Queer: From homophobic insult to empowering term for LGBTQ individuals

What it means to be queer

Thousands of New Yorkers took to the streets of Manhattan to participate on the Reclaim Pride Coalition’s third annual Queer Liberation March in 2021. Photo Credit: Erik McGregor/LightRocket/Getty Images via CNN Newsource

(CNN) — For most of its early history, the word “queer” meant unusual or out of the ordinary. Then it was co-opted as a homophobic insult for much of the 20th century before people from LGBT communities reclaimed the term.

Then, LGBTQ activists who identified as queer showed that they were proud to be different. LGBTQ activist groups like Queer Nation chanted “We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!” as a unifying call to action for all LGBTQ people.

Now, queer is an identifier preferred by some LGBTQ people for its expansive and fluid nature, though others reject the word because of how it was used in the past. For many of those who embrace the term queer, identity isn’t fixed –– it evolves, and “queer” can encapsulate both sexuality and gender identity throughout a person’s life.

“Queerness is cloudy by definition –– essentially, what is not the norm,” said Maya Satya Reddy, founder of the Queer Asian Social Club, a collective that advocates for improved visibility of LGBTQ Asian Americans in media. “I think queerness gave and still gives me a lot of space to flow between identities or what something means to me on that day.”

Here’s what it means to be the Q in LGBTQ.

What queer means today

Queer is an expansive term used by some LGBTQ people to describe their sexuality, gender identity or both. It may be preferred by those who find other terms like “gay” or “bisexual” too restrictive or narrow, as well as some people whose identities are fluid and evolving.

“(Queer) includes all of the identities and lived experiences that are included under the LGBTQ acronym –– folks that might otherwise identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender,” said Samuel Allen, a clinical assistant professor at Northwestern University and a therapist at its Family Institute, where he focuses on LGBTQ health and wellbeing.

People who are nonbinary –– that is, those whose gender identity does not fall within the binary categories of man or woman, or who do not identify with any gender –– might also identify as queer, Allen said. The term may suit people who have a less strict or static relationship to gender.

The history of how queer was used against LGBTQ people

Queer was used as a relatively innocuous word when it entered the English lexicon in the early 16th century. Then, “queer” meant peculiar, odd, or out of place, said Gregory Coles, a language scholar who has studied the histories of slurs and how they’re reclaimed by the marginalized people they’re used against.

“Queer” wasn’t used as a homophobic slur, it’s thought, until the end of the 19th century, Coles said. In a private letter in 1894, the British nobleman John Douglas derisively referred to men attracted to other men as “snob queers,” including the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde, with whom one of his sons had a relationship, according to the United Kingdom’s National Archives.

The playwright sued Douglas for libel, but when the letter was made public, charges of gross indecency were brought against Wilde –– homosexual acts were illegal in the UK, where Wilde had been living. Wilde was eventually convicted and sentenced to two years of hard labor, destroying his reputation as a celebrated writer and diminishing his savings.

The derogatory use of “queer” began to overtake the word’s original definition. By the 1920s, the word had fallen out of popular usage because of its new homophobic association, Coles said.

“Where the word did appear, it typically carried the same level of hatred as Douglas’ original use, paired with the same determination to destroy the lives of ‘queers,’” Coles said. “Most often, the word was associated with physical violence.”

Why some LGBTQ people prefer the term queer

Queer is ambiguous on purpose, said Kaila Adia Story, an associate professor at the University of Louisville who studies the intersection of race and sexuality: It frees LGBTQ people who use the term to describe themselves from having to specify the particulars of their identity while acknowledging that they don’t subscribe to heteronormativity, or the belief that being straight is the norm of sexual behavior.

“Queer means not letting society, institutions, friends or loved ones define who you are or who you hope to be,” Story said. “It means to define yourself for yourself, live boldly and unapologetically.”

The term also eschews some of the expectations and stereotypes that accompany terms like “gay” or “lesbian,” which explicitly reference gender.

“Sexuality doesn’t have to have one specific definition, and queer allows people room to learn who they are and claim it for themselves,” said Dr. Lexx Brown-James, a therapist and sex educator who cohosted “Queer Sex Ed,” a webseries from the LGBTQ advocacy organization It Gets Better.

