During the past several months, residents of Belfast and beyond have been struggling with something that may be out of their comfort zones: what it means to be queer.
That’s because Mayor Samantha Paradis, a millenial who has described herself as “visibly queer,” has used the word a lot to help explain who she is.
“I bring the first young, queer, female voice to the role of mayor,” she said at a contentious council meeting earlier in March. “My voice is important and needs to be heard.”
Councilors have said, emphatically, that they believe the drama and problems in city government have to do with how Paradis manages their meetings, not because she is young, queer or female. Or, as she suggested in an OpEd written last November in the Republican Journal newspaper, because she has been the victim of ageism, sexism and bigotry.
“To have a council accused of ageism, bigotry; it’s really repulsive to be accused of these things, when what is going on is really poor management of meetings,” Councilor Mike Hurley said in the March 6 meeting.
Still, what the word queer means today and how that meaning has changed over the past decades is worth considering. Some people believe that it refers only to a person’s sexuality, which is not the case. Other readers have told the BDN that they are uncomfortable with the use of the word, which to them sounds offensive.
Evolution of a word
Paradis wasn’t available for an interview about the word queer, and what she means by it, before she left Belfast for a 10-day trip to Southeast Asia that was sponsored by the American Council of Young Political Leaders.
But other Mainers were willing to weigh in on what it means for them, including Susan Gardner, the director of the University of Maine’s Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies department.
Queer is now used as an umbrella term by people who are not heterosexual or cisgender, meaning that their gender identity doesn’t match the sex they were determined to be at birth. A queer woman could be romantically interested in a man, or a woman, or no one.
“lt really has become an umbrella term, for anybody who doesn’t conform,” she said.
But it hasn’t always had that meaning.
Queer originally meant “strange” or “peculiar,” and had long been used as a taunt or pejorative word against those with same-sex relationships. It wasn’t until the 1980s that queer activists began working to reclaim it, and by the following decade it began to gain popularity in academic circles, Gardner said. By the 2000s, the word was firmly lodged in popular culture when “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” a reality television show, became a runaway success.
It is especially popular among younger people, more of whom are shifting away from binary views of gender and sex, and reject being shoehorned into a label or a box that might not fit very well.
“Queer moves away from that,” she said. “It’s who I’m attracted to. It’s who I love.”
She knows people — particularly those who are not millennials — can have negative or uncomfortable reactions to the word queer. Some faculty members have even approached her on campus to tell her that their students are using the word but they don’t want to do the same.
“I try to explain, this younger generation of folks has embraced it,” Gardner said. “What I think is great is that there’s an entire community or communities of people who want to take back this term and use it in a positive way. Culture changes. Our society changes. It’s not a bad thing … When ‘Ms.’ came out, people thought it was like the end of the world. Now people don’t think twice about it. Language evolves, just like we do.”
Gia Drew, the program director at Equality Maine, said that the word is complicated even within the LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning] community.
“It could still be pejorative, if used in a negative, pejorative way,” she said. “In our community, folks have reclaimed that word as a chosen word to reclaim who they are. To take some of the negative power away from it … I also know a lot of people who have been connected to the community for a very long time who feel very uncomfortable around the word queer. Maybe it was used to hurt them. There’s definitely a long history connected to the word queer.”
But for others, there can be power, and validation, in saying it out loud, as Paradis does.
“There aren’t a lot of elected officials in small, rural towns in Maine that are out as queer,” Drew said. “A lot of people who are LGBTQ don’t say it out loud. I think there’s a bravery to saying it out loud. It makes you vulnerable. Even though we’ve had great progress in the state of Maine, in terms of LGBTQ rights, we’re not at equality yet. So I think it’s important and it is brave to say it out loud.”
Cooper Reed, a transgender man who is originally from Belfast and who now lives in Stockton Springs, said that the word queer has helped him feel comfortable in the LGBTQ community, even as he has been transitioning during the past couple of years.
“After coming out as transgender, it’s a strange spot to be in,” he said, adding that he is married to a woman. “Does that make me straight? I still definitely identify with the community. The word queer is ambiguous and broad enough to fit without being ultra-specific. It’s helpful.”
So when he hears an elected official describe herself as queer, it feels good to him.
“I’m a big believer for sure in representation,” he said. “It really matters that you see somebody you see a little bit of yourself in. I think that’s so important and lacking in the queer community in general.”
One thing that he would like for Mainers to know about the word queer, though, is that just because it has been reclaimed and is part of the conversation doesn’t mean that it should be used thoughtlessly.
“It’s someone’s way to define themselves and express themselves to other people,” he said. “It’s not a word that others should use to describe someone else unless there’s an explicit conversation that’s been had. That’s a really important thing to note. People use it to describe themselves instead of describing others. I view it as an ultra-personal thing.”