Well, it's Pride Month, and I'm watching queer discourse cross my social spheres the way it always does. There's one particular discourse that's really been bringing up a lot of feelings for me this year - the idea of "queer as a noun" vs "queer as a verb." Is queer a thing you are, a thing you just know about yourself somehow, even in the absence of having taken any queer actions (such as dating someone of the same gender as you, or undergoing a gender transition)? Or is queer a thing you do?*
I'm gonna go out on a limb and say it's both, actually - and that a lot of the problems with "queer as a verb" stem from our not recognizing how many queer verbs there really are.
To be perfectly clear, I am not going to argue here that the performance of any particular verb is required before you are "really queer." It seems obvious to me that it is not. What I am going to talk about is the variety of queer verbs there are, the reasons why they're important, and the role they seem to play in queer lives.
The typical use of "queer as a verb" is rightly criticized for being biphobic and acephobic, as well as problematic for people who are closeted in some way. It seems to imply that if we're in a straight-looking relationship (as bi or closeted people frequently are), or in no relationship (as ace or closeted people frequently are), then our queerness is strictly imaginary. After all, if we're in those situations, if we're not having queer sex (this is always, openly or secretly, about sex deep down), then we're not doing the verbs.
Or are we?
Sure, sex is great, but it seems to me that there are a lot of other verbs besides fuck.
Longing and fantasizing (about a same-sex relationship, about changing your gender presentation, about a world where you wouldn't be expected to think about sex at all) are verbs.
Noticing same-sex attraction and reacting to it is a verb - even if the reaction is to try to tamp it down, to deny it, to try to play it off as no big deal.
Feeling a dysphoric discomfort with compulsory cishet society - feeling a need to escape it, even if you can't articulate what that escape would look like - is a verb.
Desperately, loudly, or furtively seeking out queer media, even if we can't articulate why it makes us feel comforted and seen - that's a verb.
Seeking out queer community - that's also a verb.
Trying as hard as you can to figure out where you fit, what you are - that's a verb.
There are many more.
Again, I am not arguing that you have to have done all the verbs to be queer, or even any particular one. I'm just pointing out how many there are.
It seems to me that long before we come out of the closet to ourselves, before we have queer romantic relationships or queer sex, we are doing the verbs - and actual straight people, for the most part, are not.** It seems to me that we call ourselves queer-as-a-noun because we recognize that we have been doing the verbs, and that something about what we've been doing feels important to our identity, even if the way we've been doing them stays invisible to others, occurring inside our own head. The inside of our own heads matters, actually. We can do verbs there, too.
It also seems to me that having access to more verbs is liberatory.
Here's where I'm coming from with this: I'm bi, I read outwardly as a woman, and since the fall of last year I've been in a romantic relationship with someone who also reads outwardly as a woman. It's my first such relationship. (I'm actually genderfluid, and I have dated people before who were not cis, but they were always people who read outwardly as men, and thus, relationships that looked straight from the outside. You can see how simple binary ways of thinking break down very quickly in this mix.)
Being in such a relationship is important to me. It's something I longed for, when I was dating cis men, but didn't know quite how to access or pursue.
It's nonsense to say that I wasn't queer before. That doesn't ring true to me at all. At the same time I feel very fulfilled by getting to be outwardly queerer now than I was before. It's not only about wanting the public to recognize me as queer - actually very little of it is about that. It's about the fact that there were verbs I always wanted to do and I'm getting to do them now with someone awesome.
(This kind of wanting, in and of itself, is also a verb.)
A reductive view of queer as a verb, one that implies it's only outward verbs like dating or fucking that matter, erases the kind of queer that I used to be - and, for all I know, might one day be again.
At the same time, "queer as a noun" feels like it erases something subtler. People say to me, "Don't worry! You were always queer, and so were your relationships with cis men! Everything that a queer person does is already inherently queer!" But the truth is that, even though I liked and was attracted to cis men, there was an itch I wasn't scratching, a desire that wasn't fulfilled. Saying that all of my relationships were always equally queer paradoxically erases the object of that desire - when that desire is what made me queer in the first place.
And a view of queerness as something involiable and internal, something that has no relation to verbs at all, erases many of the worst kinds of damage that anti-queer prejudices do to queer people. Most anti-queer laws, and most social punishments for being queer, have to do with verbs more than nouns. People are punished for, or prohibited from, doing things - undergoing gender transition, being openly with a same-gender partner, getting married, speaking positively about queer experiences in the media, using the bathroom or joining a sports team in a way that fits their gender identity, having sex in a way that straight bigots don't like.***
Bigots use queer-as-a-noun as a shield. We're not anti-queer, they say. You can be as queer as you want, they say, just don't do anything about it where we can see you.
You don't have to be oppressed to be queer. But if queer is a noun, and only a noun, then it's not immediately obvious why restricting the verbs that are available to queer people is oppression.
After all, if you can be happily queer by yourself in your own room, then what's the problem with asking everyone to just go and do that forever?
Sentences contain more than one part of speech. Queer will never be a single, mandatory verb. But queer is a noun that needs and springs from verbs - a whole constellation of different possible verbs, internal and external, concrete and ephemeral, and that kind of variety strikes me as the queerest thing of all.
*This whole discussion may be guilty of taking "queer as a verb" out of its original context in queer theory. Queer theory is a topic I don't have space to do justice to in a blog post, and queer theory certainly involves celebrating visible transgressions from sexual and gender norms. Queer theory is also quite abstract and refuses to give the term "queer" a single, authoritative definition, which essentially means that if you're trying to use queer theory to make rigid rules defining who does and doesn't count as "really queer," you're doing it wrong.
**It should be noted that the LGBTQIA umbrella includes intersex people, and for intersex people this kind of analysis may break down, as their differences from the cishet norm are physically contained in their actual bodies. Nevertheless, it seems to me that intersex people who know they're intersex are at the very least experiencing something other people don't experience.
***This is not to discount the experiences of asexuals and aromantics, who can be heavily socially punished both by straight society and by other queers for their lack of attraction. However, with a few exceptions, anti-asexual bigotry is not usually directly enshrined in law; and perhaps the steadfast refusal to engage (or pretend to engage) in something compulsory can itself be a sort of verb.