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The Q-Word: A Brief History of one the LGBTQ Community’s Most Common Identifiers

By Alex Gonzalez
Published March 28, 2019

Across generations, certain words that were once considered derogatory slurs have been reclaimed and turned into empowering identifiers.  Some words remain unacceptable, due to their dark origins, however, a lot of words are now used to classify people based on their sexual and romantic orientations While some names that were once deemed unacceptable have now become politically correct terms when referring to one’s sexuality, the LGBTQ+ folk who came before us may still find certain terms triggering.

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, the word “queer” means “differing in some odd way from what is usual or normal,” or “not quite well.” In the LGBTQ+ community, the word “queer” is often used as an umbrella term to refer to a person who isn’t exclusively attracted to the opposite sex.

I recall one time when I was out having brunch with a group of friends. It was a group comprised of LGBTQ+ of various genders, identities, and ages, the oldest being 40. I was coming up with potential team names to use for us to play in the bar’s trivia night. I suggested a team name that I thought would be simple, clever, and innocent; “We’re Here, We’re Queer, We’re Drinking Beer.”

“Do you have to use that word?” the oldest of the group asked.

“Which word?” I asked. “Queer?”

“Yes, that one,” he replied.

As a 25-year-old bisexual man, I had never known the word “queer” to be offensive or problematic. However, the aforementioned 40-year-old explained that people used the word “queer” to make fun of him when he was growing up.

I explained to him that it’s often used as a broad term to describe a person on the LGBTQ+ spectrum.

“I know,” he replied, “but it still just doesn’t sit well with me.”

After this conversation, I felt inclined to do more research on the word “queer” and why older generations of LGBTQ+ aren’t keen on it being used as a politically correct term.

One of the first documented uses of the word “queer” as a slur dates back to 1894 the form of a letter written in a court case by John Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, when he discovered that his son was having a sexual relationship with playwright Oscar Wilde. Douglas referred to Wilde as a “snob queer,” and accused him of leading men into a “lifestyle of degeneracy.”

The word “queer” was later used to describe effeminate gay men in Great Britain as the idea of homosexuality was strange and abnormal.

During the AIDS crisis in the ’80s, organizations like Queer Nation published “queer newsletters,” reclaiming the term and using it to self-identify.

Over the years, the “queer” line between homophobia and empowerment has been blurred, but the word started to become normalized in the late ’90s, with television shows like Queer as Folk, as well as the original Queer Eye, which premiered in the early 2000s.

With the discovery of sexuality existing on a spectrum as opposed to a scale, broader terms like “queer” have become more acceptable. While the word “queer” may still be triggering to some, the negative connotation is gone when it is used in a normal context.

 

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