The first place we visited was Portland, Maine. We were 19 years old and completely broke, but eager to explore a new city together. We talked excitedly about the trip for weeks, imagining walks through the narrow streets under an overcast sky, sharing coffee and cigarettes and marveling at the bright, cold ocean around us. By the time we boarded the bus, we realized we’d forgotten half of the things we needed. The one thing we couldn’t forget, however, was the pressure to decide whether we’d let our Airbnb host know we were a couple when we arrived.
It’s been over three years since then, but we still have that same conversation every time we travel together. In places like West Virginia and Budapest, the answer has been a definitive no. But even in those cases, my broad-shouldered, masculine girlfriend tends to draw attention, and so we can never really let our guard down. At the end of the day, the fear of judgment or prejudice from the stranger whose house we’re occupying is stronger than the charms of even the most relaxing or distracting locale.
In the New York Times on Sunday, the author of “Is There Something Odd About Being Single?” begins her piece by equating feeling situationally awkward about being single with “feeling queer.” I originally thought she was using an outdated version of the word uncomfortable, but her point is made clear when she says, in reference to a friend worried about running for office as a single divorcee, “There was something queer about being single: queer in the sense of ‘strange,’ yes, but also in the sense that connotes a threat to the conventions around which most people arrange their lives.”
It’s true that queerness is generally thought of as going against the status quo and can take a multitude of forms. It can reference someone’s sexuality, gender identity, gender presentation, and even alternative dating structures, like polyamory. In my own life, queerness comes in the form of an open, homosexual relationship, and the understanding that the gender presentation of both me and my partner will be flexible without question and with celebration.
What queerness doesn’t mean is that you feel slighted by your friends failing to invite you over for dinner because you’re single. Or your singleness not being acknowledged at a work meeting. Or your projected fear that you’re being judged by strangers for simply camping alone. Or feeling alienated at events populated by couples. The author cites these examples as if they are equivalent to the experience of being a sexual or gender minority—but, it’s important to note, that not once does she reference feeling unsafe in these situations. That’s because she’s not unsafe for being single. Queer people still very much are.
I recently drove from Washington, D.C., to visit my parents in rural North Carolina. Most of the drive winds through the Blue Ridge Mountains, where football game day is a holiday and looking like your neighbors is essential to being trusted. The first time I stopped to refuel on Route 81, I forgot to take out my eyebrow ring—a sure mark of gayness in rural America. When I walked into the gas station in backcountry Virginia, I felt gazes burning hot, following me throughout the store as I went about my business, meeting me with unmistakable hostility. Heads turned, white-haired men looked at each other and grimaced. The cashier did not respond when I greeted her. My entire body was filled with dread, and I hurried out without going to the bathroom though I desperately needed to. I anxiously checked my rearview mirror for miles, worried that I would be tracked down and punished for being a lesbian alone and in the middle of nowhere. A single person would have no reason to feel this way; given our history, queer people absolutely do.
Unlike the Times author, queer people are not worried that our unconventional identities will be the source of gossip or judgment: We have grown up to assume that people will whisper about us no matter what we do. Our real fear is that our identities will be the reason for our or our loved ones’ death. And my experiences, though often uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous, are nothing compared to the ones that other queer people, particularly queer people of color, have to endure. But I’ll let other folks tell their own stories.
When I was a 16-year-old who had recently been forced out of the closet at an aggressively Southern Baptist high school, one of my classmates posted a Facebook status saying, “gays should hang.” The post was liked over 50 times, and one of my teachers even commented “LOL you crack me up.” I called him out for it online, shaking with anger as I typed out a response. The “resolution” of the situation was everyone other than me playing it down as “just a joke.”
To me, the point here is not to argue over whether singles face any discrimination at all (in our couple-centric culture, they must), but simply to affirm that language is an essential part of the human experience. Those with access and privilege still control the mainstream conversation, which is why we must fight any attempt to water down the reclaimed language of marginalized people—particularly if it comes in the form of a widely read New York Times column. As the author explores the sometimes uncertain, exhilarating, enlightening experience of singledom, I hope she takes the time to consider the experiences of the individuals living beside her, struggling to find their own happiness in a world that not only misunderstands, but often actively hates.
These days, attacks on marginalized communities are coming from the White House and the alt-right all the time. It is essential to let marginalized folks find power in the terms that have historically been hurled against us. After decades of its use as a tool of intimidation and humiliation, the LGBTQ community has finally reclaimed the word queer as something personal, something beautiful, something to be strengthened and explored. Queer is ours and describes our experience in this world. We’re not going to let it go anytime soon. And we shouldn’t be asked to.