Content Warning: This article contains sensitive language.
If ever you want to start a fight on the internet, just type, “Is ‘queer’ still offensive?” into an online LGBT+ forum.
Within minutes, your inbox will be inundated with all-caps messages, screaming at you and calling you a fascist. To find a more nuanced answer to this question—and not just dozens of angry exclamation points—we will have to turn to some history articles and dictionary entries. What does “queer” mean to LGBT+ people today and how has this definition changed over time?
Originally, English-speakers used “queer” as a synonym for odd or peculiar. This meaning traces its roots to 16th century Ireland, and it is still the first definition that comes up in most major dictionaries. At some point in the 19th century, though, “queer” also became a pejorative term to describe gay men. Just as a gay man deviates from the norms of hetereosexual behaviour, queer became a catch-all slur for non-straight people, comparable to “fairy” or “faggot.”
Today, most LGBT+ people have “reclaimed” the term. With this new, positive connotation, “queer” primarily describes a sexual orientation or gender identity that deviates from heterosexuality, but does not neatly fit into the labels of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. For those who identify within this sub-pocket of the LGBT+ community, addressing themselves as “queer” is a handy tool for telling others that one is not straight without opening the door to further personal questions..
And, as any openly LGBT+ person will tell you, nobody comes out just once. Rather, it is a lifelong process that occurs again and again in myriad environments, and it can become exhausting. Embracing the “queer” designation assuages the discomfort of coming out, particularly for those possessing a less common sexual identity who might face increased ridicule.
As any openly LGBT+ person will tell you, nobody comes out just once.
In recent years, “queer” has also become an umbrella term for all people who deviate from the norm of being cisgender or heterosexual. In this definition, the word is interchangeable with LGBT+ or LGBTQ. This definition is implied when a university course offers courses on “queer theory,” or when our campus club calls themselves “Queer McGill.”
This latter shift in the word’s meaning is where reclamation becomes controversial. Some LGBT+ people I know take offense to using “queer” as an umbrella term, whereas others believe the word has moved beyond its negative connotations and dismiss any counter-arguments as ridiculous. It is with this definition of “queer”—as an all-encompassing term for LGBT+ people—where I find myself stuck at a fork in the rainbow-paved road.
Obviously, I think we should abide by the golden rule of addressing people by the terminology of their choice; if someone identifies as queer, call them queer. If someone detests the term, use other language. Yet I think most of us already live by this rule, and I don’t think it takes a university student’s rambling to confirm what is essentially common sense. Instead, I want to examine why some believe this word is deserving of revitalization, and why others believe it belongs in the past.
It is with this definition of ‘queer’—as an all-encompassing term for LGBT+ people—where I find myself stuck at a fork in the rainbow-paved road.
As I research the embracing of “queer,” I encounter protest flyers and passionate thinkpieces. LGBT+ organizations first started using the word as a positive identifier in the midst of the AIDS Crisis. Queer Nation, a group that grew out of the famous AIDS activism group ACT UP, embraced the term in the early 90s as a way to “disarm homophobes”. Since then, “queer” has become recognized by most LGBT+ groups as an appropriate word. Also, from a purely phonetic standpoint, “queer” sounds much more crisp than “LGBT+,” and it rolls off the tongue in a single syllable lilt, not a five syllable cacophony.
Yet, entertaining a rejection of this term, I hear the arguments of those who still associate the term with past trauma. Maybe they grew up in a small town where “queer” was still used for its original definition, or maybe they have older relatives who have only ever known the term as a slur. Either way, some people would rather use an umbrella term with no dark history, like “LGBT+,” to self-describe the many gender identities and orientations in the community. At the extreme end of this argument, people equate “queer” to the pink triangle used to denote gay men in Nazi Germany, another symbol that more radical sectors of the LGBT+ community have attempted to embrace in recent years. The logic goes: if LGBT+ people revive “queer,” what’s to stop all sorts of negative words and symbols from resurfacing?
The attitude around campus of shutting down any criticism of the usage of ‘queer’ is not only dogmatic, but it stifles some much-needed conversation about how the term could harm some people within our community.
I aim with this article not to laud or vilify “queer,” but to instead pose broader questions about the concept of reclaiming derogatory terms. If language is so indefinite, how can a word that once carried negative connotations to a marginalized community ever be totally made clean again? Moreover, how can a community “decide” when a slur is appropriate, especially when said group lacks any centralized authority? There is no Pope for LGBT+ people who sanctions certain slurs, nor is there a Bible that tells LGBT+ people when they’re being oversensitive. It is unclear who—if any single entity—decides these rules.
For me, queer-as-an-umbrella-term does not make my blood boil so much as it makes me lightly cringe. For others, this word ignites much more fiery reactions. I believe that as long as there exists such divisive opinions about the term, we can never consider “queer” to be wholly reclaimed. Thus, the attitude around campus of shutting down any criticism of the usage of “queer” is not only dogmatic, but it stifles some much-needed conversation about how the term could harm some people within our community.
In the future, I hope more LGBT+ organizations can find a place between embracing and rejecting “queer” to foster critical and considerate dialogue about this word’s implications. Labels should unite people under a common roof, not push some out into the cold.