The word “queer” has never had one exact meaning. The term has evolved throughout the centuries, and there have always been people who didn’t see eye to eye regarding its meaning. Many queer theorists believe that the world has its roots in the German word “quer”, which refers to an angle that is not parallel but not right either. By definition, queer is something that’s not straight, something unusual. The word made its way to the English language by the 19th century. In English, it has immediately gained a negative connotation. The word was used to describe people or events that were strange, suspicious, or even crazy. “Queer street”, for example, was used to describe a difficult situation. Odd or eccentric people could get called “queer fish” or “queer in the head”. The word could also serve as a verb in phrases like “queer someone’s pitch”, which refers to ruining someone’s plans.
However, at that time, the word had nothing to do with sexual orientation. Allegedly, the first person to have used it as a homophobic slur was John Sholto Douglas, ninth Marquess of Queensbury. The Marquess had two sons — Francis and Alfred. The elder, Francis, worked as a secretary to Lord Rosebery, who would become a Prime Minister later on. Eventually, their relationship between Francis and Rosebery would turn into a love affair, which the Marquess was aware of. So, when Francis tragically died in 1894, his father blamed it on the relationship with his boss, using the words “snob queers like Rosebery.” That marked the first time when “queer” was used as a slur.
Interestingly enough, Douglas’s homophobic actions did not end there. As it turned out, his youngest son Alfred was also involved in a relationship with a man. And not just any man, but Oscar Wilde — the legendary Irish writer and the author of Portrait of Dorian Gray. Still traumatized by the death of his elder son, the Marquess was not having it. He initiated a criminal investigation that put Wilde in prison for “criminal indecency” and “homosexual offenses”.
Several years later, “queer” became a term that was commonly used to describe gay men or men whose looks and actions did not conform to the standards of how men should look and behave. The insult was often targeted at feminine and flamboyant men regardless of their sexual orientation. Any man who wasn’t very masculine was automatically perceived by society as gay. At the time, homosexuality was considered a mental illness and was punishable by law, so calling someone “queer” could be a serious allegation.
For almost a century, the term bore a predominantly negative connotation. However, in the 1960s, things have started to change in the “Queer vs. Gay” debate. The gay rights movement has erupted in response to queer bashings and police brutality towards LGBTQ+ people. Calling themselves by the same word that was used to oppress them was a rebellion against the discrimination of LGBTQ+ people.
Besides, many people disliked the words “gay” or “lesbian” and felt a need for a term that would be less rigid and more inclusive. Since all LGBTQ+ people were called queer, and the word seemed to take power away from the LGBTQ+ people, it was only natural that some people started claiming it as their own.
The biggest change in the use of the term came in the 1990s. On top of police brutality and systemic discrimination, LGBTQ+ people also had to deal with AIDS at that time. It was a huge public health crisis, and the governments’ response was underwhelming, to say the least. That united gay, lesbian, and transgender people even further. Many gay-rights groups were created and demanded fair treatment of LGBTQ+ people. One of the most vocal of them was Queer Nation. The group’s activism culminated during New York City Pride in June of 1990, where its members handed out their Queers Read This pamphlet. That text would later become the basis of queer theory and mark an important milestone in the gay rights movement. It also made a somewhat radical suggestion. It proposed that LGBTQ+ people reclaim the word “queer”, make it their own, wear it as a badge of honor, and stand up to the society that used it as a derogatory term.
“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. 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? It’s a much brighter word and isn’t it synonymous with “happy?” When will you militants grow up and get over the novelty of being different?”
Knowing that it was quite a controversial suggestion, the authors of the pamphlet explained why and how it’s better than gay. “(… )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”, they said. By making the word a part of their vocabulary, LGBTQ+ people wanted to remind each other of the way society sees them. Yes, it was a complicated and violent word, but so were the lives of people who were called that. Besides, “gay” was an originally male term, but “queer” wasn’t. The LGBTQ+ community was facing many challenges that they had to fight together. Not as gay men, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender people, but as one big strong community. “Queer” was the word that gave them a chance to be together as one.
Many people responded to the manifesto and started labeling themselves as queer regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. That’s how the word was reborn. The manifesto’s ideas keep inspiring people to reclaim the term even now, 30 years later. It took another decade or so for the mainstream media to start using the term in a neutral connotation. But in the 2000s, it began to make a frequent appearance in printed media and on TV, for example, in the popular TV show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy that premiered in 2003.
Nowadays, the word “queer” usually has a neutral meaning. It can be used as an umbrella term for all sexualities and gender identities that are not heterosexual or cisgender. That means that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people may identify with the term as well, so there’s no sense in the “Gay vs. Queer” debate.
Some even prefer “queer” to “LGBT” since the acronym excludes queer, pansexual, asexual, and intersex people from the conversation. Besides, using one word for all gender identities and sexualities on the spectrum can help people find a sense of belonging and remind them of the similarities they share.
These days, more and more people choose “queer” to describe their sexual orientation or gender identity. Compared to other labels, it allows more freedom for exploration and change, which appeals to plenty of young LGBT people. They feel like the term recognizes that gender and sexuality are spectrums, which means they can change over time and can’t always be defined by precise terms. Another commonly used form of the word is “genderqueer”, which can be used by people who do not identify as cisgender but don’t wish or cannot specify it any further.
Just like with any other reclaimed slurs, you should be careful when using the term “queer”. While some people use it with pride, others might still get offended by it, so you should always be mindful of the context. For example, older LGBT adults had lived most of their lives in times when the word was used to oppress them, so they might not want to identify with it. Finally, when it comes to labels, it’s always better to ask than to presume. Some queer people might use the label to describe themselves, but others may feel uncomfortable if you ask them if they are queer. That’s why open-ended questions are always a good idea. Just ask politely, and people will tell you everything they feel comfortable sharing. Simple enough, isn’t it?
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