I told a short story tonight at school about being called queer when I was in elementary school back in NYC. When I was growing up on Staten Island I lived in a neighborhood that was very conservative, but my family was quite liberal. So while all the other boys in school had short hair or even crew cuts, I had long hair and had a denim jacket with various peace patches and environmental patches on it.
Needless to say, I got beat up a lot.
I generally didn't like hanging out with the boys in school because they were overall pretty stupid, so I preferred hanging out with the girls. First off they treated me better and secondly I was raised by women more than men so I "got" women/girls better. I was also painfully shy and deeply introverted. Whether in school or at home I preferred living in my own thoughts more often than not. That, and the disfunctionality of my family made me very fearful of any outsiders, and many times insiders.
But my family, for all its faults, knew language. My mother was a poet and my father, though largely absent, was an English professor. So in that regard I understood from a very early age what words mean. So when the day came in fourth or fifth grade when a fellow student thought he was dealing me a death blow of linguistic accusation by calling me queer I realized that he had bit off more than he could chew.
I'm sure he made the accusation in order to cut me down. I have no idea what his own story is; whether he had been called names himself by fellow students or even in his own family. Maybe so or maybe not. It may have been as much the social ethos of the era that allowed kids and adults to call someone a name in order to other them so as to avoid dealing with difference in their midst. But nevertheless, he felt it was appropriate to call me queer in order to shame and embarrass me.
Now I don't remember how I knew this. But somehow in that moment I remembered that queer, while in the context of what this child was calling me, was meant as an insult, I also remembered that the term had a more neutral meaning that didn't necessarily have a negative connotation.
So I asked him if he knew what the term meant. It was obvious he didn't really know. So I told him. I told him that queer meant that something or someone was different than the norm, the standard, the accepted way. And considering the state of the norm, the standard, and the accepted way, being queer to me was quite a compliment.
So I thanked him for the compliment.
He didn't try insulting me anymore.
As I mentioned earlier tonight, I didn't have the muscles to fight off bullies. So I did get beat up on a regular basis. But I did have words to defend myself, and so I used them to the best of my ability. As I grew older I learned how to use my words to keep me safe or defend me. Now, as an adult, I have to be careful in how I use my words today. As it's often been said, that which saves you as a child can kill you as an adult. So in that regard I must be careful to use my words very carefully.
Other boys had their muscles as their weapons. I had my words. Both can be deadly if used in wrong ways. We each used them to protect ourselves when young. And if we're not careful we can just as easily use them to do violence to others today.
I turned a phrase intended to hurt into one that became a compliment. But it was a selfish pursuit. Appropriate in its context, but dangerous as a template for later use. Just as using your fists to fight off an attacker is appropriate, that lesson can end up becoming a continuation of the cycle of violence if not checked and understood rightly.
So with words used to protect can just as easily become words that coerce and manipulate.
It seems language is a queer thing.