Queer is the question

‘Queer’ is not something that ever stays still; it is transient and, in that sense, in a constant state of becoming.

I had always identified as bisexual. Well, actually, that's not strictly true. I started calling myself bisexual when I was 11, learning the word from a girl who courageously came out during our first year of secondary school. Throughout my adolescence, the “I’m bi” statement served me well, feeling edgy and rebellious when I said it, encapsulating my budding sexual identity succinctly. But by 18, as I grew sick of feeling like I had to constantly balance my desires between male and female attraction, the words began to sound like a broken record. For the next two years, questions about my sexuality left me vacant; ‘straight’ was simply a lie, and ‘lesbian’ an identity I couldn't claim because I was attracted to male identified people. ‘Bisexual’ had started coming of my mouth like a dress that no longer fit me properly, feeling uncomfortable and clumsy when I put it on.

These were, at the time, the only three terms that existed to described sexual identity. Though I would have called myself an open-minded feminist, in retrospect my ignorance seems blinding; as far as I was aware asexuality didn’t even exist, and the concept of  a trans* identity left me feeling confused. As for ‘queer’ -  that was something I had only encountered within the context of queer theory, while geekily reading James Baldwin and critical essays on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As far as eighteen year old me was concerned, ‘queer’ belonged in books, as an exclusively academic term for pop culture that challenged gender roles or had LGB characters. 

At 20 I went backpacking in California, the birth place of the term “queer”, and eventually spent a year studying abroad at the University of California San Diego. True to my contrary teenage mind-set, I decided that my friends on campus would be the "alternate" kids. I quickly joined the LGBTQIA society, with little knowledge of what this gargantuan acronym meant.

Among student organisations, I discovered a cocktail non-normative sexual and gender identities, other students were lesbian, gay, and bisexual - but also trans*, queer, pansexual, intersex, asexual, or allies. In meetings, whilst learning what these terms meant, I became aware of the levels of privilege within the LGBTQIA community. The ways in which the more mainstream identities I had exclusively heard of benefited from societal acceptance. How trans* rights were often silenced in favour of more populist civil rights issues, such as same sex marriage. I also developed an understanding of intersectionality, in terms of the individual experience of  sexuality, impacted by gender, race, class, ability, and other nuances.

My initial attraction to ‘queer’ was that it allowed me to make a tangible connection between my feminist identity and non-straight sexuality. Basically, I was able to bridge the gap between my non-normative identity and position on gender politics. Looking back, perhaps it was this piece of the puzzle that I had been missing in my late teens, as I began to make the transition from “girl” to “woman”.

In the states, the racial politics side of queer identification was liberating to watch and experience; on-campus groups such as QPOC (Queer People of Color) addressed immigration, colonisation, and white privilege from a non-straight perspective. Being of Lebanese origin, but born in the UK, I had only fleetingly considered the impact my sexuality had taken on the assimilation to more western ways of thinking. I began seeing my biculturalism from a completely different perspective, and became refreshingly aware of my passing white privilege.

In terms of class, it became clear to me how much less mainstream sexuality is often viewed as an activity, almost a hobby, enjoyed by society’s more privileged members.  And that, as someone from an upper middle class, background, I have been privileged to  grow up in an area where it was not  implicitly dangerous to be seen kissing another girl, or wearing gender nonconforming clothing.

Ablism was also something I began to recognise; how societal conditioning, based in preconceived ideas of masculinity and power, leads to the othering of those who identify as less/differently able-bodied, or disabled. How there is an overlap between how these communities are treated; both are othered for the sake of affirming a sense of self derived from the myth of normativity. Both were, and sometimes still are, dubbed and treated as ‘freaks’ or ‘degenerates’. After making this connection I was struck by how, in terms of feminist politics, a women’s ability to have children is placed on a pedestal, mutually effecting trans* and FAAB (female assigned at birth) women who are unable to conceive.

Moving back to London two years ago, and calling myself queer, I was shocked at some of the reactions I got within what I had always thought was a liberal city. To this day, I have been given a range of responses; from that ‘queer’ simply doesn't exist, to that it is offensive, to that I am just a "bi curious straight girl", by less open minded members of the LGB community.  Surprisingly, it is often the same every time.

“What do you mean queer?", is how I usually get asked, while the inquirer of my sexual preferences narrows their eyes slightly, over pronouncing it… queer. As though they suspect me of turning my sexuality/gender identity into some sort of hipster accessory. That's not what ‘queer’ is to me though; it's a necessary framework that I choose to live my life by. Though in the last two years I have noticed a change, with more and more Londoners calling themselves queer, and queer night life becoming increasingly popular, the reactions I receive show the gap between non straight politics in the UK and in the US. Sadly, it seems we have a lot of catching up to do.

In a textbook sense, ‘queer’ has been defined as a noun, a verb (queering) and an adjective that encompasses all non-straight, non normative, sexual and gender identities. ‘Queer’ is not something that ever stays still; it is transient and, in that sense, in a constant state of becoming. It is no more less essential than a lesbian, bisexual, or trans* identity – however ‘queer’ does exist by itself, as well as being an umbrella term for all identities that aren’t “straight”.

I identify as queer out of solidarity with the trans* community, and also to approach my gender identity from a differing position. By calling myself queer I can express my attraction to people of all genders, politicise my sexuality, and be wilfully non-normative. When I discovered queer it was not the answer. The answer was something I had been experiencing for as long as I can remember. For me, queer is the question.


'Queer' is so much more than what's found in the theory books.
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How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.