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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.