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Queer NationCourtesy Wikicommons

In defence of the word ‘queer’

The debate over the use of ‘Q-word’ has raged for years, but its detractors’ arguments are dumb at best and transphobic at worst

Over the past few years, a vicious debate has raged over the word ‘queer’. This has played out in the New York Times, a monologue by comedian David Sedaris, endless discussions on social media and, this month, a widely derided letter to the Guardian, which described the term as “insulting and derogatory” and compared it to the N-word.

For its proponents, ‘queer’ is a concept that still retains radical potential – or simply a convenient linguistic shortcut. For its detractors, it’s a slur so loaded with memories of violence and bullying, that any attempt to reclaim it is an affront to an entire generation of gay men. But there’s something else at play here: the battle over ‘queer’ is often a proxy debate for the broader question of whether cisgender gay people and the trans community ought to be grouped together. For many of those who hate it, it seems that the problem is less the word itself and more the suggestion that there’s a need for it in the first place.

The strangest claim to have emerged during this controversy is that the adoption of queer is a trendy, modern phenomenon cribbed from Tumblr or more recently TikTok. There may be a generational divide on the issue, but it’s one built on a false premise: there are instances of people self-identifying as ‘queer’ as far back as the 1930s, and it was in the 1980s and 1990s that it was first widely reclaimed. The American activist group Queer Nation repurposed the term to reflect an angrier and more radical turn in gay politics, distributing a leaflet in 1990 which read: “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.” The word wasn’t only used in academia and activist circles, either: consider two of the most visible gay media properties of the late 90s and early 00s – Queer as Folk and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

Beyond queer itself, there is also a much wider tradition of gay men re-appropriating slurs. Many gay men proudly used the word ‘f****t’ in the 1970s, an era which saw the publication of books like The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions, manifestos about ‘Cocksucker Values’, and the beginning of the ‘radical faerie’ movement. When it comes to re-appropriated slurs, ‘queer’ is surely at the milder end of the spectrum.

Many proponents of queer argue that it’s not straightforwardly synonymous with LGBTQ+ at all, and instead indicates something more subversive. “It’s not about who you’re having sex with – that can be a dimension of it – but queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and it has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live,” wrote bell hooks. For theorist David Halperin, queer is “an exhilarating personal experiment, performed on ourselves by ourselves”, while Eve Sedgwick described it as “an open mesh of possibilities”. Within this framework, it’s possible to be gay without being queer – if, for example, you’re a masc4masc management consultant who votes conservative and always talks about how much you hate drag. The word’s association with radical politics and the academic discipline of queer theory is another reason why it has drawn so much hostility; to its detractors, it represents a hostile take-over by pretentious intellectuals and rabble-rousing radicals.

‘The battle over ‘queer’ is often a proxy debate for the broader question of whether cisgender gay people and the trans community ought to be grouped together’

Plenty of people object to the term because it reminds them of traumatic past experiences. I relate to this because, along with many people my age, I used to feel the same way about “gay”, a word I associated with being repeatedly kicked in the head. If it wasn’t that, it was the sneering dismissal “that’s so gay” – a phrase so entrenched during my adolescence that in 2008, Hillary Duff was forced to make a PSA denouncing it. It took me a long time to feel comfortable describing myself as gay without wincing; without it sounding exactly the same as announcing, “I am uncool, corny, or pathetic.” I felt a lot of shame, self-loathing and painful memories attached to that word but eventually, I got over it. But as much as I can empathise with the lingering scars of homophobic violence, I don’t think it’s possible to dictate how other groups and individuals choose to identify based on your own subjective experiences. 

The right-wing media has churned out an extraordinary number of articles attacking the word ‘queer’ in recent years. According to the authors of many of these screeds, the problem with the word is that its meaning has become too diffuse and inclusive, which allows anyone – including cisgender straight people – to present themselves as a persecuted minority. Sedaris, to offer one particularly weird example, claims to have encountered a straight woman identifying as queer on the basis that she was tall. Far more common, though, is the ‘straight woman with a boyfriend’ archetype who opts into oppression because she thinks it will make her more interesting. As Pamela Paul writes in the NYT, “Saying you’re queer could mean as little as having kissed another girl your sophomore year at college. It could mean you valiantly plowed through the prose of Judith Butler in a course on queerness in the Elizabethan theater.” There’s a blatant misogyny at play in the idea that women either don’t understand their desires or are lying about them for attention. Most of the “straight interloper” theory is simply biphobia or transphobia, based on the premise that trans people are really cis or bi people as really straight.

But its adherents also seem to believe there are vast swathes of truly straight, truly cisgender men who are identifying as ‘queer’ because they’re in an open relationship with a woman, have tattoos or sometimes use a tinted moisturiser. This is not a meaningful phenomenon. I would love to live in a world where queerness reliably confers social capital outside of a few very specific contexts, but this is evidently not the case. If these men do exist, we’re surely talking 50 people max, localised entirely within Hackney Wick and Govanhill (I’ve certainly never met one). In most places, a straight man wearing nail varnish is as likely to get beaten up on the night bus as anyone else, regardless of whether they’re doing it for clout. The anti-queer crowd has committed the cardinal sin of basing their entire worldview off a handful of people they find annoying on the internet and a larger contingent of people who they have imagined entirely.

Underlying this all is a sense of stolen valour: you shouldn’t be allowed to identify as queer unless you’ve endured a requisite level of violence and oppression (much like these same people often argue that you can’t be a woman unless you’ve experienced a lifetime of misogyny). This ends up making victimhood a constitutive part of being gay, and something which must be jealously guarded – whatever authority or virtue it grants you is in danger of erosion if anyone can identify as queer without having the decency to get beaten up first. In material terms, it’s hard to see what else is at stake. What does a straight woman identifying as queer because she’s tall actually take away from me, other than impinging on my exclusive claim to victimhood?

“What does a straight woman identifying as queer because she’s tall actually take away from me, other than impinging on my exclusive claim to victimhood?”

I don’t identify as ‘queer’ over ‘gay’, but I don’t bristle at being described as such, nor have I ever felt coerced into doing so. It’s both a collective identity and a handy catch-all term, which is much less clunky than ‘LGBTQ+’. What these people are often objecting to is the idea that cis gay and trans people have anything in common, and therefore the necessity – or even the convenience – of an umbrella term existing. The ‘queer community’ might not exist as a concrete entity (there are thousands) but I do think I have plenty in common with trans people; certain political interests, cultural references, experiences and enemies. To me, and I think most people my age and younger, this is an obvious truth. At the most practical level, we need a word to describe everyone who is perceived by society as being, in some way, a little bit fruity. ‘Queer’ is as good an option as any.

One compromise position I could get behind would be returning to a more expansive definition of ‘gay’, which in the gay liberation era typically included trans people too. Surely those who hate the word ‘queer’ couldn’t have a problem with that?

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