I better take the opportunity to talk about what all these hairy-legged, bra-burning radicals have to offer.

First off, the stereotype isn’t really accurate (unfortunately perhaps), but in mainstream culture there definitely is a sense that feminists are overzealous women on the fringe of sane society. We who move among the LGBTQAI crowd know a little better, but let’s be honest, even in our community feminists have a bad rap. With the label comes the image of an ultra sensitive bitchy woman unwilling to enjoy conversation that is not critical of everyone and everything.

Well, let’s just put away the vicious stereotypes—I think we can all understand that when you’re in a heterosexist or sexist world, sometimes you have to go ahead and say the unpopular thing. We could go ahead and actually look at what feminists believe, but it’s easier said than done because “feminism” is a term claimed by many many different types of people.

Some organizations have longstanding reputations for setting standards about what feminism is, and they tend to say that feminism stands for abortion rights or the protection of women from a prominent rape culture. Some say feminists value and celebrate womanhood or they work for female empowerment. This group may look to conservative figures like Elizabeth Dole or Sarah Palin for examples of positive feminist models. How are we supposed to know who’s right, and who’s wrong?

Some feminists are content to say feminism is a term in flux, so we shouldn’t try to pin it down. They may have a point, but I’ve found bell hooks very helpful on this front. She says we need a clear definition because there must be a goal we work toward. According to hooks, “Feminism is the struggle to end sexist oppression,” and feminists ought not value women over men or any specific race or class over another. Sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, homophobia, cisexualism, and transphobia are all matters central to this definition of feminism.

In this light, Dole and Palin may be interesting female figures, but they are no feminists. Some organizations invoking their status as feminist are only operating in partial support of feminism since they may focus on issues specific to only a certain class and perhaps religious and ethnic background as well. Significantly, these organizations deal almost exclusively with issues specific to heterosexual cisgendered women (heterosexual women assigned female at birth).

Even some LGBT rights organizations only partially fulfill a feminist mission because they cater to the majority of LGBT people (that is, GLBs). These organizations focus on immediate success even if it’s at the cost of fairness. Take for example the issue of the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, which for years only took up the issue of sexual orientation because it was more likely to pass in a form that excluded the needs of transpeople. In other situations, the focus on predominant groups (such as white GLBs) puts ethnic and gender minorities at risk especially when public funds and private donations are scarce.

To be feminist is to do so much more than complain that men are called bachelors and women spinsters. Feminism may be that too, but it also deals with issues the LGBTQAI community holds very dear: human rights, safety, respect, equal protection under the law, justice, and changing the world.

Feminism has the potential to transform the lives of every person, so even though being a “feminist” seems to have negative stereotypes attached, don’t be afraid to speak and act with confidence against sexist oppression. You don’t have to claim the name “feminist.” The important thing is to be someone who supports and advocates feminism.

Erica Chu is a student at Loyola University Chicago and is seeking a PhD in English with a concentration in Women Studies and Gender Studies. She manages the blog and can be reached at