A friend on Facebook wrote yesterday: "Michigan queers who are into the marriage thing: if there is a court decision today that allows for a window of marriage equality, I can officiate. Feel free to put people in touch with me!"
I think I understand the context in which some gay people call one another "queers." For the same time-honored reason that African-Americans took over rights to use the n-word, and some Polish people call themselves and one another "pollocks," some disabled people call themselves "cripples."
You can't hurt me by calling me the name I call myself.
But most white people and black people agree that the diarrhetic use of the n-word in music lyrics becomes less justifiable as the use of the word in the original pejorative context decreases.
So isn't the gratuitous use of "queer," in a world where no one under 70 would imagine using "queer" as a slur, also beginning to sound, if not old-fashioned, at least a little … queer?
I'm not telling. I'm asking.
Chelsea Del Rio says
When I first read this I was a little confused, probably in no small part because I hadn’t had any coffee yet. Using “queer” is so common to me that I don’t give it a second thought. I’ll share a few thoughts. And as a disclaimer for those who don’t know me, I have spent over 15 years as an activist in feminist and LGBTQIA (this should hint already at why I chose “queer”) movements and am currently in a doctoral program working on a dissertation that deals with gender and lesbian sexuality.
“Queer” in history: Though it has a long history as an insult, queer was reclaimed in the 1990s by activists and scholars. Radical activists (many of whom had backgrounds in AIDS activism)adopted the term as part of a rejection of an assimilationist trend in gay politics (on this issue alone I could go on about at length if there are questions). Queer theory emerged around the same time to address gender and sexuality but to move the conversation toward a much more fluid understanding of these concepts. As someone who came of age in the 90s, queer has always been a positive option in my worldview (though this is NOT strictly an age issue – I know plenty of older and just plain old activists, scholars, and queers who readily embrace the term as well).
“Queer” as insult: The word definitely has a history of being used a slur, but I don’t know that I would equate it with the N word. And honestly, pretty much every word I would use to refer to sexual orientation can be and has been contested, rejected, appropriated, and reclaimed at some point. These days, I feel like “gay” is thrown around as a pejorative much more often than “queer” and that term is still used plenty. I also love the term “dyke.” As with a lot of terms, so much is bound up in intent. When I wrote my post yesterday I was speaking to my queer community. I feel fairly comfortable in assuming they understood the intent of my usage.
“Queer” as inclusive: I often use the term because it’s easy. It is easier than the alphabet soup acronym. In a community where the number of identities keeps expanding, using this term eases my fears that I’ll exclude someone. By using the term I am speaking to the whole big wonderful community of people who reject heteronormativity in some way through gender identity or sexual orientation. I really don’t like using the term “gay” as a catch all; it’s too male-centered for my tastes. “Queer” also allows for the fluidity of identity.
“Queer” as objectional to, well, queers: There are folks on the the radical end of the political (and sexual) spectrum who object to it being used as an umbrella term and would rather it remain tied to the radical intent of those who first began the act of reclaiming it. There are folks (most often older but not always) who do associate it with its use as a slur and are uncomfortable with it. Then there are others (I just had this conversation with an old dyke yesterday) who don’t like it because they feel it obscures lesbian visibility. In this perspective, the gay/queer community has always been male dominated and moving away from identities such as “lesbian” make it easier to ignore gender and queer women’s issues.
If not “queer” then what? I’d much rather hear you talk about the queer community than the “homosexual” one. Gay is fine and is probably the standard (as long as you aren’t talking about “the” gays). The fact that identity terms are contested within the queer community doesn’t help those outside of it figure out terminology. I say, use what you’re comfortable with and be open to feedback if someone finds offense. And don’t be afraid to ask questions, in spirit of genuine inquiry, as you do here.
David Murray says
What can I say? I’m glad I asked.
Zoe Nicholson says
I love the word, queer. It serves several purposes for me. 1)it shocks the older thinkers 2)it is fully inclusive 3)it is shorthand 4)I have been asked if I am trans, lesbian, gay, bi – I just say – I am queer.
Honestly, those who think it is an insult need some easy usage to get past that. Its a rainbow umbrella – cheery and smart.
David Murray says
Zoe, appreciate your take. “Cheery and smart” are two qualities we should all aspire to.
And thanks to Chelsea, I’ve been made to understand lots of other useful functions of “queer,” too.
So it doesn’t bother you that the original definition of queer marginalized whatever it labeled as “odd or unconventional, as in behavior; eccentric”?
Granted, the original usage of “queer”–like gay, for that matter–is only used by old gaffers who complain that a business partner “queered the deal,” or cigar-chomping boxing announcers who say that a fighter who’s been knocked dizzy is “on queer street.”
But ONE of the social goals of the gay movement has been to remove the stigma of gay being abnormal or deviant, and to the extent that “queer” means that, it reinforces the old idea.
Worth the tradeoff, I guess?
Mandy B. says
As a bisexual woman I prefer the word queer. It’s easy, inclusive, and works for me regardless of who I am in a relationship with. Bisexual sounds like it’s all about the sex. Queer is more about the relationships and the community. (Funny side note: my voice recognition software does not seem to recognize the word queer. It writes “clear”, which is not at all clear.)
David Murray says
Queerly, those voice recognition engineers need to read this blog.