I perceive myself to be a member of the LGBT community; this initialism (it’s not an acronym, because you can’t pronounce it as a word) stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender. It’s common to quibble about the order of those letters, but never mind about that for now. A common variation is “LGBTQ,” which adds “Queer” to the other four letters.
What is “queer”? It depends on who you ask. Ask five self-identified “queer” people what it means, and you’ll get at least six answers. The first four letters all have well-defined and commonly-understood meanings. So do we need the word “queer” added to the alphabet soup at all?
It hasn’t always been a respectable word; it has a bit of a sordid past. It wasn’t too long ago that the word was considered a terrible slur.
I recognize that resorting to the dictionary is one of the worst crutches of blog post or essay writing, but it’s a valid choice here. Let’s see what Merriam-Webster’s has to say about the word “queer”:
“2 d (1) often disparaging : homosexual (2) sometimes offensive : gay”
And there’s a footnote to this entry:
Over the past two decades, an important change has occurred in the use of queer in sense 2d. The older, strongly pejorative use has certainly not vanished, but a use by some gay people and some academics as a neutral or even positive term has established itself. This development is most noticeable in the adjective but is reflected in the corresponding noun as well. The newer use is sometimes taken to be offensive, especially by older gay men who fostered the acceptance of gay in these uses and still have a strong preference for it.
I’m all for reappropriation to take the sting out of a previously offensive appellation, as long as it’s a member of the group the word has been used against who does it.1 I’ve seen a Chinese-American friend do this with “Chink,” lesbians with “dyke,” and Jews with “Hebe.” African-Americans have done this to a certain extent, although now I think we’re seeing a backlash against the idea that anyone can acceptably use the word for black people you’re all thinking of right now. But that’s not exactly what’s happening with “queer.”
My earliest memories of the word “queer” were in childhood; “queerbait” was used as a schoolyard taunt. I had no idea what it meant until Eddie Murphy’s “Gumby” character on Saturday Night Live also used it, and I parsed out the two words. “Queer as a three-dollar bill” was also common back then, and it was a term that explicitly conflated the two chief meanings of “queer:” eccentric or strange, or homosexual (Strange that it’s a money-based metaphor, isn’t it? Why not “queer as a five-legged horse” or “queer as a snowfall in July”? Either of those would be surpassingly strange, whereas there’s nothing stopping a money-printing authority from printing bills in the denomination of three dollars if they wanted to.).
The Online Etymology Dictionary dates the “offensive term for homosexual” usage from 1922. The similar usage for “gay” is about the same age, but significantly, it was originally used as a self-definition by the gay community; it wasn’t first a slur.
These days I almost never hear a gay or lesbian person self-describe as “queer.” It has become a self-definition, but not one of gays and lesbians. It’s gaining a new definition, and refers to individuals who are gender-fluid, eschewing the gender binary in favor of weaving from one side to another, or right down the middle, or denying any gender identity at all. Maybe even better-known and more often used is the variant form, genderqueer.
Are these useful terms? My instinct says no. On the other hand, I recognize people with no fixed or preferred gender identity do exist, although they do somewhat complicate our ongoing civil rights battle. It’s difficult to get an employer to deal respectfully with someone who has changed gender; it’s much more difficult to broker the same level of respect for someone who changes their gender back and forth.
What do you think of the words “queer” and “genderqueer”? Should either or both be among the letters used to refer to the sexual-orientation-and-gender-nonconforming community? Should we use letters in the first place? Give me your feedback in the form below.
1This is why RuPaul doesn’t get to tell transpeople they shouldn’t be bothered by the word “tranny.” RuPaul doesn’t speak for the transgender community.