Surprise! You’re Queer (Maybe)

Actor Alan Cumming suggests that one does not need to be gay in order to be queer:

I would like to advocate replacing the word “gay” with “queer” when talking in broad terms about our collective experience. Queer isn’t just about same-sex wedding tackle. Queer is about sensibility. You don’t need to be gay to be queer. Indeed, some of the queerest people I know are straight. My mum is a bit queer. Obama is definitely queer. Little Edie Beale was very queer. I think if more people embraced their queerness, we’d all be the better for it.

I think he may be harkening back to an old school definition of the word “queer” there, with just a little 21st century top spin. I’m not sure it will take. That said, I don’t have an argument about queer being a sensibility somewhat independent from sexuality — which is to say you don’t have to be gay to appreciate (or indeed appropriate) gay culture and iconography.

Which segues quite nicely into my favorite Pet Shop Boys song, I think:

[imeem music=”9rGCXR79Ex”]

If liking that song makes me queer, man, I don’t ever wanna be straight. Interestingly, I got into the song as part of Dance Dance Revolution. I suspect getting into a song from DDR is probably a little bit queer in itself. It’s a slippery slope, it is. That said, no amount of incipient queerness on my part will ever make me think that the get-ups the Pet Shop Boys are wearing in the video to this song are anything but just plain goofy. Sorry, Neil and Chris. No one could carry those off.

56 Comments on “Surprise! You’re Queer (Maybe)”

  1. Oh, hellyeah. I’m about as straight as it gets, but there are plenty of ways where I’m bent like a frelling old-school wire coathanger…

    You, John, DDR? To Pet Shop Boys? Yeah. Like a pretzel. :) :) :)

  2. Just a bit of a lookaround ANYWHERE will show you more people who are bent every which way you can. Get a clue, moralists, we are more defined than by our sexuality! Or is that more definite bi-sexuality…. no… aww, what the smeg, have a good time, we’re only living it up once, unless the re-incarnationists are right… still right now, we have more options than ever before, so why not investigate?

  3. So maybe Smear the Queer can make a comeback as a playground game without getting the participants expelled?

  4. I’m pretty sure that Alan Cumming isn’t being innovative here. I remember a gay man that I knew saying pretty much the same thing four or five years ago. In this sense, someone is queer by rejecting the heteronormativity or our culture.

  5. I agree with Josh: to be “queer” means, to some, to be a part of the LGBT community, but in my experience there’s also a second definition: a lot of people who we wouldn’t consider “gay” who are queer–almost anyone who doesn’t engage exclusively in normative heterosexual sex or expressions of sexuality could be thought of as queer, under this definition.

    So if you have a kink, you’re queer; if you enjoy activities (sexual or otherwise) that are outside the mainstream for your gender identity, you’re queer.

    Like sex that isn’t missionary? that’s queer!

    BDSM? queer!

    Cosplay? queer!

    You’re a straight male and don’t love the NFL? queer!

    A straight female who doesn’t wear shave? queer!

    I think we’re rapidly discovering that, culturally, we’re far more queer than most people realized, and I think it’s a wonderful thing.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, this straight but queer boy is off to listen to The Smiths.

  6. “Sorry, Neil and Chris. No one could carry those off.”

    Maybe not at a black tie affair but it would be just the thing for a shindig at a construction site.

  7. The Pet Shop Boys are much less queer than the Rescue Shelter Boys.

    While hearkening back to the old school definition of “queer,” why not hearken back to that of “gay”? I mean, who doesn’t like to feel pretty and witty and gay?

  8. A friend used to say there was no normal and everyone was a bit queer in their own special way. As he put it, “it’s ninja turtles all the way down.”

    As an aside, it’s interesting to compare the Pet Shop Boys version of Go West to the original version by the Village People. Not making fun of the Village People, who seem happy and well-adjusted to their roles in life, but amazing how a song can take on new and sadder connotations in a relatively short period of time.

