Culture

What Happens When A Community Takes Back A Word That Was Once Used To Hurt Them

The word queer has a long and complicated history long before it ever became associated with the LGBTQ community.

In fact, it dates all the way back to the 16th Century when it meant strange, peculiar, or eccentric. Socially inappropriate behavior was the target of the word itself. You could say a dog with one leg you spotted on the way home was a “queer” sight. Or maybe a noisy man on a street corner. The point is, it meant something out of place.

By the late 19th century, the word queer began to take on a more specific definition.

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It was no longer just used for something a little out of place and was more used as a suggestion of someone who was more than a little out of place, with the suggestion being same-sex attraction.

If someone wasn’t properly fitting into the rigid idea of sex and marriage,
the word “queer” might pop in a description about them. Sometimes the word was used to demean people who others couldn’t see finding a partner, or to describe someone who didn’t fit in. It was a word that stung.

What were other words that people used?

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At some point, people started using their own words to refer to themselves. These words weren’t the words others were using for them, but rather terms they sometimes coined themselves. Even back in ancient times, people described their love using specific terms or slights of language. Into the Victorian era, people began using new words they found to represent them internally to their community.

Yes, “Uranians” and “Inverts” were all used at some point to describe members within the LGBTQ community.

Uranian referred to a person of a kind of “third-sex,” a name for anyone outside of traditional gender roles in Victorian England. Another term some people used to refer to themselves was “homophile.” Homophile referred to homosexuality, but focused on the greek root for love, “-phile.”

Some early queer folks preferred this language that emphasized romance over sexuality. The term would come to disappear in the 1960 and 70s during the gay liberation movement when it was consolidated with other words for homosexuality.

When did the word queer start to be reclaimed?

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During the same time as the disappearance of words like “homophile”, communities were drawn to words like “lesbian,” “gay,” “bisexual,” “transsexual,” and later “transgender.”

These words allowed queer communities to find a community across the lines of gender and sexuality. As these communities were distinguishing themselves, they also shared spaces and many people held multiple identities within the various communities. The idea of a larger umbrella term to describe the various internal communities as an interconnected group in struggle for mutual liberation lead to terms like LBGTQ.

Who has held back on the word queer? Why?

While some people embraced the word queer, others feared losing their specific identities to a more umbrella term that could be nebulous. People liked being part of their specific communities, and many groups had so much stigma attached to the words that described them that they didn’t want to lose the power of those names in the process of joining a bigger movement.

Lesbians, trans women, gay men, and many others felt like saying in no uncertain terms who and what they were was empowering, and remembered the word “queer” being used as a slur meant to intimidate and demean them. Because it wasn’t a word that came from inside the community, not everyone was ready to reclaim it at the same time, or ever.

Even if the word was for some, it was not for everyone.

What does queer mean today?

Queer today means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. The LGBTQ community has had a lot of new terms for its numerous internal identities – such as the popularity of “pansexual.”

If the terms change as often as they have throughout the 20th and 21st century, then changing the acronym for sensitive name updates might not always be easy or clear. It can be paired with unique identities or used as a broader term to refer to the united front of LGBTQ people around the world.

There are places, however, where the word queer is still used as a slur.

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And many in the community continue to struggle with the word and the idea of reclaiming it.

We’re Here, We’re Queer, Get Used To It

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Queerness as a radical movement continues to push the envelope in public and political spheres. For example, Queer Nation was an activist group formed by members of the HIV/AIDS activist organization ACT UP New York in March 1990. They are credited for the “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” chant.

The later half of the 20th century also saw the dawn of Queer Studies as an official term in academia, and writers like Judith Butler, Susan Stryker, Eve Sedgwick, David Halprin, Daniel Boyarin, Jose Esteban Muñoz, and so many others contributed to the acceptance of discussions on sex and gender variation in formal settings.

Activists like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera brought queer to the forefront of the world’s eyes at the Stonewall Riots.

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Lead by drag queens, trans women and other queer community members like Stormé DeLarverie, an established Black drag king, the queer community pushed back against the criminalization of homosexuality and queerness in New York City.

The bricks thrown at Stonewall are today still looked at as the most memorable first act of resistance to decriminalize homosexuality and queerness in the US.

The world has many big steps to go.

Removing the stigma of words like queer by ending forced conversion therapy in states one at a time, or getting the federal government to pass the Equality Act to protect LGBTQ employees from being fired, or putting an end to the high rate of murder of trans women of color. These are all major struggles the LGBTQ community continues to face.

The treatment of queer and transgender migrants at the US-Mexico border is another frontline of the LGBTQ liberation movement.

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Latin America has the highest rate of reported murders of transgender people of any region worldwide. Because of that violence, many trans Latinas choose to flee their countries for the US. But their struggle is far from over once they arrive in the US.

So far at least two trans women have died while in detention at US Border Patrol detention facilities – most often because they are denied proper medical care.

The word queer continues to have some heavy implications for many different parts of the LGBTQ community. However, more and more LGBTQ people are reclaiming the word, remaking the meaning, and owning their queer identity.

