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The History of The Word ‘Queer’

The word ‘queer’ has a long and somewhat disreputable history.

It was originally used by John Douglas — the then Marquess of Queensbury — in 1894 in a smear campaign against Oscar Wilde after he’d caught his son having an affair with Wilde. The word ‘queer,’ then simply connoting something weird and bizarre, was used by him to discredit Wilde. And so the use of the word ‘queer’ as a slur against, well, queer people – gays, lesbians, bisexuals (although bisexuals didn’t begin to be seen as a separate group until the early 1950s) and trans people. Anyone who didn’t fit within a conventional heteronormative view of society that propagated the insidious and, frankly, colonial idea of a gender binary was seen as something different, weird and, therefore, queer.

During the AIDS epidemic, we witnessed a reclamation of the word ‘queer.’ Everything about that era can be characterized by an air of defiance, and so we see this with the word in question. It was turned from a derogatory slur used to offend and harass members of the LGBTQ+ community into a word meant to denote the power, pride and togetherness of a community that had persevered (and continues to do so) despite worldwide persecution and inequality. Groups such as ‘queer nation’ came up to fight for the rights of queer people.

Due to this, a lot of people in today’s generation grew up hearing the word ‘queer.’ To most of them, it was a word used to denote the LGBTQ+ community and the word carried no charge, neither positive nor negative. However, there are still places where ‘queer’ continues to be used as a negatively charged pejorative and LGBTQ+ people who continually have to listen to the word ‘queer’ hurled at them as though it is an insult. A lot of these people continue to insist that ‘queer’ is a slur and they are not wrong in feeling the way they do. When we say that ‘queer’ is a slur, there are two things that we absolutely must keep in mind.

One, almost every word used to describe the LGBT+ community started out as a slur of some sort. From the 17th century, a ‘gay’ person was someone who was immoral or sexually loose. A gay man, ironically, was a womanizer. A gay woman was a prostitute. A gay house was a brothel. Bisexuality was considered to be a mental disorder to be treated with castration, medication, electroshock therapy, hypnosis or any other ‘treatment’ people could think of. An entire field of study known as ‘sexology’ was devoted to ‘curing’ trans people.

Secondly, when most of the words that members of the LGBTQ+ community use to define themselves originated as slurs and ‘diseases,’ then how can we claim that the word cannot be used by members of such historically marginalized groups to articulate their own existences? Additionally, since the word ‘queer’ is often used by bi, pan, poly and omni people, or people who are confused about what label best fits them, saying that their usage of this word to define their own existences and experiences is, in a way, ‘not allowed’ leads to their further marginalization. After all, if you cannot find the vocabulary to define your own experience, then how are you to express your identity?

At the core of it, it’s about respect. It is about understanding that although the word has been ‘reclaimed’ and is used in mainstream media an awful lot, it is still considered deeply harmful to some members of the community and it is about respecting such boundaries and understanding that no single one of us can be permitted to tell anyone how they ‘should’ or ‘should not’ feel about a word they consider to be uplifting or derogatory based on their own personal experiences with it.

Featured image from Quartz

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