In recent years, the word Queer has become a popular term again. The LGBTQ community uses it as a bridge term for those that do not identify as any of the other alphabet. It also seems to be a word that is triggering for a lot of people. The question is why are there such strong opinions about this word?
Origins of “Queer”
The word queer entered the English language somewhere around the 16th century. Those meanings revolved around strange, peculiar, unwell, or not quite right. It was also used to refer to a person that had a mild derangement or exhibited socially inappropriate behaviors. There is an Northern English saying that goes “there’s nowt so queer as folk,” which means there is nothing so strange as people.
Somewhere around the 19th century, queer started to take on a connotation of sexual deviance. The earliest usage of it in this context was in an 1894 letter by John Shelton Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry. In his letter, the word inferred someone of a feminine nature or engaging in same sex relationships.
By the 20th century is was mainstreamed in society and because synonymous with fairy and faggot. When referring to men, it indicated that they were of a flamboyant nature. Historian George Chauncey showed this when he said that the meaning was “the predominant image of all queers within the straight mind.” By the 70’s, gay had replaced queer, which at the time was the big umbrella term for LGBTQ folx. It was at this time that queer took another turn in meaning. It came to refer to men who were more passive in their sexual natures, being the receivers of anal sex and performers of oral sex.
During the 20th century, the words queer, fairy, trade, and gay became descriptors of social categories among gay men. Fairy referred to the more flamboyant men and considered the bottom of the “manly” category. Trade was “straight men” who engaged in same sex practices . And queer, used by gay men, referred to a normal acting masculine status. It differentiated between them and those called “fairies.” In contrast, the science community and heterosexuals used terms like homosexual and pervert as descriptors for anyone engaging in same sex relations. During the 40s, even gay men starting making fun of older gay men who identified as queer.
By its very nature, Queer was an insult.
Taking back the Queer
The 1980s marked a time in gay history where many activists groups sprang up. This was an uprising to get our rights and freedoms and as a way to shed light onto the AIDS epidemic in the United States. Many of these groups started using Queer as a word to express how they felt when fed up with the system forced upon them on a daily basis.
March 1990 saw the birth of the group Queer Nation, an LGBT group focused on fighting for LGBTQ rights. In June 1990, they circulated a flier at the New York Gay Pride Parade titled “Queers Read This.” In this flier was a passage that stated the need of reclaiming the queer label.
“Ah, do we really have to use that word? It’s trouble. Every gay person has his or her own take on it. For some it means strange and eccentric and kind of mysterious. And for others “queer” conjures up those awful memories of adolescent suffering. Well, yes, “gay” is great. It has its place. But when a lot of lesbians and gay men wake up in the morning we feel angry and disgusted, not gay. So we’ve chosen to call ourselves queer. Using “queer” is a way of reminding us how we are perceived by the rest of the world.”“Queers Read This” – Queer Nation
No one gay group adopted it more than queer people of color. Many felt that the queer community was progressing to a more liberal conservatism mindset instead of fighting against assimilation. The driving force behind this argument were things like marriage, military inclusion, and adoption. These were part of straight culture and many viewed them as contrary to our very natures, as activists.
Why is Queer a trigger word
Trying to take back the word Queer has caused opposition from LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ folx, alike. For the LGBTQ community, many feel that the word is too like the political radicals and has played a role in dividing the LGBTQ community by political opinions, class, gender, age and other factors. This divide is further widened by those that feel that it marks a social and political divide between those that consider themselves “normal” or ordinary members of society and those that see themselves as separate, confrontational, and not part of the ordinary social order.. This line also falls along cisgendered Caucasian members of the LGBTQ community. There are also those LGBTQ people who perceive the word as offensive or self-deprecating because heterosexual still use it as a slur.
There is a small group of straight people upset that LGBTQ people want to only use queer for themselves. They feel that it should include a non-normative sexuality. They opt to being called queer heterosexuals. This usage is for those that feel they do not fit in with everything that is heterosexual. Many perceive it as a fad or fashionable. LGBTQ people feel that it is appropriation, due to the fact that these are people who haven’t been oppressed or experienced prejudice for who they are. Since being straight affords them the ability to blend in with the masses.
So many of us have grown up with words like queer, fag, faggot, and more as the biggest slurs, that, now, accepting it as a descriptor seems out of place. How do you take years of usage for hatred and want to spin that to a positive manner. This is similar to using a specific word to classify someone of a different color. While it isn’t the exact same, there are similar feelings in it’s usage. This leads many to not want to use that word in association to the LGBTQ community. Reclaiming it for a positive use builds off the old saying, “words only have power if you let them.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t diminish the negativity behind words like that.
What we need to take away from this is that words are tools used in day to day life. It’s the feelings and actions of those words that we need to change.
Queer in modern times
Let’s face it, we hate labels and fight against being put into boxes that use those labels to classify us. The truth is labels help us to put things into context. Even in our own communities we have various labels to identify people. Lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender are prime examples. The only group that doesn’t have a unique descriptor are gay men. Remember that gay has always been an umbrella term for the entire LGBTQ community, much like queer is now.
Using queer allows us to refer to the community, as a whole, regardless of where they would fit into the sexual identity or gender presenting spectrum. It allows us to appear as a single unifying body. It can also identify those that feel they don’t fit any other, specific, category.
Labels translate to identities and it is those identities that allow us to let others know who and what we are. That is why queer is so impactful. While it has been used as a slur by so many, it also gave a voice for those who felt they lived more outside of what society mandates them to be. It is a freeing word that allows us to have power in who or what we are or how we choose to present to others.
With sexuality being such a diverse spectrum it is nice to be able to use a term that adequately describes, to us, our differences. Take for example someone who may identify as bisexual, homoromantic, someone attracted to all genders but only has romantic feelings in gay relationships. Here, queer is a much better descriptor for everyday usage. It is a term that many can understand as being different.
Don’t let it trigger you
Queer conjures up all kinds of images, good and bad. At the end of the day it is another label that we use to make sense of our world. We can talk about not letting it have negative power to control us, the truth is that it only works until someone uses it towards us in a negative fashion. Then the darker side of that word rears its ugly head to pull at that trigger response. Its less about if the word is right for others and more about if it is right for you. If using queer as a label doesn’t fit you, that is okay and you have every right to not use it. Remember there are those of us who use it and like how it is all encompassing. Allow us to have that same privilege to use it as you do for not using it. After all, at the end of the day… it is only a word.