Opinion | Queerness and a new Enlightenment

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When I say in this article that we live in queer times, I do not mean that the times in which we live are weird. Rather, I will say they are gay: Queer persons and the sensibility they have developed gives a distinctive character to our times.

One might think that I want to use the word “queer” in an old, pejorative sense and conflate it with a contemporary, liberative meaning, and thereby — by means of confusion — to do injustice to this latter meaning. I in fact want to do the opposite. I would like us to try using words such as “queer” and “weird” just in this second, positive sense. The power of this second meaning lies also in that it does not forget about the first, earlier meaning, but subverts and embraces what has earlier been disregarded. When I think “queer” in this newer sense, I always try to think also the older meaning of the word.

The same I try to do when thinking through the word “gay” — although here this is even easier given a rather pleasant older sense of the word. Still, I think this word can be used even more often in contexts that do not refer strictly to sexual identity precisely because it so often means a non-heteronormative sexuality. In turn, the non-heteronormative sexuality can, in new ways, enchant that to which word “gay” used to refer: joy.

This transhistorical, broad use of English words like “queer” and “gay” in describing one’s identities might seem to unacceptably abstract away from the specific, sexual aspects of their identity and the nuanced histories these words had in the recent decades. But I think that there are reasons for exploring this more all-encompassing usage.

The emancipatory discourse around sexuality (as it was created in the English-speaking world) is highly influential in the non-English speaking world — it might even dominate these parts of the non-English world that are seeking ways to express the complexities of their hearts and emancipate their sexualities.

But to me, as a native speaker of a non-English language, it seems very vivid that when one directly adapts the English words “gay” and “queer” to non-English languages, they do not carry the etymologies and histories associated with them in English. They sound foreign and a matter of some fashion. In Slavic languages, for instance, I do not find any “native” words, apart from old and euphemistic ones — only the ones that are derogatory would name gayness or queerness. The English words are very roughly adapted there to be the only non-derogatory and non-euphemistic ones, and they sound artificial. This phenomenon seems to be relatively common, especially in many small languages.

When a word sounds foreign and abstract, it is easy to absolutize its meaning. In such a case, a person who uses the English words “gay” or “queer” in the non-English language to describe their sexual preferences can be easily misunderstood as meaning that this is the whole of their identity as a person, that their life is through-and-through dominated by their sexual identity.

If one tried to find words in non-English languages that are not structurally similar, but mean joy or weirdness, respectively, I think they would be much more natural and welcome. But even in English, when we try to see in the words “gay” and “queer” not just sexual identities, but the generic historical meanings worth embracing, we are at more ease to productively confuse those who want to absolutize.

Furthermore, this project of productive confusion can go even further once we start applying the words such as “gay” or “queer” also to realms not directly purporting to one’s identity. In fact, I said above why this can be done with the word “gay,” and now I will focus in the remaining part of the text on the word “queer,” which might seem to be a more difficult case.

Although this word no longer commonly describes a feeling of weirdness one might have, other words do. “Weird” is one of them, and I think that in most cases the use of this word is narrow-minded.

If we feel that a serial killer from one of the many popular series about curious crimes is “weird,” it is because some evil force emanates from the person and we feel unsettled. But we can easily substitute the word “weird” with “bad.” The experience of weirdness in such a case is a truthful one, but even there we should have an awareness that it ultimately directs us to understand that there is not just something weird about the person, but something bad. To say that the person is just weird is to say too little.

Compare this with a situation in which we feel “weird” when someone speaks about things very distant from our daily routines of speaking, or gifts us with a sign of affection which we think does not belong to our thesaurus of possible signs of affection. If we had reason to think that that which we call weird is simply bad, then at least adding this would be a more honest way of expressing ourselves.

Yet so often we hear people say, “I don’t think this artwork is bad, but it just feels weird.” Or, “I have nothing against how those two persons love each other, but I would just feel weird were I them. Oh, that kiss would have to feel creepy!” And when you ask them why they think this is weird, they can only reply, “Well, it just feels that way.”

In the situations I have just described above — when the feeling of weirdness cannot be proven to be the feeling of something more profound (such as badness) — this feeling is itself a mark of some flaw in our intuition or sensibility. I propose to deal with that which presents to us as not normal and yet not inherently bad by immediately telling ourselves that we are in fact embracing it and feel attracted to it.

One word that could capture well the effort one makes to work through what they mistakenly viewed as not normal but now embrace it is the word “queer.”

Moreover, such a way of approaching the world — challenging what is normal — is especially easy for persons of queer identity. Being queer often means we embrace what many view as abnormal sexuality. In this way we have been often working through, in the depth of our hearts and basic faculties, faculties of desire and love, the ways in which people incorrectly distinguish between what is normal and what is not.

When we view the world from the queer perspective, our sensibility in other respects gets honed as well. It is easier to leave aside superstitions about what is not normal in realms such as art, daily life, religiosity or philosophy. This is perhaps why we commonly discover that historical figures who we take to be original and ingenious in these realms were queer. If the Enlightenment taught us that to fight superstition we need reason, I think that the 21st century will teach us that to fight superstition we need queerness.

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