In this article, we’re going to talk about something potentially controversial: the use of the word queer, and whether it’s offensive or not. A lot of people use this word to identify themselves, but the term is also used as an umbrella term for the LGBTQ+ community. So what we’re going to do in this article is go through the history of the term and also look at why people use it now.
The short history of the word queer
Historically, the word queer actually had a lot of different definitions that meant different things, especially when it was attached to nouns that would change their definition as well. But essentially it ranged anything from drunk, giddy, out of sorts, strange, to even the opposite of straight. Not heterosexual straight, just literally straight, the opposite of curly, crooked, bent. This is also where we get the classic northern phrase “There’s nowt so queer as folk.”, meaning, there’s nothing as strange as people.
Then we get to the 1800s in the UK, and then we travel over in the 1900s in the US, when this term becomes a slur or derogatory term for gay people or just generally people who weren’t straight and cisgender. It’s this abusive meaning and its subsequent use which makes it such a controversial term.
However, in the 1980s and into the 1990s to today, there has been a reclaiming of this world by the LGBTQ+ community. This reclaiming of the phrase by activists and scholars, famously the Queer Nation, is actually something that was meant to be political, ambiguous, and explicitly intersectional. “What is reclaiming?” you may ask. Reclaiming is a thing that happens in a lot of marginalized communities. It is essentially taking something that has negative power against you and using it yourself so it loses some of that power. We’ve seen this in a lot of different identities that have reclaimed words in particular which have been used against them.
The use of the word queer today
Today the use of the word queer is kind of in a weird middle stage. Yes, there are some people who still use it as a slur, but we also have used it in very mainstream ways. We have shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Queer as Folk using it on national television for example. It is also widely used in academia today. The idea of queer studies or queer theory is something that most people cover if they’re studying humanities subjects, or even social studies, for example.
It is also used today as a personal identity. Reasons why people might identify as queer would be maybe they have more than one identity on that spectrum. Maybe they’re not sure about their identity and they’re trying to figure it out. Maybe their identity is very fluid so it’s something that fits them in that way. There’s a ton of different reasons. And finally, it’s often used now as an umbrella term for the LGBTQ+ community. So it’s actually this last use, the use of it as an umbrella term which causes the most controversy.
The controversy surrounding the word queer
A lot of people think that because it’s something that has been, and in some cases still is, used as a slur, it’s not something that they want to use to identify the entire LGBTQ+ community with. My thoughts on this are essentially complicated. For me, queer is a term which has inclusivity, in that it doesn’t single out single identities and therefore doesn’t leave out any single identities.
Now, I totally understand there are a lot of people who are uncomfortable with the use of the word queer to personally identify themselves because it has a history of abuse and of being a slur with them personally. But then a lot of people use that to argue that we shouldn’t use it as an umbrella them at all. I would say to that I, and a lot of millennials and gen z young adults never really heard the term queer as a negative term to gay people at all. What I did hear was the word gay being used as a slur. Specifically, to do with gay people, but also just things being described as gay to mean that they were rubbish or broken or awful and that was our history of homophobic slurs.
Here’s the truth of it, every identity that we have found for ourselves has been used as an insult against us. Ultimately, no word that we have used or will use to describe ourselves will be free of baggage. I think that everyone should use their own umbrella term that they feel most comfortable with and respect people’s individual identities when you’re referring to them individually.
Personally, from my point of view, the word queer is inclusive, it’s intersectional, it has a really interesting history in places that I feel comfortable in academia and activism. But of course, we aren’t all the same, we don’t all feel the same, think the same, we don’t have the same relationship with our identities, our sexualities, our genders as other people and that’s totally okay.
So we’ll end with the immortal words of the classic slogan popularized by Queer Nation:
“We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it”