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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I've been hosting BBC Radio 5 Live phone-ins for 20 years – it's never been like this

My week, from the moment Corbyn saw Cameron resign to the voters who went from fury to regret.

I have been hosting phone-ins on BBC Radio 5 Live for 20 years and never has there been a time like this. Our station, more than any other, is in touch with our audience because listeners getting in touch with us is our lifeblood. We pride ourselves on reaching far beyond the confines of metropolitan England. The referendum’s result surprised no one here.

The numbers of people texting and calling have been phenomenal. For the sake of unimpeachable balance, we had to make sure that Remainers and Leavers had equal airtime and the statistics show that we succeeded. This wasn’t always the easiest of tasks, because before polling day most of the fire and fury came from the Brexiteers. They were the insurgents. They were storming the Bastille.

However, as Friday dawned, a new equilibrium began to emerge. The ancien régime sprang into life and stormed back. We have broadcast some fascinating conversations encapsulating our national divides. What a professional privilege it has been to hear the ebb and flow of the debate – the pride, the prejudice and the passion – play out in my headphones. It’s what we’re here for.

 

Lives of others

On Friday morning, I arrived on College Green in Westminster at 4.15am. The grass was already churned up like Brechin City’s pitch in late November and the scene was as manic as the stock exchange would soon become. At one point, I was in our gazebo interviewing Jeremy Corbyn. The press, radio and TV crews were five deep outside, trying to hear the exchange – just as they were outside all the gazebos with the big beasts in them. Corbyn had walked into mine.

David Cameron appeared on the screen to make a statement. I apologised to Jeremy for cutting short our conversation and he courteously acknowledged the significance of the moment. Then I found myself looking at him as he watched the humiliating demise of his foe, whose place in the history books would now be blighted. Jeremy’s expression was pensive and intense as he stroked his chin in slo-mo. What game of multidimensional chess was he playing in his head?

Woody Allen once said that in an exis­tential moment, his entire life flashed before his eyes – then he realised it was somebody else’s life. In Jeremy’s case this was somebody else’s fate but, in the fragility of the moment, perhaps he glimpsed his own and that of every player, eventually. He knew that many worlds were changing. But I don’t think he was pondering the next chess move. It wasn’t political calculation. It was human sympathy.

 

Having Bregrets

The day after the morning after the night before, I asked callers to sum up their mood in a word, before making their points and talking to the other callers. We opened up a can of words – people were gutted, ecstatic, excited, miserable, vindicated, wretched and even “discombobulated”. Then Barbara came on the line. “So, in one word, Barbara?” She didn’t hesitate but her voice was quivering, as though her dog had just died. “Devastated,” she said.

I was expecting yet another Remainer, drivelling on about the voting equivalent of “best of three”.

“How did you vote, Barbara?”

“I voted to Leave.”

The silence was deafening. On the radio, four seconds is a lifetime. She continued: “I never in a million years thought we would ever win. It was only a protest vote. I wish I hadn’t now.” She was Édith Piaf in reverse.

 

Iron ankles

“I’m not condoning it but . . .” is the apologists’ refrain. Whenever I hear it, I want to chuck something at the radio, which is hard when you’re on the radio at the time.

One example arose while I was interviewing England fans on a train bound for glory (or so they hoped). We were heading out of Marseilles, which was a lovely place . . . to leave. The train was heaving and I squeezed up the corridor and through the carriages. Most of the fans were brilliant but there are always a few idiots and one of them was eager to opine, so we spoke.

“I’m not condoning it but . . .” Boom! Here it comes. “They do it to us and we do it back. I feel we wouldn’t be here as a nation had we just curtailed [sic] and rolled over. We’d all be under Nazi control.”

The late Alan Clark (a proper diarist) once said that these were the men who won us the empire. He also said that he found Mrs Thatcher attractive – particularly her “dainty” ankles.

 

Snooze of the world

In the time that I’ve been presenting the Breakfast programme on 5 Live and “springing” out of bed at 4am in a disbelieving stupor, only three pieces of news have made me step back into the boudoir and wake up my wife: “Michael Jackson is dead”; “They have killed Osama Bin Laden”; and “We are out.” Her reply to the last might betray BBC impartiality by one degree of separation but was it: a) “You are effing kidding”; or b) “Ya beauty. Get in!”; or c) “Don’t wake me up. You are so unbelievably selfish. And could you stop clattering about and making so much bloody noise?” Clue: it wasn’t c).

Nicky Campbell co-presents the “Breakfast” show on BBC Radio 5 Live

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies