Queer has traditionally meant ‘strange’ or ‘unusual’, but is currently often used in reference to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex communities. Its usage is controversial and underwent substantial changes over the course of the 20th century. The term is considered by some to be offensive and derisive, and by others merely an inoffensive term for people whose sexual orientation and/or gender identity or gender expression does not conform to heteronormative societal norms.
Its current usage dates back to the early 20th century, when homosexual men in the New York urban and suburban areas began using it to describe themselves and their subculture. Derived from the Old English term ‘quare‘, meaning questioned or unknown, the term was meant as a “code word” to hide them from the so-called ‘straight world’.
Since its emergence in the English language in the 16th century (related to the German quer, meaning ‘across, at right angle, diagonally or transverse’), queer has generally meant ‘strange’, ‘unusual’, or ‘out of alignment’. It might refer to something suspicious or ‘not quite right’, or to a person with mild insanity or who exhibits socially inappropriate behavior. The expression “in Queer Street” was used in the UK in the early 20th century for someone in financial trouble; and is still occasionally used today. It gained its implication of sexual deviance (especially that of homosexual and/or effeminate males) in the late 19th century; an early recorded usage of the word in this sense was in a letter by John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry to his son Lord Alfred Douglas.
Subsequently, for most of the 20th century, ‘queer’ was used primarily as a derogatory term for effeminate and/or gay males, and others exhibiting non-traditional gender behavior, with the more general meaning gradually falling into disuse. During this transition, someone might use the term literally in the older sense, but implying the newer sense. For example, ‘He’s a queer fellow,’ would ostensibly be a statement that the man is a bit odd, but the subtext was that the speaker believed him to be gay.
The term was also used disparagingly by people within the lesbian and gay communities during much of the 20th century. It might be self-applied as a form of self-deprecation, or it might be aimed at another—perhaps more stereotypically ‘gay’ or less conventional—gay man or lesbian woman, as an epithet, suggesting that the target is even ‘lower’ than the speaker. It might also be used to denigrate a peer by reminding him of his status in society: just a ‘queer’.
Although the literal meaning remained fundamentally the same, the connotations of the word changed substantially in the late 20th century. It was used in the late 1960s by radical writer Paul Goodman in his book The Politics of Being Queer (1969), which had a significant effect on the early gay liberation movement in the USA, especially as it became more widely and openly radical in the 1980s and 1990s. At this time, a movement developed within this larger movement which sought to reclaim queer and wear it as a label of self-respect or pride, as had already begun happening in some communities with epithets such as faggot and dyke. According to academic feminist theorist Judith Butler (1993):
‘This appropriation of the word, and its transformation from an insult used by somebody outside the community to a neutral term used by those inside the community can be seen as similar to the metamorphosis of the word “nigger” and its adoption by some in the African-American community.’
Public declarations of this ‘reclaimed’ usage emerged in 1989 in the United States (Crimp 1990, page 100), and in the UK during the summer of 1990 (i-D 1991). Two different uses seem to have arisen separately, but at the same time.
The first use, rather short-lived, arose initially from an aggressive essentialist separatism. Initially labeled as the ‘New Radicals’, this was linked with radical outing and a militant ‘black power’ style, separatist approach to sexuality (Katlin, 1991). This meaning of the word quickly evaporated.
The second form of the term was popularized by a wave of activist groups in the UK and USA, often working in new forms of non-violent street protest related to HIV/AIDS activism, such as Queer Nation, ACT UP, OutRage!, Subversive Street Queers, and Homocult. This use also arose in the mid 1980’s from an underground queer fanzine scene, beginning with J.D.s, and the inception of the Queercore movement in Canada and the U.S., where queer fanzines’ inter-communication had been greatly aided by Factsheet Five. Other currents also contributed; campaigns in the UK around the age of consent and queer bashing, as well as the growing alienation of young ‘pro-sex, pro-porn’ lesbians from feminism, and a profound disillusionment with socialism and the left. At this time, queer seemed to mean a breaking free from sexual identities and sexual labels, an embracing of a flexible repertoire of acts and emotions. This is shown clearly in the experience of many in ACT UP and Queer Nation:
‘It’s an open secret that men and women active in ACT UP and Queer Nation are having sex together in unpredictable patterns, with little sexual disorientation.’ (Tucker 1992, page 33)
This is the meaning of ‘queer’ most closely associated with the academic field known as queer theory, a field that looks to margins of the sexual spectrum to explore and deconstruct societal understandings of fixed sexual identities, and of identities and categories in general.
