It has come to my attention that we have a word issue. A word issue that, left to others’ devices, will keep us from accomplishing our goal of equality for all, despite gender or sexual identity. This word is a word that keeps LGBT community members from being able to communicate with each other. This word helps some find an identity but it is also a word which can smash dialogue between the most ardent of allies. This word is…hold your breath…”queer.”
Queer has its etymological roots as a pejorative term used to describe the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community in the 19th century. But just like other antiquated pejorative terms (I’m looking at you, “Yankee Doodle,” “nerd,” and more recently, “Obamacare”) “queer” was successfully reappropriated in the 1980s. “Queer” is the new catch-all for anyone who does not subscribe to the gender and/or sexual binaries of our time and is sometimes included in the ever growing acronym, LGBTQ (although it must be noted that the “Q” in “LGBTQ” sometimes refers to “questioning” rather than “queer”). It is a term that broke into contemporary culture in the early 2000s with the iconic Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, but has been widely accepted in academia since the early 1990s (re: Queer Theory). It is a term that the Huffington Post (certainly not a homophobic bastion) uses quite frequently.
So it is a bit surprising that some in the LGBT community, and even some of our allies, hesitate or even balk at the use of “queer.” But why? What is holding you back from taking ownership of a word long forgotten as derogatory? Why must you fight your battles in 1984 and not in 2014?
We give words meaning depending on how we use them. Both the listener and the speaker are responsible for assigning meanings to words. Just because one person finds a word uncomfortable does not mean we should censor a word. Our community has reclaimed the word “queer” and we now use it in order to communicate in new ways. You reserve the right to hold a grudge, but you do not reserve the right to let that grudge hold the queer community back.
I recently approached a prominent alternative music website founder about getting Punk Out some press and was ardently (and surprisingly) rejected because of my use of the word “queer” in my pitch. When, in an ill-fated attempt, I made a move to explain how “queer” is no longer a belittling label, I was told that there were (and presumably still are) many on said website who find the term “queer” offensive. Said founder was not “comfortable” with “the term” and the individual went on to say that the website has “staff members and readers that have [directly] expressed” this sentiment. How did this happen? Since when did our movement grind to a halt simply because of a word? “I will not run any article using [the term “queer”]” the founder explained, “as I know for a fact multiple staff members that will [be] offend[ed] greatly.” Greatly?! How did we get to this point?
This is not meant to take to task said alternative music website founder nor is this meant to delegitimize personal experiences (either positive or negative) with the label “queer.” Rather, I find this person’s empathy and concern for their readers and staff to be quite admirable. As well, each of us has our own experiences that shape who we are today. However, if we all agree with the lofty goal that those in the LGBT community deserve to be treated with the upmost equality, why are we getting bogged down in censoring “queer” instead of discussing its contemporary meaning? As Punk Out’s editor-in-chief Jessica Weber puts it,
“When someone censors a word rather than negotiating its meaning, they're essentially clamping their palms down over their ears. How effectively can we converse like that?”
It is a matter of perspective. So let’s put things in perspective. Consider for a second that you are a member of the LGBT community or you are one of our valiant (and absolutely vital) “straight” allies and you find the term “queer” offensive. May I suggest alternative issues to find offense in? Perhaps the recent 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling against marriage equality is worthy of your offense? Or perhaps you might find offense in the 29 states that do not have any laws on the books to protect LGBT individuals against workplace discrimination? Or maybe you might find offense in Uganda’s recent passing of historically heinous anti-gay legislation? But please, do not find offense in the term “queer.” You’re only holding the LGBT community back.