  9. Carrie, I was just coming to post the same thing. And they’ve got a new album coming out later this month. Woot!

  10. Interesting ideas here…and yeah, I’m not the least bit attracted to men, but if the term “queer” casts a broader net and encompasses people who are into Erasure, Underworld, and the Pet Shop Boys, then I guess I’m queer. (And, admittedly, there have been times when I found myself dancing around in the kitchen to 80’s pop songs, stopped for a minute, and thought — dude, are you SURE you’re not gay? Because if I were an objective observer looking at myself right now, I’d have some questions about that…)

  11. I thought the best term to use in these cases would be “eccentric”

    As in, “He’s one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, but he is a bit eccentric.”
    That allows for many slightly off of center tendencies. Music and food choices, cats and bacon or even a passion for French art films.
    So much better than weird, queer or any of the other terms denoting strangeness.

    I admit to having a bit of an issue with the word queer used in any context. My last name rhymes with it, Junior High is ghastly for anyone.
    The scars on my psyche are deep and numerous ; )

  12. I remember that video… something about Mario and Luigi being given a drive-by makeover…

  13. Enjoying DDR songs is a very /healthy/ sort of queer. Really! Good cardiovascular workout. Ignore your cats’ looks of disdain.

  14. I should have qualified: salad bowl = headgear on the Pet Shop Boys in the video for “Go West.” If you haven’t seen it, do the clicky. You will not regret it.

  15. I don’t know any normal people. I’ve never known any normal people. Talk to anybody for five minutes and you’ll realize they’re strange, weird, queer, bent, or whatever. Now, I think this is a good thing. But then, I’m weird… (And I really like “Ninja turtles all the way down”. It’s true!)

  16. Back in the days of Usenet and grunge, we all used to call ourselves Alt.

    These days, the kids are more likely to identify as non-muggle.

  17. And wasn’t that part of that whole “metrosexual” meme that played out a while ago? Sensibility hopefully isn’t tied to sexual preference although a glance at my wardrobe does hold out little hope for me. On the other hand at least I don’t have any mukluks . . .

  18. I love Pet Shop Boys. I screamed like a 13 year old girl when I saw them live a few years ago (I was 25. I’m not ashamed of revealing this fact). I have always been queer even when I didn’t know I was queer (in both definitions of the word).

    As for appropriating “someone else’s” culture I have to say that I wholeheartedly support it as long as the intent is out of respect and not out of exploitation. Lots of cultures have been appropriated to be exploited. I’m not saying that’s what anyone here does; I’m just making a general comment.

    And I’m going to call those outfits camp. Because all of the outfits that are in the videos for this album (Very, 1993) are camp. And they pull them off, in my opinion, because my Boys are always fabulous.

  19. Didn’t Cumming make that comment in the context of the review of the play Gray Gardens? I read that the other day and I remember thinking when I read his review that he had missed the whole point of the play.

    He seemed to be saying that anyone who likes theater or music other than top 40 soundtrack stuff, or other forms of entertainment not revolving around sports or reality TV should be called queer because they are part of the queer/gay culture whatever their actual sexual practices.

    To me that made as much sense as calling someone Black because they like Motown, or Hip-hop.

    Despite what pop-culture Psych 101 would have you believe, lots of folks enjoy going to a play, or listening to a cabaret singer, but are not in any way eccentric when it comes to their general world view. I even know some avid arts supporters who are Republicans. Really.

    Cummings whole argument seemes to enforce the bigoted belief that a taste for theater, or show tunes is a sign of a non-standard personality hiding obviously “deviant” sexual yearnings.

    Haven’t we really moved past all that?

  20. “You’re a straight male and don’t love the NFL? queer!”

    Exactly! What the hell is wrong with those people? I don’t think we can even call those queers ‘men’!


    No, seriously. Everyone should love NFL, queer or not.

