"QUEER" EVOLUTION How a Word Became a Language of its Own
INTRO How do we define ourselves? What informs those decisions? When thinking about my own self, and my struggle to decide how to define myself —who I really am— I realize I exist within a larger group of folks who have faced that same struggle. That idea of existing within that history and struggle is what really informed this project. Being someone who is part of the LGBTQIA+ community myself, as well as identifying with one of the more misunderstood letters of the acronym, examining the way language changes or evolves has always fascinated me. Some of the questions I wanted to —not find answers to, per sé— but investigate and dive deeper into were formed out of feeling misunderstood by folks who were within my community. These questions were: what does “queer” mean to folks across different age groups; what has influenced the changing nature of the word; what definitions do people assign to it; what does the changing nature of language mean when it comes to queerness and the ways in which we talk about it? While this zine covers some of the history of the word “queer”, there is still so much more to discover. With media being accessible to so many people at once, and folks being able to construct their own ways of defining themselves, by the time this gets printed things may have shifted even more than I could have even realized or imagined. Let this be an introductory guide to this ever changing history. Welcome!
"Queer" Evolution — Introduction — 3
"Generic Queers, 1989" by Dona Ann McAdams
“Claiming Dignity” by Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images
"Queer" Evolution — The Past — 5
THE PAST The word “queer” has a dubious history. At best it’s a word of power, identity, community, and solidarity. At worst it’s a word signaling difference, badness, immorality, and sinfulness; something that needs to be rooted out and corrected. How can such a word be so many things, all at once? Where the word came from is debated almost as much as what it means. Some scholars think it came from the German word “twerk” which meant “to turn, twist, wind”, but there’s no definite answer on that (Marusic, 2015). As it is, Merriam-Webster notes the first use of “queer” occurred in 1513 to mean “something different than normal; something unusual” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). That was its accepted meaning until it was used disparagingly in 1894 by a man named John Sholto Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensbury in Scotland. He used “queer” in reference to a man named Rosebery whom he was accusing of being his son’s homosexual lover (Marusic, 2015). Douglas referred to Rosebery as a “snob queer” and accused him, and others like him, of corrupting his sons (his other son was having a love affair at the time with author
L EFT: Excerpt from “ QUEERS READ THIS” by Anonymous Queers
BELOW: “ We Are Everywhere” by Archive Photos/ Getty Images
Photo by Dona Ann McAdams
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Oscar Wilde, and that was a scandal unto itself). It was after this letter surfaced that “American newspapers used ‘queer’ as a derogatory term almost immediately,” it was said that they began “using it to highlight the fact that homosexuality was strange and abnormal” (Hall, 2016). By 1914, its association with “homosexual” and “gay” was cemented (Perlman, 2019). “Queer” was now an insult to be hurled at the femme boys and the masc girls and anyone who existed in between or outside the set binaries of straight or gay; or the set binaries of who gets to be feminine or masculine. “Queer” was not something you wanted to be. That all changed when the AIDS crisis began ravaging queer communities across the United States. Up until this point, very rarely did anyone self-identify as “queer”. Some folks, such as Gertrude Stein, embraced it but for the most part is was understood as derogatory word (Perlman, 2019) At the same time, the Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement started at Stonewall was changing attitudes nationally about gay and lesbian folks. By 1990, ACT Up (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was at the forefront of the AIDS crisis; demanding change and accountability by government officials for their unwillingness to address the crisis. However, within this group of activists there was a feeling that they should be doing more for folks affected by the crisis who weren’t gay or lesbian; for folks who existed outside of the prescribed gay or straight labels. Queer Nation, founded by folks originally involved in ACT Up, was one of the first groups to begin to reclaim the word “queer” in recent times. They published a manifesto of sorts called “QUEERS READ THIS” which was passed around New York Pride in 1990. This manifesto called for the reclaiming of the word “queer” to take the power of the word away from
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"Queer" Evolution — The Past — 9
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" Gay And Lesbian Pride March" by Eugene Gordon/The New York Historical Society/Getty Images
homophobes while also establishing a new queer movement. Changing the language in this way also marked what differentiated the queer movement from the Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement at the time: the former was focused on convincing the world they were not much different than straight people and therefore shouldn’t be treated differently. They looked to assimilate into the dominate heterosexual culture. This contrasts with the new movement whose message was that queer people are inherently unique from straight people —as well as each other— and should not face discrimination for these differences. The queer movement didn’t want to create a single solitary identity to be able to join (Slagle, 1995). Instead they focused on uniting based on their differences. This new queer movement was made up of very in-your-face activists; they often staged
