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Trying to Queer Things Up a Little

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Since his Seattle grunge days teaming with eventual Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder in the early 1990s as a member of the band Temple of the Dog, rock vocalist Chris Cornell, who has also fronted for Soundgarden and Audioslave, has been one of my favorite lead vocalists.

As many people have already seen, Mr. Cornell remained true to his vocal roots in playing a remarkably honest tribute to the late Whitney Houston, singing Ms. Houston's famous cover of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" last week.

Beyond Mr. Cornell's respecting Ms. Houston, who was viewed as an icon for many in the queer community, The Huffington Post, The Advocate, and Perez Hilton, among others, have reported that Mr. Cornell recently lashed out at someone who disparagingly called a man (who had made statements supportive of President Obama) "queer" and defended the person who received the reportedly insulting language.

In nearly every one of my columns here, at least one reader has demonstrated a problem with my use of the word "queer." Sometimes multiple people have posted objections in the comments to the same article, despite my or others having already addressed the word's usage.

So, please allow me to make a couple of points.

First, I use the term "queer" as an umbrella term. Calling this section of The Huffington Post "Gay Voices" (or even including the other sections of "Lesbian," "Bisexual," and "Transgender") can be demeaning and marginalizing to a number of sexual minorities. People who self-identify (or are identified by others) as lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, pansexual, transgender, genderqueer, intersex, non-cisgender, non-cissexual, and others, don't necessarily fall under these terms. I generally write regarding laws and societal regulations that impact many queer people, not just gay men. But when a law or judicial opinion tends to impact gay people specifically, I attempt to employ that term.

Second, "queer" is a term that has been used and embraced in generally non-negative ways by various pop cultural outlets, including the 1995 Billboard-charted song "Queer" by the band Garbage, the NBC television show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and the cable-TV show Queer As Folk serving as a few examples.

Third, I write my Huffington Post columns in my position as a law professor. As a law student, I learned "gay rights" law directly from the woman credited with creating the area as its own unique academic discipline, Professor Rhonda R. Rivera. On the first day of class, the first thing Professor Rivera wrote on the board was not "Sexual Orientation Law," as listed in the course guide, but her preferred term, "Queer Law."

But beyond that class in the mid-1990s, the term "queer" is seen throughout academia and across the United States, not just in the "blue" states or "liberal elite" schools. From Virginia Commonwealth to SUNY Buffalo to Indiana University and its in-state rival, Purdue University, to Ohio's Denison University to the University of Nebraska and the University of Kentucky, from Northern Arizona to DePaul University (a Catholic institution) and Wesleyen, Yale, and Harvard University, each school has queer studies departments, majors, minors, certificates, or student groups.

And speaking of both Harvard and using potentially offensive terms in arguable ways, I'm an alumnus who attended the school while Jeremy Lin played for the Crimson, long before the current Linsanity swept New York and the nation. Yet in the past week, as the Linsanity has grown to the point of Lin's involving intellectual property law, two media personalities in the ESPN family got fired or suspended for using a historically anti-Asian slur. However, Jeremy Lin himself in the past (albeit while a kid) embraced that same slur, according to CBSsports.com, by referring to himself as "ChinkBalla88" on his Xanga page several years ago, which also made some questionable comments about others.

The bottom line for me is that the person who employs a potentially offensive term, the manner in which that person employs that term, and the power differential between that person and the recipient of the term are important items to consider before having a knee-jerk reaction to one's hearing or reading that term. As demonstrated above, the use of "queer" probably shouldn't shock or offend reasonable people when the speaker intentionally employs the term in a manner not meant to shock, offend, or imply a power differential between the speaker (writer) and the listener (reader).

From what's being reported, however, the recipient of Chris Cornell's anger had used the term "queer" to denigrate, using the word in its historically bigoted way. Assuming that the reporting of the incident is accurate, I commend Chris Cornell for verbally responding to someone's pejorative and intimidating use of what can be an offensive term. Lexicon, however, doesn't exist in a vacuum, and I hope that the foregoing column demonstrated that the importance of context in diction is crystal queer.