LGBTQ terms are one of the most discussed and debated topics. Whether it’s the differences between bisexuality and pansexuality, or preferred pronouns, language is an intrinstic part of our community. However, no word is more controversial than ‘queer’.
Recently, GSN conducted a poll about the word’s usage. A slight majority (37%) voted: ‘Yes, I’m happy to use it.’
However, simply because most people chose that answer, it’s still far less than a majority of all participants. The next highest option was ‘No, I don’t like it’ (35%). Finally, 28% said they don’t mind other people using it, but don’t like it for themselves.
The results alone reveal the contentious nature of the word.
There’s nothing wrong with not preferring a term for yourself — but it’s time to get over the fact that some people do use it for themselves, and respect that choice.
Any word can be used against us
One of the most common arguments against the word queer is that it’s a slur.
This has some truth to it, which shouldn’t be ignored, but it’s also an entirely reductive and limited view of things.
Any word associated with the community can be used as a slur. Even terms like ‘gay’ and ‘homo’, for all their ubiquitiousness, can be thrown around derogatively. I’ve certainly heard them used as if they were acid upon the tongue.
This, of course, does not erase the specific history of the word queer, and why it’s understandable some people don’t like it. But all these words, at points in history, have been used to stigmatize and shame us.
Activists and scholars began reclaiming the word for the community in the 1980s and there is power in that. It’s not letting people’s discrimination win.
As Anthony Slagle explains in his defense of Queer Nation for the Western Journal of Communication, using the word disarms homophobic people from wielding it as it directly challenges its negative connotation.
Furthermore, it’s also revolutionary in that it extends a hand to so many more people who may not initially feel like they belong to the community, or feel like ‘more accepted’ terms fit them.
The history of the word
Queer Nation, founded in 1990, was one of the first mainstream organizations to use the term in a massively public way.
They handed out a flier at New York City’s gay pride that same year, explaining their use of the term. It was a weaponizing tool for them, and how many people still use the word today. It was also, perhaps more importantly, a more inclusive word.
From Queer Nation’s flier:
Using ‘queer’ is a way of reminding us how we are perceived by the rest of the world. It’s a way of telling ourselves we don’t have to be witty and charming people who keep our lives discreet and marginalized in the straight world. We use queer as gay men loving lesbians and lesbians loving being queer. Queer, unlike gay, doesn’t mean male.
And when spoken to other gays and lesbians it’s a way of suggesting we close ranks, and forget (temporarily) our individual differences because we face a more insidious common enemy. Yeah, queer can be a rough word but it is also a sly and ironic weapon we can steal from the homophobe’s hands and use against him.
But the word has a more positive history than most people realize, even before its reclamation.
George Chauncey touches on the use of the word in the early 20th century in his book, Gay New York.
In the 1910s and 20s, most men who ‘identified themselves as different from other men primarily on the basis of their homosexual interest rather than their womanlike gender status usually called themselves “queer”‘.
Chauncey quotes one man active in the 1920s scene as saying: ‘Queer wasn’t derogatory. It wasn’t like k*ke or n***er… It just meant you were different.’
Why I’m queer
I proudly identify as bisexual, but some days I wake up and it doesn’t feel like it wholly encapsulates who I am. I also identify as homoromantic, and embrace the fluidity of both sexuality and gender.
Other days, it feels like I’m still figuring it out or I don’t want to use certain words, or always have to explain them.
Queer is a comfortable word for me. More than that, though, it’s powerful. Embracing my queerness was a huge step for me in learning to be more at peace with myself and my space in this community.
Reclaiming it for myself, understanding its history, why some people do or don’t like it, was part of my own journey. And now I feel more confident about who I am.
I respect not wanting to use the word for yourself, but it’s getting tiring when people who do use it willingly, immediately get shut down for it and lectured about its nature as a slur, when for many, it’s so much more than that.
It’s pretty simple when it comes down to it: respect people’s choices when they’re not hurting you.