Jean-Felix Caron is a U3 East Asian Studies Major from Quebec City. He enjoys enjoys lipsyncing to 80s power ballads.
“I am currently in this phase of my life where I’m re-questioning the labels I’ve had in the last few years,” he said. “I’m definitely now in the moment where I identify as gender non-binary [or] genderqueer. Sexuality is something I still can’t really put a label on at the moment so I would go with queer because it seems like the best word to label it with.”
Josika Gupta is a U4 Psychology Major from Mumbai, India. She loves comics, Netflix, and big dogs.
“I personally [describe myself as] queer,” she said, “But I’m primarily attracted to women.”
Muhan Zhang is a U2 East Asian Studies and Art History Major from Vancouver. She is currently learning how to play piano.
“I identify as bi,” she said. “Sometimes I put the sexual on there, but sometimes it’s a bit much.But most of the time I’m just a human being. I think now I say queer more than anything else. If I’m going to throw something out there randomly I’ll say queer.”
Hannah Beach-Byrnes is a U3 Cultural Studies Major from the Greater Toronto Area. She is an experienced fencer.
“I identify, quite recently, as bisexual, and more recently just under the umbrella term queer, as I’ve become more accustomed to hearing it around campus, especially, and [among] our peers, I would just use that term,” she said.
Many people believe that sexuality is polarized between the fixed identities of lesbian, gay, and bisexual. In the same vein, many cultures see men and women as two distinct genders; the view is that an individual is born within one of the two categories, and remains within that category for their entire lives. The reality is that, for many, there is no perfect label to convey the nuances of their sexuality, or a perfect gender binary that can encompass all the ways to be a person.
Queer is a term that is familiar to many members of the McGill community. On top of being an identity, queer is an idea that is heard frequently around campus when referring to the culture and community of individuals who identify as a sexual minority. In the past, sexual minorities have been most commonly referred to as LGBT, standing for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender; more recently, the acronym has expanded to LGBTQIA+, acknowledging queer, intersex, and asexual identities, as well a plethora of others with the plus sign.
What does the term “queer” mean to you?
Jean-Felix: “Queer to me means really outside of the social binary. It’s hard to put a label on queerness, because, you know, it just means something strange, something out of the ordinary.”
Josika: “I’d never really heard of [queer], except for as an insult, until I came to McGill. I’d never lived in North America before, and the places I’d lived were not exactly queer friendly. It was either something you didn’t talk about or the only two words you heard were gay and lesbian [....] It feels powerful when I use it, it’s powerful and it connects you to a community.”
Muhan: “I think I discovered [the word] queer and started using it [...] fairly recently. Not until after high school. To me queer has never had bad connotations in [Vancouver.] I’ve never heard it used in a negative kind of way [....] Within queer studies and within the [queer] community itself, there’s more understanding of fluidity of people in general.”
Hannah: “I didn’t like the bisexual term sometimes, I felt that it invited this fetishization by [straight] men. This ‘queer’ term, where you’re kind of vague, you just say it and you sort of move on, you don’t invite any conversation. It’s an easy way to be like, this is my business, this is something I control.”
Queer complicates traditional identities of gay, bisexual, lesbian, or transgender by blanketing all these labels with an umbrella term. For many, this is liberating. The term queer hints at the ambiguities of sexuality and gender, offering the idea that there is no “perfect” heterosexual or cisgender model to which one can contrast oneself against.
For others, queer is not a term they feel defines them, as it harkens back to a derogatory slur and brushes over the history and nuance of their distinctive identity. Therefore, many individuals prefer using the term LGBTQIA+.
How do you feel about the term LGBTQ and its variations?
Hannah: I think the way it’s used at McGill is more of a buzzword. It really makes sense when you’re talking about political issues, but when you’re talking about personal identities, it just feels like you’re saying it to sound relevant or knowledgeable. I was watching a video recently about how [....] despite this ever-expanding acronym existing it’s something that white people and cis men still over-take. Despite this acronym, it can still be dominated by certain [identities].
Josika: “I’m a part of multiple random facebook groups, and one of them is for queer folks. I kept using the word queer to describe everybody and not just me, because the way it’s used here is an umbrella term right? So I was like, ‘That’s how everybody says it.’ Someone was like ‘Hey can you maybe not use that when you’re describing people other than yourself, like could you maybe use LGBTQ.’ It kind of hit me like a ton of bricks. I went back and I changed everything.”
Jean-Felix: “LGBTQIA+ definitely represents the community of sexual minorities, but I think ‘queer’ is very different from the community. I know we sometimes use the word queer as an umbrella term for the community, but I think it’s also important to recognize that queer is an actual identity and that it is not encompassing everything.”
The ‘Born this Way’ or ‘I can’t change’ narrative is often associated with discovery of sexuality or gender expression. This story portrays its protagonist as someone who grew up knowing which gender they were attracted to, or what their true gender was, and carried this information for years as a ‘secret shame.’ This story is often depicted in media as a way for queer people to explain themselves to heterosexual, cisgender people. Yet, the reality for many queer people is that they undergo a gradual, ongoing, and murky understanding of their sexuality or gender; it is not something they are born knowing. One quality that queer people do tend to share is a deep understanding of their difference and acknowledgment that their desires deviate from common social expectations.
Do you feel like your identity was something you were born knowing, or did it develop over the years?