In contemporary usage, queer is used as an inclusive, unifying sociopolitical umbrella term for people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and also for those who are transgender, transsexual, intersexual and/or genderqueer. It can also include asexual and autosexual people, as well as heterosexuals whose sexual preferences or activities place them outside the mainstream (e.g. BDSM practitioners, or polyamorists). Queer in this sense (depending on how broadly it is defined) is commonly used as a synonym for such terms as LGBT or lesbigay.
Many members of these communities have resisted this usage, and reject its application to them. Because the term—even as defined by modern activists—retains its connotations of ‘strangeness’, and they do not consider themselves ‘strange’, they consider the term inappropriate or even offensive. Some object to being ‘lumped in’ with people whose sexuality they do not themselves condone (e.g. monogamous couples disapproving of sexually promiscuous radicals). Furthermore, the term persists as a homophobic slur, often bordering on profanity, which many—especially (but not exclusively) older individuals—still find personally hurtful. Many transgender, transsexual, and intersexual people instead identify themselves as heterosexual or straight, rejecting ‘queer’ status.
Because of the context in which it was reclaimed, queer has sociopolitical connotations, and is often preferred by those who are activists, by those who strongly reject traditional gender identities, by those who reject distinct sexual identities such as gay, lesbian, bisexual and straight, and by those who see themselves as oppressed by the heteronormativity of the larger culture. In this context “queer” is not a synonym for LGBT and many activist groups accept the acronym LGBTQ as preferable to the less inclusive LGBT.
Several television shows, including Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and the British and American versions of Queer as Folk, have also used the term, in its positive self-identification sense, in their titles.
The term is sometimes capitalized when referring to an identity or community, rather than merely a sexual fact (cf. the capitalized use of Deaf).
Queer Events and Groups
Queeruption is a queer festival which takes place in a different city each year. In 2004 and 2005, a festival held each summer in Olympia, Washington called Homo-a-go-go, which features queer films, zines, performance and musical groups during the week-long event. In the UK The “Queer Youth Alliance” hosts the annual National “Queer Youth Conference”, a national gathering of several hundred LGBT young people from all over the country. A group of queercore bands toured throughout the U.S.; the tour was called Queercore Blitz and was yet another way to connect the like-minded. Queer Up North – The UKs largest Queer arts festival held in Manchester every year since 1992 with three weeks of outstanding U.K. and International queer theatre, performance, comedy, music, dance, film, cabaret, clubbing and exhibitions.
Other smaller Queer Groups flourishing now in the UK are;
- Queers Without Borders, a network of queer activists against border regimes and also try to support those oppressed by them.
- Queer Mutiny North, a D-I-Y non-hierarchical collective that aims to create politically motivated queer alternatives to the commercial and non-representative gay scene up north.
- Cardiff Queer Mutiny, A not-for-profit collective inspired by queer activism/philosophy, DIY/punk ethics, creativity, feminist riotgrrl and political activist movements. (These groups put on much more regular activity but are smaller in size.)
- Queer studies as an academic discipline is now established at many universities.
- Queer theory
- Anon. “Queercore”. i-D magazine No. 110; the sexuality issue. (1992).
- Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”, p.226. New York: Routledge. (1993).
- Crimp, D. AIDS DemoGraphics. (1990).
- Katlin, T. “Slant: Queer Nation”. Artforum, November 1990. pp. 21-23.
- Tucker, S. “Gender, Fucking & Utopia”. Social text, Vol.9, No.1. (1992).