(Because my blog is usually suitable for all ages, I’m putting a disclaimer here that some of this post involves adult content involving some slurs and other strong language, so reader discretion is advised.)
It was brought to my attention that when I wrote my blog post on sex, gender, and orientation, I neglected to provide a good definition of the word “Queer” so I hope to correct that here.
The first time I heard the word, it was watching Lewis Black’s comedy routine.
“In the midst of all of our problems, that was the most important thing to him. We have no energy policy, you know?… We’ve got an educational system that’s in the shitter, we’ve got a war going on. There’s one thing after another. And what did our president think was important? Queers! That’s what’s important. Somehow, if we could just stop the gays from getting married, everything else would turn out just fine”
He went on to say that he believed the gay community would need champions in congress and the white house to be integrated into society at large. He criticized Santorum for his homophobic, prejudiced statements, which lead into a hypothetical of how imaginary gay people might, as Santorum suggests, threaten American families. In this story, maybe taking on a sarcastic prejudiced voice, or maybe using the word he knew, he calls them: “these queers.”
This routine came out in 2006, so I probably watched it when I was thirteen or fourteen years old. Lewis Black, obviously, usually takes liberal views, and in his act he stated clearly that he viewed gay people as deserving acceptance like any other group and criticized homophobia. But while I watched it, I felt strange when he used the word “queers.” I knew it was a slur, even though I hadn’t heard it before. And I knew just what it meant.
In this context, it was referring to gay men specifically. Lesbians were never even implied in the routine, and certainly not bisexuals or pansexuals of any gender. “Queers” were a sharp way of calling gay men other.
And this is where the word “queer” begins— as a slur, a derogatory word. Queer means strange, odd, and implies feelings of unease. It was used as a verb meaning to spoil or ruin. To label someone as “queer” is to label them as the ultimate other.
In the twentieth century it became widely used in prejudiced language towards gay men and grew strong connotations with “sexual deviancy” and effeminate behavior. It was a word of nastiness thrown at many men who were or who were suspected of being gay. In some areas it was used even more frequently than “faggot.” It was a word that was accompanied by physical and psychological pain.
When the LGBT community began to gain movement, the term began to become reappropriated. For those of you who don’t know what reappropriation means, I find it useful to compare it to Tyrion’s quote from Game of Thrones.
“Let me give you some advice, bastard: Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.”
The idea is that a group can claim a word that has been used against them and wear it with pride. If they do that, they can bring all their positive connotations and life experiences to the word, and it can absorb them, soften, and eventually the meaning will become so complex that the word will have less power to hurt.
(Reappropriation only works if the group themselves take on the word. You can’t force a group into accepting a slur onto themselves, and if you use a word in an insensitive way, it’s still prejudiced and harmful no matter how many meanings the word has taken on.)
In the 1980s and 1990s, for some “queer” meant not forgetting how others thought of them, and wearing it as a shield. For others it meant “mysterious” and they embraced being “different” and “other.” For many it represented a unity and camaraderie between all identities in the community, regardless of gender. It was a way to take power back.
The definition continued to shift through its use in academia. Queer Studies became a field of study alongside Women’s Studies, and in this case the word was used for its meaning as an umbrella term. Previously known as Lesbian and Gay Studies, the field’s name would need to expand to include the new terminology including Bisexual and Transgender. Instead, “queer” allowed the name to be both concise and inclusive.
From this arose the post-structuralist Queer Theory in the 1990s which dealt with queer identity and mismatches between sex and gender and between gender and attraction. In this context, the word “queer” took on connotations of an identity which was comprised of many, many different aspects of self, perception, behavior, and desires. A “queer” identity was a complex one, not easily categorized.
Also around this time, the word “genderqueer” came into being. This word was chosen by the community, or by those representing and writing on it at the time, to represent all those who had a gender identity or gender expression that was neither exclusively female and feminine nor exclusively male or masculine. Like queer, the word genderqueer was used for its inclusivity and its ability to bring together a large group of identities.
The term “queer” also began to be used by individuals as a distinct identity separate from “gay” or “lesbian” for a variety of reasons. For some, it was a rejection of identity politics requiring everything to have a concrete label. For some it represented their view of how they embraced that part of themselves (they didn’t want a “normal” heteronormative life with marriage and kids, they wanted their own culture and life choices to be respected. The right to be different rather than the right to be treated as the same.)
Still others took on the term because none of the other identity labels seemed to fit. After a certain point, the LGBT+ community engrained certain political ideas (“We were born this way. We’ve known our whole lives. Orientation can’t change.”) that well represented some members of the community and excluded completely the experiences of others.
Some people experienced more fluid sexuality that changed over time. Some had romantic and sexual orientations that directly conflicted with each other. Some had exceptions to the ‘rule’ in terms of their attractions. There were people who identified as gay or straight until their partners came out as trans. Others were at a lack of words for explaining their attraction to some genders instead of one gender or all genders.
Those who didn’t fit those ideas perfectly didn’t feel the established labels fit, so they took on the term “queer” to mean “I’m a part of your community, but my experience doesn’t strictly fit that of gay, bisexual, or pansexual people.”
By the late 2000s, the word ‘queer’ had taken on enough connotations to not be seen as radical or offensive in some areas. The word was adopted into the acronym (LGBTQ) in the majority of communities representing gender and sexual minorities.
Today the word can be used in a variety of contexts.
A homophobic slur to refer to non-heteronormative people of all sorts, but especially gay men.
A reappropriated term claimed by minorities of sexuality and gender used to represent pride in their identity.
A field of study in academia relating to sexuality and gender.
A catch-all term for anyone included in the LGBT+ community.
A descriptive term (Queer issues, Queer politics, etc.) for any issue relating to the LGBT+ community.
In the term “genderqueer” to mean anyone who is neither completely male nor completely female.
An identity relating to political views of some members of the LGBT+ community.
An identity relating to opposing strictly defined labels within the LGBT+ community.
An identity chosen by some because their experience with orientation and/or gender doesn’t fit cleanly with any other currently existing label.
A term that is intended to be inclusive of all non-heteronormative and non-cisnormative people. A term that is malleable enough to be defined by the individual who uses it.
Many people, like myself, have been exposed to the positive connotations of the word much more often than the negative connotation. Very friendly people, places, and classrooms have introduced me to the comforting complexity and inclusive nature of the word, and I frequently find myself feeling quite comfortable with the term.
However, my experience does not reflect all experiences. If you decide to use the word, especially those of you who (like myself) are young and for whom this has been a history lesson rather than an experienced reality, remember to respect its history and its power. Use it with care and tact.
If you are someone who is thinking of using the word as a label to describe your experience in terms of sexuality or gender, think about why you’re choosing it and in what contexts you use it. If you are in an area or among a group who associates the word with bullying, abuse, harassment, or discrimination, consider substituting other words while in their company or being respectful when explaining its meaning in your own life.
If you are someone who is trying to decide whether or not to use the word to describe someone else, ask that person. If the person in question says it’s alright to use or specifically asks you to use that word when referring to them, consider phrasing it not as “My friend’s queer” but as “My friend identifies as queer.”
Above all, be respectful, be respectful, be respectful.