Students around campus are sporting T-shirts that declare, “Color Me Queer” as part of a new campaign from the student organization Pride.
Older generations may flinch at the use of the word “queer,” uncomfortably shuffling it into a category of forbidden terms. Yet that discomfort is just the thing to kick off conversations, say Pride students.
“You need to be uncomfortable to be able to grow,” said Pride student Mary Dougherty. “We felt the word ‘queer’ would help challenge ISU, because it is a word in the process of being reclaimed, and still has that stigma.”
At a recent Pride board meeting, students gathered at the LGBT Queer Studies Institute on Main Street – nicknamed “The Institute” – to discuss the Color Me Queer campaign.
Past the room filled with hard-to-get resources for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBTQ) community, a small band of students sat at a table tucked in with a kitchen. “We are so happy to have The Institute. We used to be housed in the Women’s and Gender Studies closet,” said Pride advisor Danny Mathews of Diversity Advocacy. “And yes, we embrace the joke that we are glad to be ‘out of the closet.’”
Pride generally holds an annual campaign in conjunction with National Ally Night. T-shirts traditionally accompanying the campaign centered around the line “Gay? Fine by Me.”
“This year I challenged the executive board to think critically about what was being conveyed around that old messaging, and if that was representative of their organization and the community,” said Mathews.
The board quickly agreed to look for a new direction. “Gay has outgrown itself as a term,” said Pride member Paul Najarro. “Gay is no longer a good umbrella term, and not very representative for our ISU community. We decided to recapture the term ‘queer’ and repurpose it.”
Embracing terms that were once thought derogatory is part of the evolution of language, said Professor of Communication John Baldwin, who noted that all labels change over time. “When words are used against a group as weapons, it can be one strategy for group members to take that weapon back, fill it with new meaning, and use this among themselves,” said Baldwin, who teaches the classes in the psychology of language and the theories of identity at Illinois State.
Baldwin sees “reclaiming” derogatory terms as a shift in power. “The whole idea is taking that term used by a dominant group to put down black culture or LGBT culture, and recapturing them, stealing the power of those words from the dominant group.”
The goal of the Color Me Queer T-shirts is part of a larger campaign to create a discourse on LGBT issues. “We intentionally wanted a term that would make people ask questions, and get them interested. ‘Why queer? Why are you doing this?’” said Pride President Katie Schuette. “This is one way to help us get the word out.”
The board also worked to create Color Me Queer posters that discuss the recapturing of the word queer. Reactions to both the shirts and the posters have been positive, say students.
“I work at Potbelly’s and they allowed me to put up a poster,” said Najarro. “I’m sure people are wondering why there is a Color Me Queer poster in Potbelly’s, but people take the time to look at it. So it is getting the message out.”
Mathews pointed out that the Color Me Queer campaign underscores a holistic conversation happening on campus that includes the recent MBGLTACC Conference, the introduction of the course Introduction to LGBT/Queer Studies, and the possible development of a queer studies minor and graduate certificate through the Women’s and Gender Studies Program.
“There is a buzz happening right now around queerness, queer theory and the academy,” said Mathews. “We’ve had conversations with different faculty on campus about how to incorporate LGBT and queer studies into their curriculum.”
That buzz is extending beyond campus. At the recent MBGLTACC Conference, students asked to take the language from Color Me Queer to other universities around the Midwest. “Now they can model their conversations around this campaign,” said Najarro. “That will hopefully create a positive change on other campuses.”
Color Me Queer T-shirts will be available at the Day of Silence event on Friday, April 17. (Link to day of Silence story.) For additional information on the Color Me Queer campaign, contact Mathews at firstname.lastname@example.org.