Jean-Felix: “I’ve definitely always felt like I was something different. I’ve been to an all boys school and they’d be like, ‘Boys do this, boys do that,’ and I’d be like ‘Hmm, not really.’ When people would say ‘Ok boys,’ or in French ‘Ok les gars.’ I would never feel included in this group [....] For me, it’s been a long process, it’s never been a click in my head. I always knew there was something off about me, but it’s definitely been a process and it's a process that's still going on to this day.”
Muhan: “I didn’t come out to myself or other people until I graduated. I started dating a girl over that summer. Before then, it wasn’t that I suppressed my feelings for women. I was like ‘Ok, I know there’s something there, I’m just going to keep this in the back of my head, I’m not really going to think about it or really worry about it until I get there.’ [I felt that way] for many, many years.”
Media representations influence individuals, particularly in how they enact their identity in the world. Queer people, who have less obvious role models to look up to in film, television, and literature, oftentimes have to construct their own heroes. Viewed in a different light, many characters and relationships in media that are taken for granted as being straight have strong queer undertones. Through storytelling and performance, queer people have, for years, carved out many different ways of being queer.
Who is your favourite queer (or queer coded) fictional character or public figure?
Josika: “Mulan, which I watched last night. Lee Shang and Ping fell in love with each other. Mulan is 100 per cent the central character, I’m so happy it’s a woman who saves all of China. But all the positive parts are between men or assumed men. It’s gay. It’s really great and it’s gay. Also, Bend it Like Beckham. It’s really coded, but that coach is just tacked on there. That’s my favourite queer-coded fictional couple.”
Jean-Felix: “Drag queens in general. Drag queens helped to show me gender bending. I think it’s a great way to show the possibilities of expression.”
Hannah: “Ursula from The Little Mermaid. She doesn’t have the right body to be a protagonist and that’s part of the reason why she’s demonized but she’s also fantastic because she clearly embodies a diva in so many ways.”
Being queer can marginalize an individual. Mainstream society normalizes heterosexual relationships and practically requires one to identify their gender with the sex they are assigned at birth. On an emotional level, coming to terms with a queer identity can be a source of insecurity and anxiety for an individual, considering the complications they may encounter. Belonging to circles of queer and allied friends does not exempt one from homophobic or transphobic aggression. Additionally, the newness or vagueness of the term ‘queer’ often doesn’t sit well with those who value fixed labels, who believe that one’s identity is something they are born with. In fact, these people can even exist within the LGBTQIA+ community itself.
What is difficult about being queer? Or identifying specifically with queerness over traditional labels?
Hannah: “[My work place] is a space of mostly cis dudes, it was very important to them that people establish their sexual identity, in a different way. That’s been interesting for me. They assume that I’m only interested in women because I definitely have a more masculine gender expression, also my job itself is not [classically feminine]. To some degree, I think these guys wanted me to be lesbian, thinking that that’s why my gender expression is more masculine. It fits together nicely [for them].
Josika: “I think the thing that bothers me the most about 'queerness' is that many queer folks and communities don't acknowledge the racism, sexism, transphobia, etcetera, that can be present in [their own circles]. It's like they think that being queer somehow absolves them, and that queer folks cannot oppress others. Obviously, that's totally untrue. The fact is that most queer activities are built around attractive cis white gay men, and erase most other queer folks.”
Being queer, like any identity, exists outside of the political sphere as well, and on a personal level, has beauty and benefits. Identifying oneself as someone on the margins, while potentially lonely, can be very freeing and even allow for the formation of alternative communities.
What do you love about being queer?
Josika: “It’s a lot of different people, but we are similar in enough ways that we know how to be there for each other. Like if you have a friend who is [also] queer, there is a lot of empathy, there is a lot fun, it’s great. I feel like I have intimate access to so many people that other people will just never know because they don’t bother to learn. I love that feeling of being connected to other people.”
Muhan: “I love having so many friends that I hit it off with, not because we’re queer, just because that’s another thing we have in common that we can talk about and are passionate about because of the struggle. As a byproduct of being queer in a heteronormative society, you’re constantly questioning yourself, getting to know yourself. That’s definitely encapsulating of my experience. Constantly getting to know yourself, and being okay with yourself. Figuring out, what kind of life am I trying to live for myself?”
Hannah: “I really love that [...] this previous idea of viewing women as competition in that very heteronormative way is something that I can completely reject. I still find that really difficult because I’m a fencer and I did a lot of competitive sports as a teenager. And it’s an individual sport. Any female teammates I had were in fact my competitors. So I think it’s really easy for me to still see women as competition, of course, with normative beauty standards. But talking about queerness, talking about women appreciating each other romantically, or otherwise, is a complete rejection of that. It’s so awesome that you can completely encourage someone else and appreciate them and that doesn’t take away from your own worth.”
Jean-Felix: ”I love that I’m free to do whatever the fuck I want. When I first came out as gay to my friends from high school they were like ‘Oh so are you gonna help me shop’ and ‘Are you gonna do my makeup’ and stuff and I was like, ‘Not really….’ For me fashion has never been something I really cared about and I was like, ‘Well now I have to be into fashion! And I tried to make myself be into fashion, but it did not work out [....] But I felt like I had to because that was the image [of a gay man] that was given to me. That was the image that society was giving to me. But that’s the thing I love about being queer is that I take advantage of queerness being something of a vague identity to truly make it my own. I see that being queer to me is different than [what it is for] someone else, but no one can tell me I’m not being queer. Because to me being queer is being who I am.”