Reviled, recovered, and respected: the history of the word “queer”

A number of individuals have recently questioned or criticized the use of the term “queer” to denote LGBTIQA+ individuals.

A writer for the Guardian asserted that the “q-word” is as disparaging and hurtful as the “n-word” and that it should not be used.

The meaning(s) and usage of queer have never been singular, simple, or stable, despite the fact that the word has a history of being used in hostile and derogatory ways.

The origin of the word queer is unknown, but it entered the English language in the early 16th century, when it was largely used to imply strange, odd, peculiar, or eccentric.

By the late 19th century, it was commonly used to refer to males who were attracted to guys of the same gender. While this usage was typically negative, queer was sometimes employed in neutral and affirmative contexts.

Examples from the Oxford English Dictionary illustrate this semantic variety, including cases of homosexual males using queer as a positive self-description while it was also being used in the most derogatory manner.

Compare the neutral: “Thirteen young men were invited […] with the expectation that they would meet some prominent ‘queers’” (1914) with the insulting: “fairies, pansies, and queers conducted […] lewd practices” (1936) and the self-affirming: “young men who identify as ‘queers’” (1952).

As sexual and gender minorities campaigned for civil rights and promoted new ways of being in society during the 1960s and 1970s, we also sought new names for ourselves.

By yelling “out of the closets, into the streets” and singing “we’re here because we’re queer,” gay liberationists began to reclaim queer from its previous destructive usages.

Lesbian and homosexual people’s newsletters from the time reveal a continuing interest in the words, labels, and politics of naming they could and should use to describe themselves.

Some gay liberationists wanted to eliminate the word homosexual because they believed it limited their potential and “prescribes an entire system of behavior […] that has nothing to do with my daily life.”

Lesbian women and gay men in Australia referred to themselves as “camp” for a brief while prior to the emergence of the term “gay,” which was adopted by both lesbian women and gay men at the time.

In the early 1990s, the term gay became increasingly commonly associated with gay males.

As bisexuals and transgender individuals gained wider acceptance, respectful and inclusive language standards developed to “lesbian and gay” and then “LGBT.”

Queer came to be utilized in a new way, no longer as a synonym for homosexual, but as a critical and political identity that questioned conventional notions of sexuality and gender.

Queer theory utilized social constructionism – the thesis that humans acquire knowledge of the world in a social context – to criticize the notion that any sexual orientation or gender identity was normal or natural. This demonstrated how certain sexuality and gender norms were historically conditioned.

Michel Foucault, Michael Warner, Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick, and Lauren Berlant had a significant impact on the evolution of this new concept of queer.

Some individuals started identifying as queer in the critical meaning, not as a synonym for a stable gender or sexual identity, but to denote a non-conforming gender or sexual identity.

In their more militant, anti-assimilationist political acts, activists from organisations such as Queer Nation also employed queer in this critical sense.

Beginning in the early 2000s, it became more common to use queer as an inclusive umbrella term for the spectrum of sexual and gender identities represented by the LGBTIQA+ acronym.

Today, queer is included among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, gender varied, intersex, asexual, brotherboy, and sistergirl as the most respectful and inclusive way to refer to individuals with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.

Obviously, the various uses and meanings of terminology like queer have frequently overlapped and been severely debated.

Historical usages and connections continue to exist and can coexist awkwardly with modern reclamations.

I find it interesting that contemporary concerns focus on the historical derogatory use of the term “queer.”

My co-authored heritage report, A History of LGBTIQ+ Victoria in 100 Places and Objects, examines the linguistic diversity of historical and present societies.

It is noteworthy that nearly all of the words LGBTIQA+ individuals use to represent themselves today have homophobic or transphobic roots.

In fact, liberating words from non-affirming religious, therapeutic, or colloquial contexts and imbuing them with our own meanings may be considered one of the defining traits of LGBTIQA+ history.

Although queer has a history of being used as an insult, that has never been the term’s only connotation.

At least fifty years ago, same-sex attracted and gender non-conforming individuals began to ascribe the term with improved meanings.

Today, queer is predominantly used as an affirming term that includes all individuals in the rainbow acronym.

I support initiatives to promote inclusivity and solidarity at a time when transgender and gender non-conforming individuals are suffering particularly harsh attacks.

Respectful language usage does not demand us to eliminate queer, but rather to consider its history and how our readers and listeners perceive it.