Sylvia Rivera Is One Of The Most Prominent Influencers Of LGBTQ+ Rights And Here’s Everything Your School Didn’t Teach You About Her

Entertainment

Sylvia Rivera Is One Of The Most Prominent Influencers Of LGBTQ+ Rights And Here’s Everything Your School Didn’t Teach You About Her

Pride Month might be over but the celebration of LGBTQ+ icons and history lives on. When it comes to LGBTQ+ Queen Sylvia Rivera the party will always live on. Nearly two decades after her death, and exactly 50 years after her role in the spark of the Stonewall Riots and Pride, Sylvia Rivera still remains one of the most prominent influencers of LGTBQ+ history and rights.

You may not remember her name or face, but you will remember her extraordinary story and the legacy she has left behind for marginalized members of the gay community. This is the story of a life rooted in activism–whether she knew it all along or not–the story of one woman simply trying to live her life authentically.

This is the incredible life story of LGBTQ icon Sylvia Rivera.

Born into intolerance.

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Given the name Ray Rivera Mendosa and assigned male upon her birth in the Bronx, New York, on July 2nd, 1951, Sylvia was soon abandoned by her father. By the time she was three, her mother committed suicide and Rivera was left her grandmother. The activist was raised in a household where her abuela disapproved strongly of Rivera’s darker skin tone and feminine behavior. 

A rising resistor

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Sylvia was forced into the margins of society because of her refusal to conform to gender norms. At the time, the term “transgender” wasn’t commonly known–people choosing to shun conventional gender norms were simply referred to as drag queens, transvestites, transsexuals, or simply “queers.” Still, Sylvia refused to hide and openly wore makeup in the 4th grade, leaving her to be bullied both in school and at home. At the age of ten, Sylvia had had enough and chose to run away from home.

Life on the Streets

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She made her home on 42nd street, taking on the role of a sex work in order to survive and getting taken in by a family of trans women who taught her how to get by. Life was difficult–to say the least–for a queer gender-nonconforming person of color, especially one still a child. Her time on 42nd street would later influence her activism for the marginalized members of the gay community.

Meeting Marsha P. Johnson

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Then one day something happened that would change Sylvia’s life forever. She was simply trying to drum up some business when she spotted Marsha P. Johnson–a gorgeous older Black trans woman who took Sylvia out for dinner, showed her how to apply her makeup and gave her tips for getting by on the streets. The two quickly became friends and remained so for the rest of their lives.

Riotting in the Streets And Sparking Change

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On June 28th, 1969, violent confrontations broke out between police and gay rights activists outside of the Stonewall Inn–a gay bar in Greenwich Village. The police had been in the process of raiding when patrons started to fight back, giving rise to an international gay rights movement.

The Beginning of What’s to Come

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Where does Sylvia fit into the Stonewall Riots? It is rumored that she threw the first brick. Just seventeen years old at the time, Sylvia was with Marsha when the riots started and is credited with one of the most famous quotes from the event: “I’m not missing a minute of this. It’s the revolution!” 

What Happens Next

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After Stonewall, Sylvia became part of the emerging gay rights movement–albeit at a time when transgender people were not particularly welcomed. Her role in gay history eventually resulted in her being one of the first people to highlight that the movement itself needed to be more inclusive. 

To Boldly Go

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Despite the adversity Sylvia would repeatedly face, she continued to get involved however she could, using her outsider status to help make a change. She was bold and brave, willing to go to great lengths to ensure her message was received–including being willing to get arrested even though she was a transgender woman of color and would face unimaginable difficulties in prison.

A Daring Escapade

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At one point when New York City Council was debating a gay rights bill, Sylvia tried to climb into a window (in a dress and heels) to have her say. She was subsequently arrested yet still earned the title of “the Rosa Parks of the Modern Transgender Movement” for all of her efforts.

Activism and Adversity

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Sylvia was also an early member of the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) and the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), however, these groups were largely made up of gay white males who, seeking wider acceptance, started to distance themselves from important transgender issues Sylvia wanted to address.

Being “Other”

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Sylvia began to feel shunned in the gay liberation circles. Her multiple marginalized identities created a sense of Otherness that made the community see her as dangerous.

The Sit-In that Started it All

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In 1970 the GAA was using Weinstein Hall at NYU to host “Dance-a-Fair” fundraisers for services in the gay community. There was much controversy from the NYU administration which eventually led to a sit-in for five days and ended with New York City’s Tactical Police Squad ordering the occupiers out. Sylvia refused and had to be carried out by police.

A STAR is Born

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As a result Sylvia, with the help of Marsha P. Johnson, founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) and opened a shelter for homeless transgender youth.

A Spark of Hope

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Shortly after forming STAR, Sylvia heard of an uprising being led by the Young Lords–a revolutionary Puerto Rican group–against police brutality. Sylvia, along with other members of STAR, marched alongside the Young Lords in Spanish Harlem. Sylvia was happily surprised by the respect they were shown by the Young Lords and was quick to join them in solidarity, starting a Gay and Lesbian Caucus that worked within the group.

