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.

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