Young people particularly have gravitated toward the word because they’re growing up during a time when the way we identify our sexualities and genders is evolving and diversifying beyond the binary of male and female, gay or straight, Allen said. Before nonbinary was a more commonly used identifier, the newer, more expansive definition of queer inspired the term genderqueer, which also refers to people whose gender identity isn’t solely male or female.

“With the (LGBT) acronym, there isn’t really space for them,” Allen said. “Queer offers an opportunity for a bit more expansive view.”

Reddy said she has felt more comfortable using queer as an identifier than gay or lesbian because the terms “have traditionally evoked very specific images” that don’t align with her self-perception.

“That doesn’t feel like me,” she said. “Queer, for me, really inhabits the space between” rigid divisions of gender and sexuality.

Gen Z adults identify as LGBTQ at much higher rates than older Americans, according to recent studies. Queer is becoming a more common identifier among LGBTQ people, particularly among Gen Z, Allen said, but it’s not a “universal preference.” Some LGBTQ people from older generations still find the term offensive given its history as a homophobic slur throughout the 20th century.

How LGBTQ people reclaimed the word

In 1990, a group of activists from ACT UP, the New York-based organization aimed at ending the AIDS crisis, debuted their new initiative: Queer Nation, an advocacy venture dedicated to ending discrimination against all LGBTQ people. They were among the first (or at least most visible) protesters to rehabilitate the word “queer” into not only an identifying term, but a unifier under which all LGBTQ people could fit, language scholar Coles said.

“Queer” was still widely considered an epithet then. In a leaflet distributed at New York’s Pride Parade in 1990, Queer Nation explained its choice to call LGBTQ people queer. In an excerpt provided by Coles, Queer Nation wrote: “Using ‘queer’ is a way of reminding us how we are perceived by the rest of the world … Yeah, queer can be a rough word but it is also a sly and ironic weapon we can steal from the homophobe’s hands and use against him.”

Adopting “queer” was a sharp political move, too, Coles said: “Instead of treating the concerns of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, trans folks, and other groups as largely distinct from one another, ‘queer’ offered a single unifying word that allowed all these people to band together and fight for their shared interests with greater political influence,” Coles said.

Academics soon followed Queer Nation’s lead and began to include the term in their work: Teresa de Lauretis organized a 1990 conference of queer theorists, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who helped popularize the term queer studies instead of gay and lesbian studies, said in a 1993 book that within queer there is room for “open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances” in discussions of gender and sexuality.”

TV series like “Queer as Folk” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” further exposed the public to a different interpretation of the term — queer as it was used in those series “still implied strangeness and difference from the sexual norm, but that strangeness was now a matter of self-conscious pride,” Coles said.

In 2016, LGBTQ media advocacy organization GLAAD formally recommended that media outlets adopt the longer version of the acronym to include the Q, for queer. With its recommendation, LGBTQ eventually superseded LGBT as the acronym many media outlets used to describe queer people.

Why queer is still controversial

Despite the prevalence of queer, its use is still a point of contention among LGBTQ people, particularly those from older generations.

Larry Kramer, the late playwright and LGBTQ rights activist, famously disliked using the word as an identifier, telling an audience at Yale University in 2009, “I am not queer! And neither are you. When will we stop using this adolescent and demeaning word to identify ourselves?”

For those who didn’t grow up hearing the word used as a slur, its heft might not register, Coles said. But the word may still carry the “weight of decades of trauma” for older generations of LGBTQ activists to whom queer was always an attack on their identity.

“It can be hard to see a word that was used to abuse you widely used and embraced,” said Dr. Lexx, the therapist and sex educator.

Disagreement over use of the word queer gives LGBTQ people a chance to reckon with the history of the word and, hopefully, better understand each other, Reddy said.

“I identify this way because that’s how I feel,” Reddy said. “And a person from a different generation may really dislike or feel uncomfortable about the word queer. That’s an opportunity for us to (question), ‘why is that? No matter what the reason, how do we respect that and ensure that there’s space for what we’re all feeling at the same time?’”

It’s freeing for so many young people to find a term to describe who they are when other identifiers don’t fit the bill, Allen said. But he also hopes that the young people who identify as queer recognize the term’s loaded meaning.

“My hope is that they use the term intentionally and with due recognition to its history,” he said.

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