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Gatekeeping and queer culture

Amy Leibowitz

The other day, my local paper had an article explaining Gen Z slang to adults. They left out some terms, incorrectly defined others, used at least one outdated word, and had a couple with older use. My kids found it endearingly odd, but they were impressed someone tried.

Bear with me, this is relevant, I promise. Later in the same week, I had occasion to ask my kids for a slang word with a specific meaning. When I shared it, I had another adult “correct” me. I politely said I was sure my kids knew how to use their own slang.

This brings me to the problem of gatekeeping and outsiders thinking they know best what a community wants or needs. In a side conversation about culture/slang, I was alerted to How Queer People Should Wear Their Piercings. This was a highly enlightening discussion from the perspective of an “expert,” a cisgender and (as far as I’m aware) heterosexual person who “works with” a lot of queer people.

I learned that apparently, there is a correct side to wear your piercings if you are gay or lesbian, and these are opposite. They apply to nose and lip piercings too. Which of course raises the question, where do multi-gender-attracted people get pierced? Do we need to do both sides? Should we get a nasal septum piercing instead of on the side? Should bi women have double piercings, since most women with earrings already get both sides done? Where do genderqueer people get pierced? ENQUIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW, “expert” non-queer folks!

I mentioned this to my kids, as they are both queer and interested in discussions about queer culture. They thought it was hilarious and weird that anyone would want to limit things like piercing location or hairstyle or hair color or clothing to “things queer people do.” It’s not merely gatekeeping for the LGBTQ+ community; it’s gatekeeping for non-queer folks as well. In fact, it’s even more so, as non-queer people are bizarrely concerned with not appearing to be one of us. That seems to be at the heart of trying to figure out what our culture is, the ability to then avoid it at all costs.

Listen, we are not peacocks. Body mods we make are for ourselves, not so we can send up a beacon to other queer people and be recognized walking down the street. In fact, a good part of the time, we’d rather not be harassed while out with our dogs. We’re not, on average, dressing like we’re ready for the club during our 5am commute to the office. Judging by the fact that so many non-queer people are so worried they’ll pierce the “wrong” side or wear the “wrong” hairstyle, we can’t even hope to send subtle signals without evoking the non-queer side-eye.

And therein lies the problem: non-queer folks deciding for us what our culture is. I see this a lot in books. Mainstream publishers are far more likely to trust an “expert” and their sanitized version of our experiences than allow us to tell our own stories. But I see it in small presses, too, the way some authors are allowed to write about us as a form of educating the non-queer masses. Or as being nothing more than our list of “caused by queerness” problems in life.

Here is my non-expert, unsolicited advice: When non-queer people write about us, they’d do well to keep in mind that we are neither a list of Queer Culture Stereotypes nor Attempting to Smash Stereotypes. We aren’t here to educate non-queer people on our culture, nor are we here to prove we’re “just like you only more gay.” Let us tell our own stories first.

There is no single “queer culture” that describes all the different ways we dress or act, any more than there is some unifying “non-queer culture” that distinguishes all the rest of the population. (If there were, it sure would make it easier to tell who is safe to ask out on a date.) We can be trusted to know ourselves and to describe our experiences. Sure, someone who spends a lot of time with us might pick up on some things. But that only means the people they are hanging out with do those particular behaviors, not the entirety of queerdom.

As for the piercings... Get whatever you want, wherever you want. There’s no set rule about it, and the only people who care are the non-queer people who want to be sure no one mistakes them for gay. I say let the homophobes marinate in their discomfort by not telling them which is the “gay side."

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