07.18.2016 07:42 AM

Queer

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?

8 Comments

  1. Ted H says:

    Jack McFarland in “Will and Grace” played by the amazing Sean Hayes used to chant “We’re here, we’re Queer, give us a light beer”

  2. M5slib says:

    As someone who could fall under any of gay, LGBT+, or Queer, I don’t think there’s anything controversial about the word. I’m under 35, so the use in my lifetime has pretty much always been normal. I think Queer is more than just reclaiming language though. There are folks who identify as gay or lesbian, and there are those who identify as Queer. I don’t think the idea is to create division, but even within the LGBT+ world, there’s stratification. I think those who are marginalized and quite often more politically inclined identify with Queer. There’s also an element of personal/sexual self determination and the rejection of heteronormativity and the accompanying rigidity. Overall, I understand your discomfort, but I don’t think people who identify themselves as Queer are overly concerned that the word might make you uncomfortable. I mean that in the most innocuous way possible. Some might argue your acceptance is irrelevant because it’s not about you. Once again, not saying that from a combative angle.

    I’m sure there are others who might differ from my assessment or say there’s a lot more to it than I’ve explained, but from what I know, there’s nothing controversial about the word. Is there anything wrong with being a little odd anyway?

    • Warren says:

      No! Hell, I was born odd.

    • albertaD says:

      M5slib pretty much nailed it. I always felt the word Queer suited me way more than gay or homosexual. Plus, I find the current alphabet soup of diversity (LGBTQRSTUVWXYZ) unwieldy and almost comical – it’s imprecise, inconsistently used and applied, plus it does a lot to reinforce the differences. Also, every time I see it in print I see new letters added to it that, frankly, even I don’t know what they mean. Queer in simply more embracing. That being said, gay men less than a generation older than myself still sometimes have real issues with the word.

      The newest phrase is “sexual minority” which is great – albeit a tad clinical for day to day use – but very handy when the media is attempting to write a story and use language that doesn’t upset anybody.

  3. Derek Pearce says:

    I haven’t thought about this in some time. I got used to the “new” usage of queer after hearing it repeatedly in it’s new context during my undergrad years. Because as an out kid in a small town in the late 80s/early 90s I definitely “put up with” being called queer (among other things) rather than embraced it. By the mid-to-late 90s I just got used to the way it was employed by activists, academics and several friends who felt it described them best. I use “gay” to describe myself because I’m pretty fully a big ole homo on the Kinsey scale and have no personal ambiguity about my sexual orientation. But for those who want to embrace it, no skin off my nose.

  4. Kevin says:

    Interesting discussion. For me, it is not a neutral term – context is everything. If you were to say “I’d like you to meet my queer brother”, that’s one thing. If you scream “You f*cking queer!” at me in the street, that’s another.

    I’m probably a bad example to use. If you were to scream something like that at me, it would bother me for roughly nanoseconds. My eff-you muscle is very well developed. But there was a time when the word did have power.

    The evolution of the word “queer” has happened at light speed, though, compared to other words. “Gay” for example has taken centuries to get to its current usage.

  5. Luke says:

    I think of the term as kind of complimentary and something I can identify with, despite being a boring old married cis man happily married with a wife and child (soon another too). I really think of it as just odd or quirky, particularly in one’s taste in art, fashion, sexuality, or music; I guess I think of queer as being approximately similar to countercultural, in a positive sense. I do not like things that are boring. Queer implies out of the ordinary in some way. I like it. Anyway, also part of the under 35 group and I don’t ever particularly recall it being all that offensive. I though faggot and dyke were far more inflammatory.

    I also cannot really bring myself to say that dreaded N word. I have said it purely in the context of retelling an event, but even in that context I get quite uncomfortable and will usually avoid it. That is so deeply ingrained in me that I find it very difficult to separate the word, however reclaimed by the hiphop and broader black community, from its association with the terrible history of racism and slavery. Not to take away from homosexuals’ struggles — black oppression was just more prominently featured in my early education.

  6. billg says:

    I find those words offensive because I remember how I used them in the 70’s…over 30 years ago, and, they were meant as offensive and derogatory. The words were insults meant to shun, still are in my opinion.

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