  21. As a gay man, I find that song way more queer than I am entirely comfortable with.

  22. #29. Really?

    If every aspect of Football (heck all organized sports) floated off the planet forever sometime tonight my life would not change one little bit, and I’m 100% straight.

    But, I’m a girl so maybe I don’t count.

  23. I am reminded of the old Quaker poem I learned at college:

    All the world is queer, dear,
    Excepting me and thee, dear.
    But sometimes even thee, dear,
    May be a little queer, dear.

  24. Wow, I had no idea that the Pet Shop Boys had written the opening theme to Paprika.

    I think Mr. Cumming (and the others who have suggested the idea) are onto something. The term’s indefinable nature is a feature in this context, not a bug. It covers a multitude of lenses through which one could see the world that are opposite to normative experience/discourse, and which may influence one’s understanding of sexuality if not one’s sexual practise.

  25. Hmm I’m with Mythago @26…. if virtually everyone can be described as queer because of something they do or like (sexual or not) then the term loses any descriptive meaning. Descriptions are useful not only because they tell us what something is but also what it isn’t.

  26. “I think he may be harkening back to an old school definition of the word “queer” there, with just a little 21st century top spin. I’m not sure it will take.”



    John, I and many others have been identifying as “queer” by this definition for years. It doesn’t matter if it will take. It’s already being done. He’s not talking about anything new.

  27. Step 1: define “normal”

    Step 2: come up with a word to mean “deviation from ‘normal'”

    I don’t think we’ve gotten past Step 1 yet. :p And we never will, because Normal isn’t some sort of static platonic ideal. Normal is highly individual, and the word we’re looking for in Step 2 is also “normal.” Everybody has a different normal.

  28. In the long run, this definition is likely to remain and the current definition is likely to become a brief aberration.

    I say this because it seems likely that homosexuality will eventually quit being considered odd.

    On the other hand, it seems quite unlikely that humans will ever be accepting of things they consider “other” so there will be new things that become “queer” or “strange.”

    Basically, unlike say “faggot” which really has completely lost its original meaning to become a derogatory term “queer” has not lost its core meaning but just become somewhat more specific.

    So when that core meaning and the more specific nuance of meaning no longer work with each other the core meaning seems likely to reassert itself as the primary definition of the word.

  29. You know, I’m tempted to say “It’s ours, and you straights can’t have it.” but there are a few people who, despite straight, are queer as fuck.

    But they have to audition to get the part :-)

  30. Eh… I find the whole point idiotic.

    If we define “queer” is “being in any minimal way different from the caricature of couch potato football watching right wing dittohead monkeys that passes for male in the lower sections of our civilization”, then duh…almost everybody is queer.

    Not precisely a revolutionary discovery, dont you think?

  31. Time to revive a JBS Haldane quote: “My own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

    Re Go West: Damn, I like [the music of] Pet Shop Boys, but that song was ruined for me in the first four bars. Does anyone else listen to this and hear a certain unmentionable tune by Village People overlaid?

    MWT @38: Mathematicians have a concise definition of ‘normal’, which amounts to “crosswise to everything else.” We’re supposed to skip over step 2, or do some sort of handwave — because what really matters is:

    Step 3: PROFIT!

  32. Hell — I don’t even think that “straight” is necessarily synonymous with “heterosexual.” My opinion on the matter probably got kicked in this direction because I had to go to school with some young, budding Ted Haggard and Larry Craig type figures who referred to themselves as “straight” while openly bragging about the sex they had with other guys (think of the alpha-male dominant “jail rape” variety).

    And I seriously doubt those guys would have even known the definition of “heterosexual(ity)” — mostly because it has too many syllables — plus they probably would have denounced the word as “a fag thing” since they tended to associate anything unknown to them with homosexuality.

    I don’t mean to vilify everyone who uses the word “straight,” because it’s probably used quite innocently a lot of the time. But I do think that some use it, in part, as part of a cultural campaign to define and control what heterosexuality is supposed to be.

