The Queer Umbrella

Daniel Copulsky

I write and talk a lot about the queer, poly, and kink communities. This question comes up sometimes about whether poly or kinky people should be included under the queer umbrella. I leaned towards no, but I consider it a complicated question.

I think it’s really important to first acknowledge that the meaning of queer has changed remarkably, and a lot us now included would not have been just years prior. It was at one time a more specific, and much more derogatory term – of which most would not want to be included. I love the word queer as it’s used now, and it would be really hard for me to ever give it up as an identity. But there’s a history that significantly predates my identification with queer. And given that history, I don’t really feel okay taking the sort of ownership inherent in asserting the right to police the boundaries of that identity.

It was a great relief to discover queer as a word I could use to describe myself. I loved that it seemed somehow more accurate than bisexual. That it implied somewhat less that I was attracted to men and women evenly. And that it said less about the sexes and genders of who I was attracted to at all. I loved that it didn’t feel too clumsy or obscure either. And then later I loved that it could express something of my vague ambivalence about gender identity too, awknowledging the fluidity of identity itself. I loved that if people wanted to know more about what exactly the word meant for me, they’d just have to ask.

Queer is an identity that validates my lived experience. So I’m grateful that it’s a word that’s available for me to use. And I also feel threatened by the possibility that the word could change too. I fear that if it becomes too broad, it loses the ability to specifically capture and express my identity. I don’t want the word to change that much, and I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to feel that way. But there is something problematic about wanting a word to grow just inclusive enough for myself and then stop without letting in others as well.

Ultimately, I think what’s more important than what the word queer does for me, or what any identities do for any of us as individuals, is what they do for all of us as communities. Ultimately, I think we need a better repertoire of words like queer, words for groups of identities where people hold something of their experiences and needs in common.

LGB and Trans people have long been linked together. I think this makes a lot of sense historically, and I think it makes a lot of sense for addressing issues that affect both these groups in similar ways. Anti-discrimination legislation, for example, needs to protect the rights of both LGB and Trans people. It’s a big issue that the trans community has been excluded from in many ways.

Other times, though, LGBT lumps together two groups that are now facing rather different challenges. The issues with medical care faced by trans people are unlike what others in the queer community deal with. Conversations about marriage rights are of particular interest to LGB individuals. At the same time, LGB doesn’t really encompass all the people affected by one set of issues, and Trans doesn’t really encompass all the people affected by another set of issues. And that can do a disservice to both groups.

I’d love for their to be a strong identity that means “all people who aren’t heterosexual.” This could then better include people who identify as pansexual and asexual. I’d also love for their to be a strong identity that means “all people who aren’t cisgender or cissexual or exclusively male or female.” This could then better include the variety of trans identities and intersex individuals. It’s easier, sometimes, to come up with descriptive phrases, like the ones above, “same gender loving,” or “sexual orientation minorities,” but there’s a certain power in the single words that are more often adopted as personal identities. So that’s what I long for.

I’m queer, but I’m also poly and kinky. I’m not really sure if that makes me more or less sympathetic to poly and kinky people who want those identities to fall under the queer umbrella. I understand something of where poly and kinky people are coming from in general, but I’m also already in the queer club myself.

Generally, though, I really like having these three separate words to describe myself. I like that it allows me to connect with these three groups separately, even though there’s often some overlap. My concerns as a poly person aren’t the same as my concerns as a queer person, my interests as a queer person aren’t the same as my interests as a kinky person, and it’s important to have different spaces to talk about and explore these different things.

But it would also be nice to have a word I really liked that embraced something of my poly, kinky, and queer identities all at once. Sex-positive suggests some support for this diversity of sexualities, but much less identification with any it. Deviant comes much closer in some respects, but has a negative connotation I can’t quite stomach. Perhaps, though, like queer, this is a word with the potential to change significantly with time. And if not, maybe we’ll come up with something else.