Musings —07.18.2016 07:42 AM—
I am still uncomfortable with that word.
I know that many gays and lesbians use it all the time – essentially to take back the word, and strip of its formerly-negative connotation – but I’m not there yet. It still strikes me as a profound insult, a put-down designed to place a person outside the mainstream. So too the “N” word (which has been embraced by rappers, with relish, for three decades, and which I still cannot even say aloud).
“Retard” and “gimp” and “gyp,” meanwhile, have gone in the opposite direction on the popular lexicon, moving from popular use to being seen (appropriately) as cruel and/or discriminatory.
Language moves around, all the time. What was once off-limits can become less so, and vice-versa. But, on queer, I’m a hold out. It still hits like an affront.
So, between shovelling pea gravel and lifting paving stones with Son two yesterday afternoon, I run across this essay in the New York Times Magazine. Here’s a snippet worth considering
The word “queer” has always contained the shimmer of multitudes; even etymologists can’t settle on one origin story. One popular theory is that it descends from quer, an old German word meaning oblique — neither parallel nor at a right angle, but in between. From birth, queer has resisted straightness. By the 1800s, this inscrutability had taken on a negative cast in English usage, and queer marked something as dubious or unseemly: “Queering the pitch” meant to spoil something — a business transaction, say; being on “queer street” meant financial ruin. Eventually, the word came to apply to people with ambiguous peculiarities. A “queer fellow,” in 19th-century English, is decidedly odd, as is someone who is “queer in the head.”
The word became linked to sexual behavior in the early 1900s, as a derogatory term for men deemed effeminate and others who upended traditional gender roles and appearances. As homosexuality was classified as a mental illness and made punishable by law, the word snowballed into a full-blown slur, heard everywhere from the playground (“smear the queer”) to intellectual duels (William F. Buckley Jr. to Gore Vidal: “Now listen, you queer”).
Maybe we are relying on a single word, a single idea, a single identity, to do too much.This halo of negativity began to dim somewhat in the 1970s, when the word was reclaimed by activists and academics. Not only did its deliberate looseness make it a welcome alternative to the rigidity of “gay” and “lesbian,” it also turned the alienating force of the slur into a point of pride. (Though it is still considered offensive by some.) A manifesto distributed at New York City’s Pride parade in 1990 by Queer Nation, a prominent and controversial gay-rights group, put it this way: “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. Using ‘queer’ is a way of reminding us how we are perceived by the rest of the world.” It was a radical word for a radical time. Protesters and advocacy groups — particularly communities of color — took it up to gather support for the fight against the AIDS crisis and for gay rights. “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” became a popular chant.
Anyway, I remain unconvinced – I feel queer about it, you might say. What do you think, O Wise Readers?