→ Justina Ashman
This piece was originally published in Pulse – BSP’s 2017 nonfiction anthology.
When I was a kid no one ever called me ‘queer’. No one I knew ever even used the word ‘queer’ – either as a noun or an adjective. This is not to say that I lived in some kind of homophobia-free utopia. Growing up as a repressed bisexual kid with loving yet openly homophobic parents and going to Catholic school was a strange and deeply confusing time. I heard my fair share of slurs, just not ‘queer.’ In fact, many of my generation – the smashed-avocado-eating reprobates known as millennials – might never have experienced the word ‘queer’ as a violent word. Surely, this is a good thing – a great thing even. Huzzah for progress! However, one of the unfortunate side-effects of progress now is a lack of understanding for how things were then. This generational divide is perhaps one of the main factors in the ongoing debate surrounding the word ‘queer’ and how, if at all, it should be used.
What even is the issue?
Language can be both controlling and liberating; it can be used to hurt and to heal. Language is power – the power to communicate, the power to define yourself and to give a voice to your experiences. The power to say ‘This is who I am. I am not who you say I am, but who I say I am.’
For those of sexual and gender minorities, the struggle to settle on distinct yet inclusive words with which to identify has resulted in the convoluted ‘alphabet soup’ of current terminology: LGBT, LGBTQ, LGBTQIA+, LGBTTQIAAP, or, my personal favourite, QUILTBAG. This amorphous acronym itself is highly contentious. How many letters do you include? What order do you include them in? Does A stand for ‘asexual’, ‘ally’ or both? Why should asexual people have to share a letter? Is the + really an adequate way to communicate the diversity of human sexuality and gender identity? Which identities get to come before the + and which are obscured by it?
This might seem trivial, but for a community that has been made outcast, inclusivity is vital. It matters which letters are in the acronym, who is made visible and what words we use to identify ourselves. It’s easy to see how the short, sharp and snappy ‘queer’ popped up as an attractive alternative. No one gets left out! It’s general enough to be inclusive, but specific enough to serve as a community identifier.
But for many, ‘queer’ simply cannot be separated from its violent history. When they hear ‘queer’ they think of vitriol and hatred, of ‘queer bashing’, of bullying and harassment, of oppression and living in fear. Is it really okay to ignore this trauma for the sake of mere convenience? Or is reclaiming the slur and turning it into a positive, inclusive term a way of fighting against the word’s troubled past?
To answer these questions, we need to go back to the roots of ‘queer’ and understand its history for both violent homophobia and radical activism.
How did we get from there to queer?
The negative use of ‘queer’, specifically concerning male homosexuality, first reared its ugly head in 1894 when John Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensbury, wrote to his son Lord Alfred Douglas denouncing ‘Snob Queers’ after discovering rumours that his other son, Francis, was involved in a homosexual affair with Archibald Primrose. Little did John Douglas know, Lord Alfred Douglas was also involved in an affair with none other than Oscar Wilde. The subsequent famous court case uncovered John Douglas’s letter, helping to establish ‘queer’ as a derogatory term for homosexuality. ‘Queer’ became inextricably linked with abnormality and perversion and this pejorative usage stuck for decades.
The tide turned in the late 20th century with the AIDS crisis and the gay rights movement of the 80s and 90s. Millennials are hardly the first to reclaim ‘queer’ – in fact, the contemporary use of the word is the result of decades of activism and scholarship. The gay rights group Queer Nation was formed in 1990 in New York City from members of HIV/AIDS activist organisation ACT-UP. The use of the word ‘queer’ in the organisation’s name was incredibly shocking and allowed them to appropriate violent language as a way of disarming homophobic people. The group often used slurs in their slogans and chants, the most famous being: ‘We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!’
Throughout the late 80s and 90s ‘queer’ gained traction in cultural movements, such as DIY punk subculture ‘queercore’, which dealt explicitly with sexuality and prejudice in music, writing, art, film and zines. The 90s also brought about a boom in queer academic discourse and the establishment of ‘queer theory’ – a phrase first used by Italian author Teresa de Lauretis in 1990. Eventually the word entered the mainstream, helped greatly by prime-time TV shows such as Queer as Folk and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. By the 2000s, ‘queer’ was considered by many to have been successfully reclaimed.
So what’s the verdict? Can I say ‘queer’?
The short answer is I don’t know. ‘Queer’ is an undoubtedly loaded word, but whether those connotations are positive or negative depend on so many things, from age, to geography, to personal experience. To me ‘queer’ is about movement – politically, in terms of the queer rights movement, and personally, as an acknowledgement of the fluidity of gender and sexual identity. The key here, though, is ‘to me’; a twenty-something with no experience of the AIDS crisis, the gay rights movement of the 80s, or even of ‘queer’ used as a schoolyard taunt. Mine is not a universal experience and I don’t want to dismiss the trauma of others. ‘Queer’ is liberating for some, but definitely not for all, and in that sense it fails in the very inclusivity it strives to achieve.
Language is always evolving; meanings shift, words fall in and out of common usage; like identity, it is not a stagnant thing. Maybe one day ‘queer’ will drop all its negative baggage and be fully reclaimed, or maybe it will fall completely out of use. In the meantime, we can only struggle to express our fluctuating identities with our fluctuating words.
The very debates that arise from this struggle are vital for gaining a better understanding of ourselves and our communities. These conversations allow us to develop a community vernacular that includes rather than alienates, empowers rather than demeans, and that unifies rather than divides. After all, language is power, whether we reclaim or reinvent it, and what truly matters is that we’re taking that power into our own hands.