The word queer and its meaning has shifted over time. Once used as a derogatory word to refer to gay people, now queer is most commonly known as an umbrella-term that embodies any sexual orientation that is not heterosexual.
In addition to embracing “non-normative” sexual identities, the queer identity acknowledges that American society is heteronormative, meaning that the heterosexual orientation follows certain practices. This consists of marriage and the nuclear family, traditions that have been socially deemed “normal” and “natural.”
Zach Wahls, 21, a child of a lesbian couple, became famous for his testimonial to the Iowa House Judiciary Committee, where he was in opposition to the proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
“I just think that heteronormativity, cisnormativity are both so deeply ingrained in us, as people who live in our society,” Wahls told 429Magazine.
“To say that my moms raised me to not be heteronormative, well, frankly, so much of that is just out of their hands. Parents definitely play an important roll in shaping children but society too, plays a massive roll in teaching us how to behave and how to perform certain identities and teaching us various assumptions to make or to not make” Wahls continued.
Likewise, society is set-up in such a way which pre-determinedly benefits heterosexuality including, but not limited to, marriage rights, adoption rights, and hospital visitation rights, while the queer identity acknowledges that heterosexuality is socially constructed as the patented norm.
Experts argue that Americans live in a heterosexist society, meaning that society is set up in a way which privileges heterosexuals and deems any sexual or gender variance (homosexuality, transgender) as “deviant” or “unnatural.”
Another child of a lesbian parent, Amy Parker, 26, is straight and although doesn’t claim the queer identity, feels most comfortable in a queer social group.
“I would not introduce myself and say that I am a queer person but I lived in Oakland for a while and when I was looking for roommates I saw an ad that was like, ‘looking for a queer woman of color’, and really I am not any of those things but I still went and met with them because those are the people who I want to be around and feel comfortable around,” Parker told 429Magazine.
An acquaintance of Wahls, Danielle Silber, 29, a New York native, also grew up in a non-normative household. She further articulated the idea of heterosexism.
Silber, who used the phrase “hippy community” to explain her upbringing, was raised by two Jewish lesbians “and initially a French white man and an African American man, it’s a long story, but basically they ended up re-partnering and so I ended up with four dads.
“I was wildly closeted as a kid about my family, and I was paranoid like crazy, and in hindsight I realize that this was a reality for many hidden minorities, or just anyone who is terrified of being bullied. I definitely experienced heterosexism pretty intensely as a child and as a middle schooler, but with that same challenge eventually was a huge source of empowerment,” she added.
Queerness is not exclusive to sexual or gender identities, but rather, it challenges any institutionalized guidelines of what is “normal” and “acceptable.” Using this as a frame of reference, the question of whether a heterosexual person can also identify as queer appears.
Although queer is known as a sexual identity that includes anyone who is not straight, some believe that queer transcends sexual orientation.
Kerry Cullen, 24, identifies as pansexual, a person who is attracted to all people regardless of their gender or biological sex.
Cullen grew up as an Evangelical Christian and was home schooled by a church group. Cullen was 11-years-old when her mother came out to her as gay. At the time, Cullen believed that her mother was committing a sin.
Today, Cullen is singing a different tune. She believes that being queer “means that we’re not living according to some sort of ephemeral [or]strict mainstream standard that holds us tightly to rules that don’t have meaning for us.
“We can make our own meaning. When it comes to love or self-expression or identity, we can live by the laws that we make for ourselves,” she continued.
“In the Christian world, there existed a binary that just wasn’t in the queer world. I started exploring the different ways that one could exist in the universe without clinging so blindly to the rules that I had learned,” Cullen added..
Wahls pointed out that, although he is heterosexual and cisgender (non-transgender) he grew up in a queer household.
“Once a very specific and individual definition, today [queer is]much more, almost, catchall for somebody who is not perfectly heterosexual or cisgender,” Wahls said, adding that “frankly, for somebody who is straight and cisgender, myself, I would also point out that part of the straight identity is having straight parents and in that sense I certainly don’t meet that criterion and that is part of what renders my identity queer.”
Silber reiterated Wahls’ insight, saying “[my]family make up was very much a revolutionizing of the way families are conceived … literally.
“And how love really makes a family and how family can be made up of a group of people who come together because they want to raise a child together. And it doesn’t necessarily need to be confined to a biological reality.”
Silber is straight, she has only been with men intimately, however, she grew up in a family who demolished all constructions of a “normal” American family. She views the world with an understanding that there is no one normal or natural sexual orientation nor is a heterosexual family the poster-child for normalcy. Under this belief, although Silber is straight, she says she can claim a queer identity.
Silber recognizes the essence of queer as an identity that breaks bounds of normalcy. For her this redefines the family to go beyond the normative husband and wife, or even, only two parents.
“The queer community is a community of people who are consciously deciding to live an alternative lifestyle to what is the existing para-dime or the existing construct of family and the way a family can be defined,” Silber said.