QUEERING THE PITCH
THE “Q -WORD” HAS BEEN BOTH A TERM OF ABUSE AND A WORD OF EMPOWERMENT, RAE JOAN ELKINGTON WRITES
Adivisive term, “queer”, has come to be embraced by some, whereas others (even those in LGBTQIA+ spaces) can find its use triggering. Contemporary queer theorists generally consider queer a verb, seeing it as something we do rather than something we are (or are not).
It has long been an activist strategy to reclaim words used against oppressed peoples. Queer is often used synonymously with gay, but advocates believe that limits its potential.
In reclaiming queer, many see an opportunity for inclusive, intersectional umbrella alliances.
Some older members of the LGBTQIA+ community have reacted negatively to the reclamation of queer. It’s important to remember that they are the ones who have seen some of the darkest days of legal and social discrimination, and it stands to reason that they may feel uncomfortable using a reclaimed slur that was (sometimes) used alongside physical violence.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF QUEER
The word queer originated in the 16th century when it meant something peculiar, abnormal, or illegitimate. The expression “nowt so queer as folk” dates from this time, when the phrase “being in Queer Street” was commonly used to refer to people with learning difficulties.
The earliest recorded use of “queer”” as a homophobic slur was an 1894 letter by the ninth Marquess of Queensbury, John Sholto Douglas accusing Oscar Wilde and his son (Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s great love, affectionately known as “Bosie”) of having an affair. As a result, “queer” started to be used as a derogatory term against those with same-sex interests/ attractions and men who did not conform to gender-normative expectations of Victorian society.
At the turn of the 20th century, “queer” was still more widely used as an adjective to describe anything peculiar or strange, as evidenced in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series and the American phrase “as queer as a three-dollar bill”.
The 1920s saw an early example of “queer” reclamation, with some people (primarily gay males) using the term “queer” to describe their attraction to people of the same gender.
In sad contrast, by the 1940s, everyday people began using queer to refer to sexual perverts or/ and homosexuals. Queer as an offensive slur peaked during the Cold War era (1947-1991).
LET’S QUEER THINGS UP
As society changes, language changes too, with “queer” being a prime example. Queer can summarise identity, lifestyle, community, a way of being or something we do (or do not do). It can be more fluid, inclusive and intersectional. Queer can create rainbow alliances that celebrate our differences.
Queer is now commonly used by many LGBTQIA+ people to distinguish themselves from heteronormative and sometimes homo-normative mainstream society. Queer is all these things. And for some, it’s none of them.
Queer Activist Samo explains why the teens he’s worked with consider themselves “queer”. “They often don’t know exactly where they fall because teens are still figuring themselves out but know they’re under the umbrella. By using queer, their identity doesn’t feel so rigid. It makes it easier for them to connect with LGBTQIA+ communities if they use the word queer without having to explicitly state, or label, their sexual orientation or gender identity,”
Queer has a dark past and can be a term that some members of the LGBTQIA+ community see as inappropriate. Understandably, some older people who have lived experiences of “queer” used against them abusively can find its use traumatic, which we must meet with compassion and respect.
Just as we become more mindful of checking a person’s preferred pronouns, perhaps we can use the same tact with ‘”queer” by ensuring people are comfortable with it before using it to refer to them or even around them.
The most important thing to remember, queer or no queer, is that we can still all be proud rainbow allies. As Dorothy said in The Wizard of Oz, “The queerness doesn’t matter, so long as they’re friends.”