The day I made peace with identifying as queer also happened to be the day of my first date with The Boy.
I had been at a talk on YA literature the evening before, and was struck by the way these panelists threw around the word "queer" as an umbrella term to encompass LGBTI identities. Of course I'd heard it used that way before, but only online. Here, on the internet, it feels like a little separate bubble - people talk in a different way. A lot of them are from different places and live in a different societal context to me, with different privileges and prejudices, fighting the same battle different ways or different battles that I will never have to face. And now, there were people in front of me, talking in a way I'd only ever seen written down before.
"I'd hestitate to call my character a lesbian," said one of the authors. "I prefer queer - it's more general."
Queer. Originally meaning strange. Peculiar. Different. It has a degree of fluidity to it. While gay originally meant "happy", and has since been accepted in our daily vernacular to mean (a typically male) homosexual, queer hasn't been shoehorned and strongarmed in quite the same way.
It was a term of abuse originally, wasn't it? One which we reclaimed? And in that time, the mainstream seem to have become more accepting of sexualities which aren't just a binary of straight or not-straight. Queer did mean gay. It also meant bisexual and pansexual. Straight transpeople can identify as queer if they so please. Hell, it's not something we police. You don't get stopped by a sexy butch with a crewcut and ferociously pink uniform, brandishing a clipboard, who demands you fill out a survey in order to qualify for using the term.
And yet, the term never quite sat right with me. I was bisexual, pansexual, sexually fluid and - sometimes, contrarily - "label-free". Other people were queer. I was a girl who sometimes liked boys and sometimes liked girls and sometimes liked people of an indeterminate gender, or people who identified outside of two genders. I preferred jeans to dresses, felt a thrill of transgression at wearing formal mens' suits (and looking damn sexy in them), and cheerfully joked about being the "token not-straight person" - but I was never queer.
It's not like sexuality is something I can turn on or off either. I can remember dating a girl and commenting to my friends about an attractive guy who walked past - and they looked at me, and said "don't you have a girlfriend?", an accusation, a rebuke. As if, while dating a girl, I should only be attracted to other females. But it doesn't work like that. And it doesn't work the other way, either: going out with a boy does not magically erase my attraction to girls or androgynes.
Stood in a pub on Friday, a skinny musician sort with long ginger hair and a shirt unbuttoned to the sternum smiled at me. There was a tattoo on his chest which I couldn't quite make out, and he was wearing biker boots. Pretty rather than handsome. The sort of guy who, a year ago, I would have fallen for in an instant.
"Are you from round here?" he asked, closing the distance between us slightly, and I wondered if he was flirting with me. I was in my denim jacket studded with badges, shorts and laddered tights, my short hair recently dyed a lurid shade of scarlet and the metal ring glinting in my nose. I looked a bit edgy, I supposed.
"Ah, no," I said, smiling. "I'm just a visitor. I'm here seeing someone."
"Oh! Seeing the guy who just went to the bar!"
"Your boyfriend, I presume?"
"I hesitate to say boyfriend... he's my... person that I'm dating."
"Ah! So the person you're having sex with, you mean."
"Really? Well. He seems nice. Polite. Said "after you" to me and all."
"Yeah. He's one of the good guys, I think."
We started discussing Alkaline Trio and Reading festival, and moved away from the topic of my relationship. The above exchange lasted maybe a minute at most, but I wondered if he would have made the same comments had I walked in with a girl. If he would have broken into that creepy over-interested schtick, or made a lurid invitation for a threesome, stuff I've dealt with before and become almost resigned to as the associated bullshit of liking ladies.
(My ambiguous manfriend, on account of being a generally decent human being, has never done anything like that. He just accepts me the way I am. He sympathises when I complain about microagressions that he as a straight white cisgender guy has never experienced. He laughs with me while I crack jokes about the rainbow painted over my door - "really, my parents should have known better; I shouldn't come out to them, I should just point at the paintwork" - while knowing I'd be pissed if he made that joke himself. So far, he is definitely a good guy.)
Hetero relationships comes with privilege. I'm mistaken for straight as a side-effect of being in a straight relationship. I've yet to deal with being thrown out of a queer space for being mistaken for an interloper, but it's definitely a fear I have. It's called bisexual erasure - when bisexual people are misidentified as straight (when they date someone of the opposite sex) or gay (when dating someone of the same sex) and somehow shunned by both camps as being capricious, greedy, indecisive.
But - to me - being queer means being able to embrace who you are, contradictory personality aspects and all. I am queer when I am drunk and asking boys to rate my tits (which still makes me cringe when I think about it). I am queer when I am rebuffing advances from straight girls looking to titillate their boyfriends. I am queer when reading about lesbian sex or when kissing The Boy goodnight.
I kind of feel like this is what life is about - finding who you are, coming to love it, working out the words that suit you rather than trying to change to fit into expectations. That's why I'm coming to like the term "queer". It's not as specific or narrow as other words. It's not the whole of my identity, just one of the pieces I'm putting together. It's a puzzle. There are gaps I haven't filled yet. I'm okay with that.