Redefining the Word “Queer”

The word “queer” is complicated. According to Merill Perlman of the Columbia Journalism Review, “it first showed up in English about 1513” and it “has always meant something not normal, something peculiar, something odd.” This origin situates those labelled by it as alien from the norm, and in the late 19th century, the norms of the time led to it becoming a pejorative for those who felt same-sex attraction. This term was reclaimed in the 1980s by groups like Queer Nation during the gay rights movement, spurred on by the AIDS epidemic, as a radical political statement to combat violence and has become an umbrella term for the LGBTQ+ community, representing those with non-normative gender and sexual identities. These normative biases are called cis-normative which is the normalization of being cisgender, and heteronormative which is the normalization of being heterosexual. However, some people are still uncomfortable with the popular, public usage of this word especially because it has its roots in a slur and was meant to “other” those who fall outside what was “normal.” There are many examples of words that are reclaimed by the communities most affected by them, but “queer” stands out in that it is often still used outside of the community affected by it and continues to describe that community by groups immune to its historical impact. Because of this word’s unusualness, I want to delve into who should be able to use “queer” and why the term has any use at all.

While the term is helpful, even despite its history, there are some aspects to its public usage that can rub people the wrong way. Like when in June, or Pride Month, many businesses take to what has been coined as “rainbow capitalism.” These companies release a line of something queer-adjacent often without any direct support to the community. Jackie Freund, a Sixth College freshman, feels that “this commercialization makes it feel less like a celebration of diverse sexual and gender identities and more like an opportunity to capitalize on those identities.” While that is only tangential to the issue of the term I’ve been discussing, it’s an important background into why some companies will use this term on their merchandise. Take for instance Target’s pride collection, which this year features a t-shirt that says “queer” and a pair of shorts that says “cheers queers,” or with any number of brands that have a pride collection with little to no attempts to promote queer causes. While many people understand this term has been reclaimed by the community, Freund feels that “the fact that the term and queerness in general is being capitalized off of at all makes me wonder why these companies should sell these products and use the word queer.” Because queer is a convenient catch-all term, it makes it hard to get to the bottom of the intention behind its usage. Even if we take for granted that term has been reclaimed, why do the people at the top of marketing and capital get to decide that queer is in, so long as the money is too?

Within the LGBTQ+ community, the term “queer” is useful for some people simply because it is so broad. While it has become an umbrella term to describe all of the community, it has also become a label unique to itself. Some people like Reagan Ivey, a Roger Revelle College sophomore, do not feel comfortable with a specific label on their sexuality or gender identify as queer or gender-queer because for Ivey it “also indicates that I identify with the LGBTQ+ community while still broadly stating that I am not heterosexual”.

Additionally, some people identify as queer to save themselves from having to come out multiple times as they experiment with their identity. Ivey feels that “it’s a very comfortable word for me to use as someone who’s always questioning what their sexuality is” and that the term queer “shuts off the ability for people to pry, like if I identify as ‘not straight’ or ‘gay’ they have the opportunity to ask ‘what kind?’ or ‘how gay?’” For these people who choose to identify as queer, what they’re straight on is that they are not strictly heterosexual. 

Speaking of the heterosexuals, there has also been a controversial movement of queer cisgender heterosexuality, where people feel that they fall into a non-normative sexuality even while being straight. While this understanding lacks substantial popularity, it is interesting to juxtapose the idea of the metrosexual person, or someone who acts “gay” but is “straight,” with the definition of queerness that is defined by anyone who is not heterosexual or cisgender. 

 With that being said, even some people, like a UC San Diego student who wished to remain anonymous, who fall outside of heteronormative and cisnormative standards feel uneasy calling themselves queer. This person said “Yes I am not straight, and I’m attracted to women and men, but for some reason I feel like it’s not enough when you look at the struggles of other communities within the LGBTQ.”  This student doesn’t think that the term descibes them because they feel that the problems they face “would never be equivalent” to those of trans or gay people and feels that the term is for “them to take back, not so much me”.

All these examples of specific understandings of the term queer help people within and outside of the queer community identify those who are apart of the queer community. Because of this, queerness has become a widespread term. While labels like gay, rainbow, or even alphabet mafia also seem to encompass the LGBTQ+ community, many feel that they don’t do enough to be wholly inclusive. The word queer, unlike many slurs and insults, has come to actually mean exactly what people within the community are comfortable identifying with. Queer in both senses means things that aren’t “normal” or what is normative in society. This is not to say that queer identities are not normal or that they are just in their nature separate from what is normative, it is instead a way to use simple labels to describe a complex and heterogenous community. Perlman argues that “while ‘queer’ is acceptable by some people or groups, even preferred, it is by no means a blanket term,” which emphasizes the idea that what matters in how you identify people is their preference and your intent. Queer can still be used as a slur in a certain context of your intent and by some will always be considered an ill-fitting phrase, but the journey the word has undertaken makes it an important touchstone for taking back power.

Personally I think the reclamation of the word queer reinterprets its meaning to be one of uniqueness. Its new meaning is as a descriptor not of something regarded as strange or other, but as something special that the outstanding people part of its community can take pride in. The strange part comes with its usage and appropriation outside of queer spaces, which is pretty suspect considering many of those same groups that strangely claim ownership of queerness were once the ones who also used it to insult and mock.

Photo courtesy of Raphael Renter on Unsplash.

One thought on “Redefining the Word “Queer”

  1. Thanks for providing such an informative and interesting article. To be honest, I had no idea that the word queer has such a history. And now I’m really interested in finding out more such rather historical facts about some related to the LGBTQ+ community. I know about the current situation and the rights they have now because I wrote an article dedicated to it some time ago. And this source helped me a lot because the lgbt rights essay examples I read there provided me with a lot of useful information, which helped me to finish my paper. And now, after reading this info, I’m going to look for something related to history.

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