We look back at the origins of the controversial term, from 19th-century homosexual love letters to radical punks
‘Queer’. It’s a term I encountered occasionally throughout my adolescence, always as an insult, a slur. It’s a word that was shouted angrily at me on the street, a mark of disrespect used to goad me into arguments in nightclubs and, most frequently, a term spat in disgust whenever I indulged in public displays of affection. I understood it as a word designed to make me ashamed not only of my homosexuality but of my voice, my appearance and my behaviour; I grew up believing that ‘queer’ was a term used only to express hatred, anger and prejudice.
This isn’t, of course, the truth, and I learned this later in life – as I grew older I discovered queercore, queer theory and shows like Queer as Folk which introduced me to broader context. The origins of the word itself are dubious but what we know for sure is that ‘queer’ first entered the English language in the 16th century. Its original meaning was ‘strange’ or ‘peculiar’ – hence the idiom “there’s nowt so queer as folk”. Now, however, it’s more commonly used to describe non-normative identities with regards to both gender and sexuality; it’s an umbrella term used to define a spectrum of marginalised identities ranging from cis white gay men to asexual non-binary black individuals. Still, many remain reluctant to classify themselves as queer or discuss queer identities due to the word’s chequered history. ‘Queer’ has been decried, reclaimed and decried once again over the last few centuries; is it still – and should it be – a dirty word?
ORIGINS OF ‘QUEER’ AS A SLUR
John Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry (yes, that’s seriously his title) gave us the first recorded written example of queer as a slur back in 1894. Douglas had discovered his son was embroiled in a gay relationship with Oscar Wilde; he became concerned at the potential of a gay sex scandal and immediately set out to prosecute Wilde in any way possible. He achieved his mission, launching a lengthy court case which argued the iconic playwright was a sodomy-obsessed old man that lured gay prostitutes into a lifestyle of degeneracy. It was throughout this court case that the original letter surfaced – Douglas had used ‘Snob Queers’ as a descriptor for gay men, establishing ‘queer’’s reputation as a gay slur.
American newspapers used ‘queer’ as a derogatory term almost immediately, using it to highlight the fact that homosexuality was strange and abnormal. Interestingly, it was most frequently used to specifically attack effeminate gay men. Back in Britain, however, the Oxford Dictionary differentiated between using it as an adjective and a verb – even now, it seems pointless to highlight that calling someone ‘a queer’ sounds more offensive than using it as an adjective. Its original definitions still remained ingrained within language, but the word’s reputation took a downhill slide and slowly but surely became intrinsically linked with hate speech and homophobia.
BECOMING IMBUED WITH THE SPIRIT OF ANARCHY
‘Queer’ was later reclaimed in the midst of the Aids epidemic and quickly became a symbol of anarchy. Protests would erupt with little warning, flooding the streets with queer punks declaring “We’re here, we’re queer, we will not live in fear” – a rallying cry which echoed poignantly throughout Soho just weeks ago in Orlando’s devastating aftermath. Activists joined forces in the late 80s and early 90s to form organisations such as Queer Nation, a group whose provocative slogans sought to eradicate hate crime; around the same time, Bruce LaBruce and G.B. Jones were hard at work on J.D.s, a cult publication which housed creative expressions of queerness and coined ‘queercore’ to describe queer punk music. A combination of these factors meant that the early 90s can be pinpointed as the decade in which ‘queer’ was radically reclaimed. The former insult was worn as a badge of honour; not only did it become a definitive symbol of anarchy and rebellion, it became the ultimate linguistic ‘fuck you’ to homophobia.
Queer Nation explained their intentions behind the reclamation in a leaflet entitled ‘QUEERS READ THIS’, passed out at 1990’s New York Pride. The comprehensive text highlighted queer bashing, institutionalised discrimination and the countless lives lost at the hands of the AIDs virus, arguing that ‘gay’ as a term wasn’t strong enough. “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. It’s a way of telling ourselves we don’t have to be witty and charming people who keep our lives discreet and marginalised; we use queer as gay men loving lesbians and lesbians loving being queer. Queer, unlike GAY, doesn’t mean MALE.”
FINDING MAINSTREAM REPRESENTATION
The 1990s saw queer creatives thrive on the fringes of the mainstream. Although ‘queer’ was still occasionally used both in the context of homophobia and in its original definition, it was quickly gaining a reputation for its links with anarchy and protest. This changed in 1999 with the release of Queer as Folk, a Channel 4 show documenting the lives and experiences three gay men in Manchester’s gay village. The show’s uncensored depictions of sex and promiscuity naturally drew scores of complaints – the opening scenes of the pilot episode showed a handjob in an alleyway, a cum shot and a series of matter-of-fact sex monologues delivered straight to camera. For the first time, ‘queer’ was finding mainstream representation.
Criticism was levelled at the show as many argue it failed to fully represent queer identities. Porn stars and drag queens were given screentime and issues of queer sexuality were explored, but racial minorities were largely excluded from the show and the three main protagonists were cis white gay men (the writer did, however, argue this was a deliberate move made to highlight archetypes of gay men). However, it was unquestionably progressive for ‘queer’ to be worked into the title of a prime-time TV show – even if the results weren’t quite as progressive as many had hoped.
MODERN QUEER IDENTITIES – ‘ALPHABET SOUP’
There’s still work to be done, but queer visibility has skyrocketed over the last decade; Miley Cyrus has discussed genderqueer identities, Amandla Stenberg has published concise, informative videos on pansexuality and their own queerness and even hip-hop is currently being redefined by queer trailblazer Mykki Blanco. The umbrella term LGBT has expanded accordingly – depending who you ask, it should now either be LGBTQ, LGBTQIA or LGBTQIA+. Many have been left confused, calling it ‘alphabet soup’, whereas others are still offended by the word ‘queer’ and argue it should never be used. When the Huffington Post rebranded its ‘Gay Voices’ column to ‘Queer Voices’, writer James Peron penned an op-ed decrying the name change – “I don’t find the term liberating. I find it offensive.”
Crucially, the author reiterated a generational divide. Modern youth have grown up in a more accepting society that celebrates inclusivity and views ‘queer’ as a useful umbrella term to describe all non-binary identities, whereas an older generation came of age in a society which saw the term only as a slur. It seems that social opinion is still divided – some see it as a dirty word, whereas others see it as progressive. Personally, I’m in favour of reclaiming ‘queer’ once and for all, primarily because it highlights that the vast spectrum of identity isn’t as basic as mere homosexuality; we need trans voices, intersex voices and asexual voices. Terminology is an issue that will never disappear – the key, as always, is context and discussion. If someone’s offended by the word, respect it. There will always be those amongst us that recoil in horror at the word, but there’s also a new generation reclaiming it in the same spirit as the rebellious punks of the 1980s – those of us who boldly state that we’re here, we’re queer and we will not live in fear.