Over the weekend, the New York gubernatorial candidate, who has been married to a woman since 2012 but was previously partnered to a man, told the Daily News through a spokesperson that she identifies as “queer,” not as a lesbian, refusing to clarify further.
When the Daily News asked why Nixon prefers the term “queer” over, say, “lesbian” or “bisexual,” campaign spokesperson Lauren Hitt delivered this deliciously evasive two-word response: “It’s personal.”
Rarely has the spirit of queerness been embodied more concisely, and by such a high-profile figure to boot: The term “queer,” when used as a marker of personal identity—and not, say, as a strictly political reclamation of a pejorative term for LGBT people à la the activist group Queer Nation in the 1990s—is about resisting easy definitions.
In 2018, 'queer' has moved from its '90s use as a political and cultural identification to a more personal descriptor of gender and sexual identity.
“Queer” is a one-syllable way to say that the specifics of one’s romantic and sexual attractions are less important than the mere fact that they lie outside the norm.
Some consider “queer” to be an umbrella term for a broad range of sexual and gender identities—one can be both lesbian and queer, for example, or simultaneously bisexual and queer—and others, as Nixon appears to have done, use the word as its own indefinable descriptor: as a shorthand for “none of your business.”
For a press that has always wanted to define Nixon’s sexual orientation—and that hasn’t yet fully accustomed itself to the use of “queer” as something other than an insult—the candidate’s self-labeling as “queer” is almost certain to prove perplexing. But Nixon has always resisted categorization.
Take, for instance, the actress’ 2012 interview with this very publication in which she appeared to include herself in the bisexual community, saying, “Everybody likes to dump on the bisexuals,” and then adding shortly after that “we get no respect.”
“You just said ‘we,’ so you must self-identify as one,” The Daily Beast said at the time.
But then Nixon complicated the formula: “I just don’t like to pull out that word. But I do completely feel that when I was in relationships with men, I was in love and in lust with those men. And then I met Christine [Marinoni] and I fell in love and lust with her.”
That same year, she told the Advocate in a statement, “While I don’t often use the word, the technically precise term for my orientation is bisexual.”
That statement followed a minor hullabaloo over the fact that Nixon had issued comments to the New York Times about the issue of nature vs. nurture, implying that there was an element of “choice” to her “gayness” but that that shouldn’t make it “any less legitimate.”
Again, Nixon took an often black-and-white issue—in this case, nature versus nature—and refused to pick a side.
But because Nixon dated and eventually married Marinoni, many assumed she was simply a lesbian—to the point, as Vox writer Caroline Framke observed, that when the former Sex and the City actress announced her candidacy in March, major outlets like the New York Times and the Guardian referred to her as “openly gay.”
Already, it’s apparent that Nixon’s identification as “queer” will require the mainstream press to present a larger historical context for the term. In its brief queer primer, the Daily News focused mostly on the fact that the use of the term was once “controversial” and “used in a derogatory fashion,” citing one newer definition of the term from the group Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
That’s a pretty good start, but as more and more public figures stake out the label “queer,” the public will need more information about what, exactly, that means—and how it came to mean what it means.
From a historical perspective, we’ve been headed to precisely this juncture for nearly thirty years, since at least the 1990s.
It was then that radical LGBT activists used the term “queer” in a powerful reversal of its status as a hurtful slur—and that academics like Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Michael Warner penned articles and books about identity and sexuality that are now recognized as the founding texts of “queer theory.”
Since then, the term has continued to be reclaimed on a more popular level, sometimes politically (“We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it”) and often playfully, as seen in the title of the popular makeover reality series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
Meanwhile, the use of terms like “queer” as a rejection of the way in which more conventional labels like “gay” or “lesbian” can reduce or flatten the complexity of one’s identity has had an undeniable impact on an entire generation of young Americans.
As the LGBT advocacy group GLAAD noted after reviewing the results of a 2017 survey, “older generations of LGBTQ people (people ages 35+) largely use the words ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian,’” whereas millennials “appear more likely to identify in terminology that falls outside those previously traditional binaries.”
At age 52, Nixon is no millennial—but that’s precisely why her use of the term “queer” could force the press to take that label more seriously, more quickly.
In a media environment that too often dismisses or glosses over the complexity of millennial self-identification as mere “fluidity,” perhaps someone in Nixon’s position—as a candidate for governor of the fourth most populous state in America—can prompt more media outlets to consider how and when to use the Q-word.
The day when the language used by legacy media starts to reflect the language used by young LGBT people has been a long time coming.
For example, it wasn’t until last year, as South Florida Gay News observed, that the Associated Press made the abbreviation LGBTQ “acceptable in all references” and began accepting some uses of the gender-neutral singular pronoun “they.”
It is still common—as this openly queer reporter previously observed—for outlets like the New York Times to use phrases like “gay rights” to describe issues affecting a wide range of people whose sexual orientations and gender identities cannot begin to be described by that term, even as smaller digital-first organizations prove flexible in their use of language.
From now on, writing about the gubernatorial candidate will be a litmus test for whether media outlets care more about conforming to a stylebook than they do about respecting someone’s deeply personal sense of themselves. The Times called Nixon “openly gay” as recently as late July. She has now made it clear that she’s “queer.”
Let’s see who puts that to print—and who keeps calling her “gay.”