Penned By Jennifer Sheets
From an early age children are taught about the Women’s Suffrage and the Civil Rights Movement, how all citizens must fight for equal rights. Most recently, the LGBT community (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) and its allies have fought for equal rights concerning marriage, the military, and the workplace. Equal rights for all! Right?
It may not be that simple. A sub-culture of the LGBT community, (if they even want to be identified as such,) have stood up against what they call, ‘assimilation’ with mainstream society in the name of ‘queer culture.’ Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, an author and activist for the preservation of a queer culture, interviewed on NPR as a self-proclaimed “queer,” explains: “Gay has become a narrow identity based on accessing straight privilege, whereas queer, to me, includes a wider diversity of people. And it also includes a politicized standpoint…challenging the status quo and creating new ways of loving and living with and transforming our lives and one another, and also challenging the violence of traditional institutions.” Sycamore along with other supporters of queer culture, believe that the identification of “gay” and the push for mainstream marriage and family structure does not provide space for individual expression. To some this means sexual expression and the right to have multiple partners and tear down the idea of the family structure.
Rather radical in their nature, these “queer” viewpoints are not held widely amongst the LGBT and allied communities. In fact many still find the word ‘queer’ to be offensive. Greg Smith, a mental health specialist in Montana, explains that the word, ‘queer,’ “still stings of abusive language on the playground. It’s an epithet that I have a hard time embracing because it’s so associated with childhood pain for me.” Smith was in seminary in Italy for five years before serving as a Roman Catholic priest in Helena before coming out and making a decision to leave the priesthood and return to Seattle and then Montana.
Tate Chamberlin, founder of Chamberlin Productions, agrees with Smith to some extent. Regarding the term “queer culture” he explains that, “It’s the same phrase that made me struggle to accept myself in the first place. I may be strange, unusual or not quite right but it isn’t because I’m gay. I think those ok with the term are ok with tolerance; that brash, cynical acceptance of the term and a wall-building attitude. I don’t think tolerance is good enough.”
While the term “queer” may be hurtful to many, supporters of the movement believe the term defines a unique culture, one completely different from heterosexual mainstream culture. By “assimilating,” as some may call it, the LGBT community conforms to the structures of a ‘male’ and a ‘female’ and the specific roles associated with each gender in society. Advocates for a queer culture believe that much of what other LGBT are fighting for – marriage, military positions, priesthood, workplace hierarchy – is simply a way to dissolve into mainstream heterosexual culture, thus ignoring the unique and individual aspects of LGBT/queer culture. Smith and Chamberlin agree that a LGBT culture exists and is unique and special, but it does not necessarily come in the form of the myths and stereotypes, or as Smith puts it, “the clubs, the music, the fashion, the style.” Many people believe that being gay or lesbian or transgender is unique in and of itself, even without queer culture.
Should we be fighting for equal LGBT rights? Chamberlin likens the LGBT movement to the Black Civil Rights Movement, believing strongly in strength in numbers and the celebration of all people. But whether or not that celebration includes marriage or not depends on the person and their own individual journey. As far as Chamberlin is concerned, “If I could choose to be straight, I wouldn’t. I get to live through my own civil rights movement, be hated for who I am, and loved all at once. That is incredible.”