Queer: From slur to rainbow umbrella

Pallas Gutierrez, Assistant Opinion Editor

This is the tenth column in “50 Years of Queer Anger,” a series examining LGBTQ+ issues in the United States since 1969.

The word “queer” has a complicated history of oppression and liberation. Some older non-straight cisgender people remember it being leveled against them as a slur. Some remember it as a scream of defiance and pride: “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” Younger people use it to describe their sexuality. Academics use it as a catch-all to avoid leaving out any specific identity.

But as a reclaimed slur, queer has a complex history and nebulous acceptability.

The earliest forms and meanings of the word “queer” all meant curved or twisted, long before the word “straight” came to mean heterosexual. In the 17th and 18th centuries, “queer” emerged as a modifier meaning strange or bad. John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensbury, may have been the first person to use “queer” derogatorily against a gay person. In a letter to his son, Lord Alfred Douglas the Marquess blamed the death of his other son, Francis, on “Snob Queers like Rosebery.” His use of “Queers” referred to Archibald Primrose, who had allegedly been romantically involved with Francis before his death.

(If the name Lord Alfred Douglas looks familiar, he was having an affair with Oscar Wilde at the time, for which Wilde was later prosecuted under England’s gross indecency laws.)

“Queer” in its current meaning — to describe non-heterosexual people — first appeared in print in the United States in a 1914 article in the Los Angeles Times. By the 1950s, queer was, in the words of LGBTQ+ historian Lillian Faderman, “interchangeable with other homophobic words such as ‘fairy’ and ‘bulldyke.’”

By the end of the twentieth century, the term “queer” was beginning to be reclaimed. In 1990, the activist group Queer Nation proudly displayed the formerly taboo word in efforts to reclaim the term queer from homophobes, as well as to use more inclusive language than “gay” and “lesbian,” which were seen as exclusionary. It also popularized the now iconic slogan, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.”

By now, the word “queer” is part of American pop culture and academia, from “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” to queer studies being an accepted field of research. In the acronym LGBTQ+, “queer” is one of the multiple meanings for the Q.

But that general acceptability does not erase the treacherous and hateful history of the word “queer.”

Personally, I have no problem with the usage of the word “queer.” It has never been used against me hatefully and captures the non-normativity that defines many parts of my life experience succinctly. Many of my friends have identities that fall outside the five privileged letters of LGBTQ+, and “queer” allows them to feel included in the community, rather than an afterthought. The non-normativity and inclusivity of “queer” are why I decided to title this series “50 Years of Queer Anger.”

But I understand people who don’t want to be described as queer. I imagine that it may be a similar experience to the sinking feeling I feel when someone calls me a slur: a combination of confusion, isolation, nausea, and fear.

People should be allowed to use words that encapsulate their experiences to describe themselves. If someone says that they identify as queer, be accepting. If someone says not to call them queer, don’t. Words carry hateful meanings from earlier times that, while not always obvious to the person using them, reverberate in the consciousness of historically oppressed groups and can make them feel unvalued and unsafe.

A. Pallas Gutierrez is a Communication first-year. They can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.