It’s impossible to talk about the word ‘queer’ without first understanding the history and homophobia associated with it. What was once a slur has evolved to encompass all people who are gender non-conforming or non-heterosexual – but we shouldn’t forget its roots.
Originally, ‘queer’ was used to describe something that was odd or out of the ordinary, and some (mostly older) people still use it in that sense. However, around the mid-1900s it began to transform into a pejorative word to describe gay people, particularly effeminate men or men suspected of having sex with other men.
As the times continue to change, the term has evolved to encompass all people who are gender non-conforming or non-heterosexual. Therefore, to avoid any more confusion, this article is really about who can use the word ‘queer’, and knowing the history behind it makes it pretty simple to understand. Used by anyone else other than those who are not-straight or not-cisgender, it still is and will always be a slur.
The 1969 Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village, New York are seen to mark the beginning of the fight for LGBTQ+ rights in the 20th century. The struggles faced were wide and varied, from radical lesbian feminism in the 1970s through to problems of media representation that exist to the present day.
Most alarmingly is obviously the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 80s that disproportionately affected gay and bisexual men. By 1999, 14 million people worldwide had died from the virus and it created a legacy of discrimination against HIV positive people.
Even with the social progress we have made in this time, homophobia has remained a huge issue. At 18 years old I’ve had ice thrown at me when walking down the street with my partner, and experienced homophobic bullying before I even knew I wasn’t straight, and this is still common even today. Any LGBTQ+ person of any age could reel off a list of slurs that they’ve been called – including ‘queer’.
“Ultimately, self-identifying as queer is empowering and political, and disarms the slur in the mouths of homophobes.”
However, many slurs used against oppressed groups are often then used by these groups as a process of ‘reclaiming’. Some instances of this are women using gendered slurs to describe themselves like ‘bitch’, black people reclaiming anti-black slurs, sex workers reclaiming slurs like ‘slut’, and obviously LGBTQ+ people reclaiming slurs used against them.
For example, Dykes on Bikes was an event that first appeared at the 1976 San Francisco pride parade, and has grown in popularity since then. Whilst ‘dyke’ has been and still is being reclaimed by lesbians as a term of empowerment, the slur said by someone who is not a woman attracted to other women is inherently harmful and recalls years of violence against lesbians (such as corrective rape and conversion therapy).
This is a similar case with the word ‘queer’. It was historically used as a slur and then started to be reclaimed in the 90s by activist LGBTQ+ groups who wanted a provocative term that recalled the violence against them.
Initially this reclamation was inherently political, as LGBTQ+ people who described themselves as queer were seeking to remove themselves from ‘assimilative’ LGBT culture and disarm homophobes who used the slur. Since then, ‘queer’ has evolved into an umbrella term within the LGBTQ+ community, although there is still much contention around it between those who see it as empowering and those who see it as a violent slur.
There are many reasons why someone in the LGBTQ+ community may identify themselves as queer: from political reasons to simply feeling that their identity isn’t accurately described by words such as ‘bisexual’ or ‘trans’.
They may also want a term to cover both their sexuality and gender identity, or simply don’t want to be specific about and defined by their sexuality and gender. Therefore, ‘queer’ is perfectly ambiguous.
Ultimately, self-identifying as queer is empowering and political, and disarms the slur in the mouths of homophobes.