More Challenges

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STAR House, unfortunately, received no help from the gay community, forcing Sylvia to work the streets in order to keep the youth under her wing off of them. Despite her best efforts to provide a home for marginalized transgender youth, Sylvia was evicted from the derelict building that was STAR House.

One Last Hurrah

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Once more Sylvia found herself fighting against gay activists in order to be heard. She forced her audience to listen as she described the abuse her people endured whilst simultaneously chastising the activists for their abandonment. Sadly, this would be the last of her involvement for decades as she slipped away into a quiet life in Tarrytown.

Well-Deserved Recognition

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In 1984, despite past feelings of antipathy from the GAA and the GLF, Sylvia was “rediscovered” and awarded a place of honor in the New York City gay pride march to acknowledge the 25th anniversary of Stonewall. She reported feeling like she’d been taken off the shelf and dusted, but nevertheless, she was seen by those she’d spent her life fighting for.

The End of an Era

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In 1992, Marsha P. Johnson passed away, causing Sylvia’s life to go off the rails. Once again without a roof over her head, Sylvia lived near Greenwich Village on an abandoned pier. Eventually, she quit drinking and rejoined the movement, even trying to restart STAR in 2001. Unfortunately, though, Sylvia died of liver cancer a year later at the age of 50, continuing to advocate even from her deathbed.

Her Legacy Lives On

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Sylvia died much in the way that she lived–fighting for what she believed in. Her memory lives on through the Sylvia Rivera Law Project that “works to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination or violence.”

A Life to Remember

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Long before Harvey Milk and Caitlyn Jenner made headlines for LGBTQ rights movements and transgender activism, there was Sylvia Rivera, occupying a unique place in LGBTQ history and working tirelessly for justice and civil rights. Her courage will never be forgotten.

The Dance Of The 41 Is A Bit Of Mexican Queer History That Many Don’t Know But It’s Impact Lingers To This Day

Things That Matter

The Dance Of The 41 Is A Bit Of Mexican Queer History That Many Don’t Know But It’s Impact Lingers To This Day

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The Dance of the 41 was a scandal of epic proportions in Mexico in 1901. According to reports, 41, though likely 42, men gathered at night and held a ball where half of the men dressed as women and the group danced and partied into the night. To this day, 41 has a negative connotation in Mexico, often used as a homophobic slur because of the night where the men at the dance were caught, arrested, and, in some cases, disappeared.

The use of 41 as a homophobic slur in Mexico has a deep and storied history.

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On Nov. 17, 1901, 42 men gathered for a regularly held night of dancing and partying that was supposed to be a secret. The men would gather at different locations and half would dress as women. While the organizers of the dance remains a mystery, it is widely believed that the participants of the dance were some of the highest men in society.

On this night, the men had gathered at a private house on Calle de la Paz and began the party. It wasn’t long until Mexican police raided what was being called a “transvestite ball” and began harassing and arresting the men at the party. It was because of the men’s high standing in society that the names of the men were not released to the public.

While the men’s identities were not released to the public, Mexican media at the time went wild reporting on the incident that shook Mexican society.

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The Mexican government at the time was seen as one that catered to the elites at the expense of the poor. According to experts of the incident, Mexico was in the throws of a budding relationship with European forces.

“It was a government that was focused on the elite,” says Robert McKee Irwin, editor of “The Famous 41: Sexuality and Social Control in Mexico, 1901” explains, according to History. “[It had] invested a lot in international business relations and symbolic ties with Europe, often at the expense of Mexico’s poor.”

Some historians claim that the dance was so scandalous at the time that is was used to justify further marginalizing the LGBTQ+ community throughout Mexico.

One man who is believed to have escaped any kind of punishment in the dance was Ignacio de la Torre y Mier.

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The incident, dubbed the Dance of the 41, is believed to have included 42 men. However, one of the men was closely tied to then-Mexican President Porfirio Díaz.

Ignacio de la Torre y Mier was the son-in-law of President Díaz. It was this relationship to the president that presumably allowed the young man to escape the incident to return to his home. For the rest of the revelers, humiliation, jail, and forced work followed.

According to reports, the 41 men were jailed for participating in the dance. Of those, the most well-to-do men where able to pay their way out and return to their lives in society. However, for many, being jailed was just the beginning of the ordeal.

Some accounts claim the men were forced to wear dresses and clean the streets before being jailed. For the ones who were not able to leave jail, they were sent to the Yucatan and used as forced labor to help the military. They were subjected to digging ditches and cleaning the latrines. All accounts agree on one thing: the fate of those sent to the Yucatan are largely unknown.

Another case similar to the Dance of the 41 happened on Dec. 4, 1901. Referred to as Santa Maria, it was a gathering of lesbians that was disbanded by police. While the stories are the same, the Santa Maria incident received less press coverage.

READ: Mexico City Has A Long And Complicated History With The Queer Community, So How Is It Now Considered A Top LGBTQ Destination