The Forgotten Letter on the Spectrum, part two: Q(ueer)
By: Julia Connell
Queer is the story of love and hate.
Queer is the story of reclaiming identity.
Queer is the story of community.
Likely, most people have heard this word used in a variety of ways. A word used to depict something strange on old British TV shows. An insult that a bully throws at a nonconforming child. A word used to describe the LGBT community.
Huh? At first glance, this seems like a game of “One of These Things is Not Like the Others.” To add more confusion, here are just a few definitions of the word queer: worthless, questionable, eccentric, mildly insane, and (as commonly and somewhat erroneously used today) homosexual.
Nearly all of these definitions come loaded with negative connotations, some quite strongly so. So why would the LGBT community voluntarily use this word to describe themselves?
The word queer is likely Low German in origin, and it first entered the English language in the 16th century. Its initial usage was primarily restricted to describe something odd or amiss. Only until much later, in the late 19th century, was queer increasingly associated with homosexuality, and with this association came some negative undertones.
In homosexual self-identification, the term queer specifically referred to a masculine, cisgender male who was sexually involved with other men. This was in contrast to the word fairy, which was used to describe homosexual men who tended to dress more femininely or who did not strictly fit into a gender binary. Generally, non-homosexuals conflated or used the two terms interchangeably, stereotyping all gay men as the more visible fairy category.
By World War 2, the word gay came to replace queer as a prefered term in the LGBT community. Decades of misunderstanding proper usage of queer versus fairy and the abuse of queer as a derogatory word tarnished its reputation. Using queer as an insult during this period probably would have marked the start of a serious fist-fight.
During the 1980s, attitudes towards queer shifted again as words gay and lesbian became too polarizing and political. The big boost came from an AIDS awareness group in New York, Queer Nation, who chose to use queer in their title for a number of reasons. First, Queer Nation wanted to appeal to a population larger than gay men and lesbian women. And second, the group wanted to fight homophobia by highlighting and reclaiming this negative language.
This strategy proved successful. Today, queer is commonly used as a neutral or positive umbrella term to refer to anyone who does not identify as cisgender or heterosexual.
Using queer instead of LGBT can often be more inclusive, since queer refers to a very wide range of identities, including the “letters that don’t make the cut.” Recent years have seen the rise of LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, queer/questioning, intersex, asexual/ally), but even this long acronym misses pansexual, genderqueer, polyamorous, and a very wide range of other identities. Many have suggested more inclusive acronyms, including FABGLITTER, QUILTBAG, and Wesleyan University’s very long LBTTQQFAGPBDSM. The word queer includes many of these groups without the need for confusing and sometimes polarizing acronyms.
However, many, especially older members of the LGBT community, prefer not to use the word queer at all. Some still associate the word queer with its problematic past. Since using this word negatively is still considered very offensive and even a hate crime, some may feel that completely reclaiming queer is not possible and is best avoided. Others feel that queer should only be used by people who identify with an alternative gender or sexuality, or that only certain people have a right to it.
In the short term, language changes rapidly, and sometimes it’s difficult to keep up with the new lingo. If unsure of a person’s or group’s preferred term of any identity, make sure to ask before assuming their preference. Also, just because some members of a group prefer a term does not mean that all will prefer that word, as with the distinction between LGBT and queer. Remember that language is powerful, and always aim to be inclusive!
Read Part 1 here.