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What is the History of the Word “Queer?”

word queer
Queer is a term that many consider a slur, but some members of the LGBTQ+ community have reclaimed it

Queer is a term that many consider a slur, but some members of the LGBTQ+ community have reclaimed it. This term can spark a hot debate on whether or not it is offensive to use within the LGBTQ+ community, even if it is used as a term of reclamation (we investigated this in our article Is the Term “Queer” Offensive?). We thought we’d share a history of the word so you can decide for yourself. 

What Does the Word Queer Mean?

Queer is an umbrella term that refers to people that are not heterosexual or cisgender. The word was first made known in English around 1513, referring to something that is not normal, peculiar, or odd. It may have referred to something or a suspicious person, “not quite right,” or a socially inappropriate person. 

During this time, it could be about anything, not just people. There were no connotations regarding gender and sexuality, and it was not used pejoratively. 

How Was the Term Queer Defined in the Dictionary?

The Oxford English Dictionary first defined the noun “queer” as a term that means “homosexual” by the Marquess of Queensbury in 1894. Then, The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang refers to the adjective “queer” as meaning “homosexual” around 1914 (in the United States). In addition, it mentions that it is “derogatory from the outside, not from within.”

The 1949 version of Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary has one slang for “queer,” and this example is “Counterfeit money” the 1965 Webster’s New World Dictionary, College Edition defines the word “queer” as a noun and adjective that is slang for homosexual. However, it is listed as not offensive slang, just slang in general.

The current Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fifth Edition lists “queer” as: “[Slang] homosexual: in general usage, still chiefly a slang term of contempt or derision, but later used as by some academics and homosexual activists as a descriptive term without negative connotations.” 

The Dictionary of American Slang also defines the term as follows: “in the early 1990s queer was adopted as a non-pejorative designation by some homosexuals, in the spirit of ‘gay pride.'” According to the OED, the transformation of the term started in the late 1980s.

When Did the Word First Start Being Used Pejoratively?

During the late 19th century, the term queer had connotations of sexual deviance, primarily when used to refer to same-sex relationships. An early use of the word was found in an 1894 letter written by John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry.

What Political Things Were Happening When Queer Was Adopted as a Positive Label?

The gay rights movement and the AIDS epidemic led to the first time that the word “queer” was used as a positive self-label. It occurred in the group Queer Nation, created in the early 1990s to fight against violence against LGBTQ+ people. This group was an offshoot of ACT UP, a protest group helping solve the AIDS crisis.

According to Newsweek (in 1991) regarding this organization, “By co-opting the word ‘queer, they have disarmed homophobes. 

Many lesbians, gay men, and transgender folks who had experienced the word “queer” as an insult at the time may have been surprised to hear that this word would be reemerging in a positive light. The term appeared in iconic manifestos and theoretical texts like Queer Nation’s “I Hate Straights” and Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble.

Queer people, especially queer people of color, also reclaimed the term queer in response to a change in the gay community toward liberal conservatism. The radical queer groups that participated in this type of LGBTQ+ activism contrasted with “the holy trinity of marriage, military service and adoption [which had] become the central preoccupation of a gay movement centered more on obtaining straight privilege than challenging power.” According to commentators, these “revolting queers” made it safe for the assimilationists to obtain the option of assimilation. 

What Meaning Does the Word Queer Have?

Since then, “queer” has had new meanings other than “homosexual” and can be in reference to gender. For example, some people who are genderqueer or non-binary may identify as queer. In addition, the “Q” in the LGBTQ+ acronym can stand for queer or questioning. 

“Queer” has been adopted by some people and rejected by others. As a result, it cannot describe individuals, a group of individuals, or their gender orientations, unless it is known if they have adopted the term. According to the AP Stylebook: “Queer is acceptable for people and organizations that use the term to identify themselves. Do not use it when intended as a slur.”

In Summary 

This article explores just some of the history of the term queer – it is even more extensive and nuanced, and the reclamation and use of the term queer is still controversial today. Some people and organizations dislike the term because they link it with political radicalism; some say it has even divided the LGBTQ+ community. 

Other LGBTQ+ people may see queer as offensive or self-deprecating and are still scarred by its pejorative use. Some may avoid it because it’s just a fad or academic jargon.

However, some may find it empowering to reclaim it and are comfortable using it. Ultimately, it is up to the person, their preference, and how they use it. 

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