I’m a gay man who grew up at a time when gay rights didn’t exist. There was no equal age of consent when I came out, no employment rights, no partnership rights. You could be fired from your job, arrested for the homosexual ‘crime’ of ‘gross indecency’, or harassed by the police with little or no legal recourse.
When I worked for what was then called the London Gay Police Monitoring Group or GALOP, I took calls from gay and bisexual men whose lives were destroyed by homophobic violence or police entrapment in parks and public toilets.
When gay men I knew died of AIDS, their partners often lost their homes or were denied hospital visiting rights by their loved one’s estranged, homophobic parents. One man I knew was even prevented from attending his partner’s funeral.
It was in this context that the term ‘queer’ was ‘reclaimed’ in the early ’90s as a political identity. Many people I knew were deeply uncomfortable with this – and I understand why.
Lesbian friends argued that ‘queer’ wasn’t as inclusive as some people claimed, but another act of lesbian erasure, just as the supposedly all embracing ‘gay’ had been.
Gay and bisexual men argued that a word like ‘queer’ couldn’t be divested of its original meaning. For them, it was still too close to home, too reminiscent of the name-calling they’d suffered all their lives. It was what we’d now describe as ‘triggering’.
But the reclamation of queer came from a place of anger – and a place of honesty. Some of us truly felt queer because this was how society viewed us. Queer summed up our experience. It spoke of our outsider status – of not belonging, not being accepted, of being simultaneously criminalised and victimised. It spoke of our otherness. It gave voice to our anger.
A lot has changed since then. We now have an equal age of consent, employment rights, partnership rights. We can even get married. But homophobia hasn’t gone away. If you’re in a same-sex relationship, it still isn’t safe to walk down the street holding your partner’s hand. Even in a city like London. Trust me. I know from personal experience.
So when a modern celebrity in a heterosexual relationship says they’re ‘queer’, I can’t help but wonder –
Have they ever been called ‘queer’ as an insult?
Have they ever lived in fear of being queer-bashed?
Are they ‘queer’ in the sense of same-sex attracted?
‘Queer’ in the sense of honouring ’90s radical gay activism?
Or ‘queer’ in the sense of 21st century, straight sexual tourist?
Because these distinctions matter. Allies are always welcome, of course. The more, the merrier. But there’s a world of difference between me saying I’m an ally of the black community and me asserting the right to reclaim the N word or insisting that I know how it feels to be black and suffer racism. If I did, people would be outraged – and rightly so. Because that’s not my lived experience.
Generations of gay and queer activists fought for the freedoms many of us now take for granted. They put their lives on the line. They made huge personal sacrifices. Some even died. We owe it to them to honour their legacy – and not see it reduced to a fashion statement by those claiming a few cred points while enjoying all the benefits of straight privilege.