After seeing the word “Queer” in a few MTV headlines, someone asked me, “But isn’t ‘queer’ an offensive word?”
For people of older generations, or living in certain parts of the country, their primary exposure to the Q-word is its use as a derogatory slur. (As in “Smear the queer” -- a game that’s apparently still played on playgrounds.)
There’s some disagreement about the origins of the word “queer,” but according to the most popular version of the story, before it was ever used to hate on gays, queer was probably a descendent of the German word “twerk,” which meant “to turn, twist, wind.” (Yes, really - we couldn’t make this up. Queerness and twerking have been intertwined FOREVER.)
From there it likely morphed into “twerh,” which means “oblique,” or slanting (or, literally, ‘not straight’), which evolved into “quer,” which is when it started being used to mean “strange or peculiar” throughout Scotland in the 1500s. The first person known to use “queer” as a gay slur in writing was John Sholto Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry in Scotland -- the same man who initiated author Oscar Wilde’s famous trial for homosexuality. In 1894, he referred to his son’s lover Rosebery (not Oscar Wilde -- that was his other son) as a “snob queer” in a letter.
The word was being used in U.S. newspapers by 1914 mostly to mean “strange,” but also occasionally to suggest homosexuality. By the 1950s, the "strange" usage began to fade, and the word was being used more often as a homophobic slur in the U.S.
In the late 1980s, a group of angry, militant gay people responding to the AIDS crisis and widespread homophobia started calling themselves “Queer Nation.” They handed out leaflets titled “Queers Read This” at New York’s pride march in 1990 that explained how they planned to reclaim the word as their own.
“Ah, do we really have to use that word?” they wrote. “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. That's okay, we like that. But some gay girls and boys don't. They think they're more normal than strange. And for others ‘queer’ conjures up those awful memories of adolescent suffering. Queer. It's forcibly bittersweet and quaint at best --- weakening and painful at worst. Couldn't we just use ‘gay’ instead?”
“Well, yes, ‘gay’ is great,” the Queer Nation writers continued. “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.”
The leaflet also suggested that the words “gay” and “lesbian” made unnecessary divisions within the community. “We use queer as gay men loving lesbians and lesbians loving being queer,” it said. “Queer, unlike GAY, doesn't mean MALE.”
“Yeah, QUEER can be a rough word,” they wrote, “But it is also a sly and ironic weapon we can steal from the homophobe's hands and use against him.”
Not all gays and lesbians had a positive response to the idea, but the movement spread quickly, with new chapters of Queer Nation popping up all over the country. The groups fought aggressively to make the LGBT community more visible in mainstream culture, launching the now-notorious chant, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.”
In 1991, the term “Queer theory” started being used in academia, and since then the word has gradually found its way back into popular culture with its new, positive connotation. The “New Queer Cinema” emerged as a name for LGBT-themed independent filmmaking in the early 90s, and “Queer” film and arts festivals started cropping up around the world. In 1999 “Queer as Folk” debuted in the U.K. (and then in the U.S. in 2000), and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” introduced Ted Allen to American living rooms in 2003.
For some in the LGBT community, the use of the word “Queer” still feels hurtful. In 2013, ABC News published an article titled, “Gay Man Says Millennial Term ‘Queer’ Is Like The ‘N’ Word.” The man covered by the article was in his sixties, and remembered being thrown out of his apartment and losing a job because he was gay. He was so offended when “Queer” was offered as a gender identity on a job application at Colorado College, he filed a formal complaint with the state of Colorado.
As a result of the lingering hurt felt by some members of the community, LGBT groups and individuals that embrace “Queer” sometimes still feel the need to explain or justify their use of the word. In a story for the Huffington Post, “Here is Why I Use the Word ‘Queer,'" author Jenny Block wrote, “‘Queer’ is the most inclusive word that we have; ‘LGBT’ leaves out some of our family. Sure, we could add more letters, but it's cumbersome as it is. Why not utilize a word that already exists and is used in pop culture, even in the most mainstream television programming, like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy?”
“Queer” can also be applied to gender. Ruby Rose has very publicly discussed the fluidity of her gender, Miley Cyrus recently made the LGBTQ community proud when she effectively came out as “Genderqueer” by announcing, “I don’t relate to being a boy or girl, and I don’t have to have my partner relate to boy or girl.” For many people, their gender falls somewhere along a spectrum rather than into firm categories, and it can be helpful to have a term that describes an experience and expression of gender that doesn’t follow traditional, “straight and narrow” rules of male and female.
“Queer" is often used within LGBT communities as an umbrella term for anyone non-heterosexual or non-gender-conforming. "Queer" can be a particularly appealing one because it doesn't necessarily tell people anything about the genders of people you like to date (or your own gender, for that matter), but it does let people know that you are something other than heterosexual.
Words are powerful. And as with just about any word, if “Queer” is directed at an LGBT individual by someone outside the community with negative intentions, it could of course still be perceived as hurtful. But for those of us within the community, it offers one more option for the bright, beautiful rainbow of labels we can use to describe our experience in the world and connect with like-minded friends.
For more information about sexuality and gender, visit LookDifferent.