  33. It sounds like he’s trying to equate “queer” with “weird.” And what mythago said.

    I dunno, unless I actually go down on a woman, or want to, I just don’t think I can count myself as “queer.” Even if I do have bi/gay friends and am an “ally”, sorry, I don’t think so. It’s just misleading to claim otherwise.

  34. cpolk @ 37 –
    Yeah, and I remember Aahz Maruch using it this way as part of his “queer het” self-definition back in maybe 1992ish on usenet. Really not news.

  35. Aahz is one of those few who passed the audition for queerness. He’s het by preference, but he’s not heteronormative, y’know?

  36. @46

    The problem is that the basic meaning of queer is “strange ” or “deviating from the expected or normal.”

    The modern usage is something like number six on the list in a dictionary, and is a recent enough invention that it is still seen as a slang term by dictionaries.

    So yes, the argument equates queer with weird, but that actually is the root meaning of the word.

  37. Chuck @ 45 — “Hell — I don’t even think that “straight” is necessarily synonymous with “heterosexual.” ”

    Your comments got me thinking for the first time about the use of the term “straight” to mean “heterosexual.” The more I think about it, the more I don’t like it.

    It seems that the idea is to suggest that heterosexuals are the norm…what you would expect. They are “straight” as opposed to crooked, or bent, or deviating from the path. And while it’s understandable why heterosexuality would be characterized that way (even by homosexuals), it isn’t constructive to think about sexuality in terms of “normal” and “something other than normal.” Quite apart from the fact that a lot of heterosexual sex is anything but normal, it seems like the term “straight” reinforces marginalization of those who are not “straight.”

    Still, there needs to be a term for “heterosexual” other than “heterosexual,” which sounds clinical and cumbersome. I’m not sure I’m creative enough to come up with anything off the top of my head right now. Suggestions?

  38. Sensibilities change with time. Loading ourselves down with additional expressions of what’s normal and what’s not… is that really necessary?

  39. @50 From a historical standpoint, I like the concept of separating “straight” from heterosexual.

    It means that I can theoretically refer to Greek pederasts as straight, which they certainly were in their culture. This is admittedly an incredibly geeky reason to like it, but eh I am rather “queer.”

    I’m not sure I see a problem with not having a functional slang term for heterosexual. But then, I am increasingly of the opinion that everyone is really pansexual with leanings towards one gender or the other and that the more interesting continuum to look at may be asexual vs sexual. (Or perhaps do both at once on a two axis sort of thing)

  40. I recall an argument (or whatever) similar to Cummings’ being made in the heyday of Queer Nation, around 1990. Which ties to the controversy over whether the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick could be queer, when she was heterosexually married (like Charles Laughton, Vita Sackville-West, or Alan Cummings, if I recall aright). And there were similar discussions about “gay sensibility” and whether one had to be homosexual to have one, when I was newly out in the early 70s. Nothing new under the sun.

    I’ve also run into straights who didn’t like the word “straight.” Back in the day, of course, “straight” was used by straight kids as a putdown for the unhip, the square (and there’s a term I haven’t heard used in that way for a long time — should it be resurrected?), the dull, and I met some hetero boys who didn’t like to think that from a certain point of view “straight” might be applied to them. Such is life. In certain respects I’m “straight” too — held the same job for 35 years, pay my bills, dress fairly inconspicuously, etc. I can live with it. I think that heterosexuals will just have to live with it too.

  41. P.S. Sorry for the double post, but Obama is not queer. And I’m not just being a queer nationalist there, though how Cumming could so label someone who claims to believe that marriage is a sacred union reserved for men and women (as Obama does) is a mystery to me. Probably he’s just fawning on him. That is so gay.

  42. We BDSM types tend to claim the queer. Not just because of the kink, either. But because the LGBT and the straight communities are so well blended. At least in my little dungeon.

    So. I am straight. And queer.

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