Queer: Is it a Slur?

Well, it was! In the late 19th century, ‘queer’ started being used as a slur against anyone who was attracted to people of the same gender because of its alternative definition of ‘strange’ or ‘peculiar’. Many people in our community have experienced the ongoing effects of this trend during their lifetime, among many other insults and forms of harassment.

First instances of ‘queer’ being reclaimed began in the 1980s, with activists adopting the term as a radical alternative to the gay, gay/lesbian, LGB, and LGBT movements that often focused on queer folks ‘blending in’ to ensure their messages weren’t ignored by heterosexual and cisgender society. Some activists decided they didn’t want to blend in, and they wanted to express the anger they were feeling.

A publication distributed anonymously by activists at a rally in 1990 called ‘Queers Read This’ had a paragraph about ‘Why queer?’ which reads:

Well, yes, "gay" is great. It has its place. But 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 marginalized in the straight world. We use queer as gay men loving lesbians and lesbians loving being queer.

Queer, unlike GAY, doesn't mean MALE. And when spoken to other gays and lesbians it's a way of suggesting we close ranks, and forget (temporarily) our individual differences because we face a more insidious common enemy. Yeah, QUEER can be a rough word but it is also a sly and ironic weapon we can steal from the homophobes hands and use against him.

In the 21st century, ‘queer’ has been used more broadly. Academic disciplines like ‘queer theory’ and ‘queer studies’ were formed as broader approaches to the study of sexuality and gender than the existing ‘gay and lesbian studies’ permitted. Queer studies tends to oppose the binary nature of the world, exploring the shades of grey within sexuality, gender, and all things. There is also a greater focus on intersectionality in queer studies—which is something we consider important.

We use ‘queer’—both as individual staff members and as an organisation—for several reasons. We identify with its radical past, as we too do not wish to hide in order to be better received. We like its connections to academia because of our academic work, and appreciate its connotations of avoiding binaries and highlighting intersectionality. We also consider ‘queer’ to be less exclusionary than LGBT+ and its extended versions, which almost always leave somebody out or else become too unwieldy to be useful.

That said, there are many people who still associate ‘queer’ with its negative connotations and derogatory past. People who had the word used against them don’t necessarily want to ‘reclaim’ it, and we respect that. Others want to distance themselves from the radical nature of the term, and we respect that too. If you are offended by our use of ‘queer’ in our name and publications, we apologise, and can only hope that some day the identity politics of our community brings forward a term that does not offend or exclude, and that we can all use and identify with comfortably.