CW: Past references to the word “queer” as a slur.
Many people often wonder if the word queer is considered offensive nowadays. The answer is not straightforward and can be liberating for some and offensive to others. Many younger people or those who live in bigger cities can find the word queer to be a term of pride and can be easier to identify within an “umbrella” of diverse sexualities and genders. However, some people have a difficult history with the word and may consider it a slur in specific contexts but acceptable in other contexts. Some individuals might always see it as a slur and would not want it used to describe them.
In other words, for those who identify as queer, the terms lesbian, gay, and bisexual can often be too limiting and have cultural connotations that don’t necessarily apply to them. Meanwhile, some people may use the term queer, or a term like genderqueer, to describe their gender identity. In essence, some people embrace the term queer while others do not want to be associated with it.
At LGBTQ and ALL, we use the term “queer” in an affirming manner on our site and within our articles. We view it as an umbrella term that can refer to all diverse identities.
In particular, we refer to GLAAD’s current media reference guide that defines queer as “an adjective used by some people, particularly younger people, whose sexual orientation is not exclusively heterosexual (e.g. queer person, queer woman).”
Some History About the Word Queer
The term queer used to be a derogatory term referencing gay people. More recently, as a response, some activists in the LGBTQ+ community started calling themselves “queer” to reclaim the word.
The word first appeared in the English language around 1513, referring to something not normal, peculiar, and/or odd. This term could literally apply to anything. For example, counterfeit money could be referred to as “queer,”; or if someone is sick, they might say they “feel queer.”
However, John Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, was the first recorded person that used the term queer as a slur in 1984. Douglas had found out that his son was in a gay relationship with Oscar Wilde. Because of this, he became concerned about a potential gay sex scandal and aimed to prosecute Wilde any way he could. As a result, he launched a lengthy court case arguing that Wilde was a “sodomy-obsessed old man” that lured gay sex workers into a degenerate lifestyle. During this court case, the original letter contained the word queer as a slur. Douglas used the term ‘Snob Queers’ to describe gay men.
Later, American newspapers started using the word ‘queer’ as a derogatory term. They wanted to portray homosexuality as being strange and out of the ordinary. In addition, it was most often used to attack gay men that were effeminate. Essentially, the word’s reputation became more linked with hate speech and homophobia.
Reclaiming the Term “Queer”
In the late 1980s, the label queer started to become reclaimed from its pejorative use as more a neutral or positive self=descriptor by members of the LGBTQ+ community. One of the earliest examples was by an organization called Queer Nation, established in March 1990. They passed out an anonymous flier at the New York Gay Pride Parade in June 1990 with the title: “Queers Read This.” In this document, there was a passage that explained why they used this term:
“Ah, do we really have to use that word? It’s trouble. Every gay person has his or her own take on it. For some, it means strange and eccentric and kind of mysterious […] And for others’ queer’ conjures up those awful memories of adolescent suffering […] Well, yes, “gay” is great. It has its place. But when a lot of lesbians and gay men wake up in the morning we feel angry and disgusted, not gay. So we’ve chosen to call ourselves queer. Using “queer” is a way of reminding us how we are perceived by the rest of the world.”
Today, for many people, the word “queer” can be inclusive of individuals who have been bothered by some aspects of the LGBTQ+ rights movement that have outdated ideas about gender. However, it depends on who you speak to about the word since there are many conflicting meanings. As we said before, some may still see it as a slur, while others use it with pride.
How to Use the Term Respectfully
In the LGBTQ+ acronym, “Q” is included for both queer and questioning. Many people use the term respectfully when they are referring to it being a term that is gender-neutral, that acknowledges identities left out in the community, like intersex people, for example. It can also be used respectfully to be more inclusive to members of the community from cultures with non-heterosexual, non-cisgender identities and various words and customs, like Two-Spirit. On the other hand, while the word queer is often used with the utmost love and respect, it can be used in a derogatory way.
If you want to use the term “queer” respectfully, consider the following:
- Use the term queer as an adjective. For example, Billie is a queer writer.
- Do not use the term queer as a noun, as many may find this offensive. For example, Billie is a queer.
“Queer” is one of many words of its kind to be reclaimed. However, unlike some other slurs, “queer” cannot represent the entirety of the LGBTQ+ community. This word can bring up many different meanings, emotions, and past histories for some members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Essentially, the conversation about the word queer is nuanced. There’s not going to be one single solution that will work for all members of the LGBTQ+ community who want to use the term and those who find it problematic. However, when we use the term LGBTQ and ALL, we do so with respect, dignity, love, and inclusivity in mind.