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Manhattan paralegal Christopher Barton Benecke describes himself as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender, which to his way of thinking all adds up to “queer.” But the state of New York doesn’t much like the word “queer,” and while it apparently could care less how Benecke characterizes himself, it will not allow him to incorporate his not-for-profit advocacy group under the name “Queer Awareness.” New York state claims the title is indecent and degrading and barred under �301 of the Not-for-Profit Corporation Law, which restricts language deemed by the government to be obscene or intended to ridicule. Benecke insists the term is neither indecent nor obscene, nor is it intended to mock the very people he yearns to help. Rather, he says, the word is merely a self-descriptive term, and a uniquely accurate one at that. The stalemate is apparently headed to state Supreme Court, where Benecke advances a First Amendment legal argument. But the debate implicates more than the free speech rights of a 24-year-old sexual chameleon from Greenwich Village. Rather, it touches on more arcane and nuanced questions, such as the power of language as both a sword and a shield, and the way in which a powerful adjective can be reclaimed and disarmed of its painful potency by the very targets of its toxins — not unlike the way a virus is used as a vaccine against the same disease it causes. Benecke’s battle with Albany began when he decided to start an advocacy group to “promote a healthy image of nonheterosexual people through tasteful advertisements and other media in order to ameliorate prejudice.” He settled on what he thought was an appropriate title: “Queer Awareness.” Benecke considered lots of other names for his organization, but nothing clicked. “Gay Awareness” won’t work because the group is geared toward more than just homosexual men. “Lesbian and Gay Awareness” shortchanges bisexuals. “Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Transvestite Awareness Inc.” is a mouthful, and then some. And “Nonheterosexual Awareness,” though technically accurate, isn’t exactly catchy. Besides, Benecke doesn’t want to define himself and his group in the negative. “The word ‘queer’ needs to be in there because it is not just gay or lesbian,” insists Benecke, who is pursuing a master’s degree in gender politics at New York University and working part-time as a paralegal at Levy & Halperin, which is representing him in this matter. “Queer is all-encompassing. I use it to identify myself. I don’t find it offensive at all.” STATE RESISTS New York state, however, finds the word offensive. When Benecke attempted to register his organization with the Department of State he was promptly rebuffed. That sparked a series of letters between Benecke and Daniel E. Shapiro, director of Corporations, State Records and Uniform Commercial Code for the Department of State. Their letters read more like a cerebral discussion between lexicologists than a tit-for-tat between a bureaucrat and a burgher. Benecke fully acknowledges that the word “queer” had been exploited as a pejorative slur, but he notes that “language flows much like a body of water, always changing and riddled with crosscurrents.” “Queer,” Benecke maintains, is a term in the process of “reclamation,” a word appropriated and undergoing semantic rehabilitation by the nonheterosexual community. Ironically, Benecke said in one of his letters to Shapiro, the state is only perpetuating the venomous use of the word by frustrating its natural progression. “In prohibiting the use of the word ‘queer’ to protect New York’s citizens from being offended by it, the state only prolongs and promotes the negative implications that the state finds so offensive,” Benecke said in a letter. There is little doubt that the use of the word “queer” is prevalent and its meaning is shifting. A Google search on the Internet for the terms “queer” and “New York” yielded 296,000 hits, including a State University of New York course on “Queer Performances.” In addition, New York recently approved a limited liability company called “Queerforpeace.” But in the state’s view, while “queer” may some day enter the lexicon of polite society, it’s not there yet. Shapiro, while complimenting Benecke on his “thoughtful appeal,” maintains that the reclamation process has not proceeded to the point where New York state can put its imprimatur on such a loaded word. “While I appreciate your argument that the public perception and understanding of the word ‘queer’ is changing, it is nevertheless my opinion that the word still connotes hostility and is used by many people in a pejorative manner,” Shapiro wrote. “Your own argument of reclamation concedes this as true: the process of reclamation requires a subject.” Benecke’s battle is similar to one fought and won back in 1972, when the Appellate Division, 3rd Department, said the state wrongly refused to incorporate the Gay Activists because it considered the word “gay” inappropriate. Presiding Justice J. Clarence Herlihy, writing for the unanimous court in Gay Activists Alliance v. Lomenzo, found “no valid reason” for the state’s action. “The word ‘gay’ is not a word proscribed by statute from use in the title of a proposed corporation,” Herlihy wrote in an opinion affirmed by the Court of Appeals per curiam (31 NY2d 965). “Neither is it obscene or vulgar, even though it is considered synonymous with homosexual.” FIRST AMENDMENT Attorney Keith Halperin, who is representing Benecke on his Article 78 petition, views the matter mainly through a First Amendment lens and maintains that New York has no business regulating the content of speech and making a value judgment on whether “queer” is a good word or a bad word. “If you wanted to start a corporation that said ‘We Love the Governor’s Office,’ you could,” Halperin said in an interview. “But if you wanted to start one that said, ‘We Hate the Governor’s Office,’ you couldn’t. The statute limits speech based on content.” Halperin observes that the word “colored” is still considered by many an inappropriate description of blacks, but it is used prominently and proudly by the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He wonders whether the state, were the issue to arise today, would allow the NAACP to incorporate under that name. “The irony is in attempting to protect a class of New York residents, the state is actually hurting that class,” Halperin said. “Chris is saying, ‘Let me use this word because in using it we are taking it back and taking the power away from the people who would use it in a hurtful way,’ and the state is trying to stop that.” Peter Constantakes, a spokesman for the State Department, said the state has not yet decided how it will respond to the lawsuit, and declined further comment. The matter had been slated for a Dec. 5 court date, but the state has requested a one-month adjournment.

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