What Is Queer Nation?

For more than 20 years, gay activists campaigned against hate words--and got results. Only the most irremediable bigots continued to use "queer," "dyke" and "faggot." But some members of the choir are now preaching a different message. At gay-rights rallies and marches a militant new chant can be heard. "We're here," it goes, over and over. "We're queer."

Meet Queer Nation, the angriest, nerviest in-your-face gay-rights group since ACT UP disrupted mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in 1989. Former OutWeek editor Michelangelo Signorile and three New York activists founded Queer Nation last year, fed up with ACT UP's focus on AIDS. The idea quickly caught on in other cities. Queer Nation wants to spread the word that gays are tired of being "bashed," literally or otherwise, and aren't going to take it anymore. By co-opting the word "queer," QN claims, they have disarmed homophobes. "Queer Nation makes everybody else look reasonable," says gay San Francisco journalist Randy Shilts.

Queer Nation's priorities and methods vary from city to city-from frolicsome "nights out" to traditional civil disobedience. In the gay meccas of New York and San Francisco, the emphasis has been on increasing gay visibility, and inflammatory issues like outing and bashing established gay-rights organizations. "We don't need them anymore," says activist Michael Petrelis. In Atlanta, Houston, Albuquerque and other cities, Queer Nation focuses on issues affecting local constituencies. Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, a Tennessee-based restaurant chain in the Southeast, fired a dozen gay employees early this year. The front office unapologetically explained that it intended not to employ individuals "whose sexual preferences fail to demonstrate heterosexual values which have been the foundation of families in our society." Cracker Barrel retracted the policy-but didn't rehire the fired gays. Now QN/Atlanta regularly pickets Cracker Barrel, and last Mother's Day group members and their families staged a sit-in at the restaurants.

Other QN groups actually try to change the law. Last January, two men were arrested in Albuquerque on charges of murdering two young homosexual men in their 20s. With the gay community shocked by the murders, leaders of QN/Albuquerque plan to pressure the city government to pass a hate-crimes bill.

But on other occasions, activists stage "actions" that seem to relish confrontation for its own sake. In New York, Queer Nation holds "kiss-ins" in which gay couples invade a straight club and dance together; later, on cue, the couples demonstrate same-sex necking. QN/San Francisco likes to stage "outreach programs" to shopping malls; models parade before suburban shoppers costumed as such homosexual stereotypes as "go-go boys" and "diesel dykes."

In the '90s, lesbians have become an even more powerful force in the gay-rights movement. A third of QN/Houston's 160 members are lesbians, and nearly a quarter of the San Francisco contingent are women. Sometimes, gay concerns dovetail with women's issues. Last spring Queer Nation and other groups stormed the set of a Michael Douglas movie, "Basic Instinct," to demand changes in the script. They protested not only the film's portrayal of lesbians but also a date-rape scene in which the victim ultimately thanks her attacker. (The screenwriter agreed to make changes, but the director and the producer balked.)

Only a year after the birth of Queer Nation, the group is heading for an identity crisis that could break it apart. ACT UP is already splintered, and a similar kind of fractious dialogue is now starting to rumble in some QN chapters: minorities feel neglected; women want to make pro-choice a QN cause. All four founders have backed away from Queer Nation. "No one can stay in the same place too long," says one, Alan Klein. But for the moment, Queer Nation's controversial tactics are altering the way gays see and talk about themselves-and further radicalizing their public image. Whether old-guard gay liberationists like it or not, a fringe group has taken center stage.