kiss-ins and other direct forms of action to increase their visibility and creating a solidarity between members. They also didn’t feel “gay” was a strong enough word to describe the movement they were wanting to be a part of; angry and defiant were only the start. The rallying cry of “We’re here, we’re queer, we will not live in fear” became the tagline of the movement; driving home the point that this new queer movement, headed by Queer Nation, were tired of gay bashing in all forms and sought to fight it (Staff, 1991). The impact of Queer Nation on queer discourse, though they were active for a little less than a year, can still be felt. R. Anthony Slagle writes that “Ultimately, Queer Nation has crossed (or perhaps invaded) boundaries that have been largely exclusive of anyone who is queer.” That is; this movement helped create a space and a voice for gender and sexual minorities who didn’t have one before (Slagle, 1995). “Queer,
"Queer" Evolution — The Past — 11
unlike GAY, doesn’t mean MALE” was a key tenet of the queer movement from the start, inviting all queers in (Anonymous, 1990). So what does this have to do with the word “queer” becoming a language of its own? Within the same year Queer Nation was making moves to reclaim “queer” and establish a new queer movement, in academic circles a new “queer theory” was being established. In 1991, the phrase “queer theory” was starting to be used in a positive, academic context by scholars and activists alike (Marusic, 2015). Historian Christina B. Hanhardt notes that neither Queer Nation, nor “queer theory” academics, were the first to reclaim the word “queer”; however, “they set the word into a new play that changed the language and the methods of both social movements and academic scholarship for years to come” (Hanhardt, 2019). The founding of a “queer theory” allowed for the “queering” of language, identities, and social movements; both in its creation and scholarship.
What will it take for this not to be ok? Feel some rage. If rage doesn't empower you, try fear. If that doesn't work, try panic. — "QUEERS READ THIS" What does it mean for something to be “queered”? “Queering” means “to consider or interpret (something) from a perspective that rejects traditional categories of gender and sexuality…” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). What this means is that the new queer movement, and the establishing of a new “queer” identity, made room for folks to define who they are, without being beholden to the prescriptive binaries words like “gay” or “straight” create. This point in history set into motion a future where gender and sexual freedom were on the horizon. What does this move to reclaim “queer” look like today?
Photo by Erik McGregor / ZUMA / Alamy
"Queer Liberation March, 2019" by Ryan McGinley
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The struggle for gender and sexual equality, which became a national movement after the events at Stonewall in 1969, has evolved in the decades since. After the queer movement, and groups like Queer Nation, formed in the 1990’s a new era of language reclamation began. Former slurs were being used as words of power; folks became empowered to embrace these words of harm as badges of honor. This form of linguistic appropriation meant that the power within the use of these words was now being wielded by those who had previously been harmed. Reappropriation, as studied and defined by Galinsky, et al., is when a stigmatizing label is reclaimed by a group and can lead to a lessening of the label’s negative meaning. When done with a word like “queer” it also leads the dominant culture to now see those groups reclaiming it as more powerful (Galinsky, et al., 2013). It’s possible this process of reappropriation has lead to such mainstream use of the word “queer” over the last few decades. With shows like Queer as Folk and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the word has made its way into mainstream consciousness increasing its visibility over time which can mean further empowerment to some.
Have changing ideas about the word "queer" had an impact on you personally? 0
Not at all
26–33 years 34–41 years
(Figure 1, Riske, 2020)
4 5 6 7 8 Big impact
What does "queer" mean to you? It
means everything to me. A word that can find family, love, and joy anywhere you go. I can think of no other trait about someone, that once known, makes me feel as safe as I do with other queer people. — Rikkie (they/them) For folks who identify as “queer” this new power means having the ability to define who they are themselves as well as what the word can and does mean to them personally. In the time since the first mainstream moves to reclaim the word “queer” came about, there has been no singular definition created, that
is: there is no one definition that encompasses all the word means. According to Perlman, the word “...does not have a single meaning, except perhaps ‘not heterosexual,’” which is to say that the possibilities are endless (Perlman, 2019). The process of reclaiming such a stigmatized word hasn’t been a positive experience for all non-heterosexual folks, though.
Depending on a person’s age, the connotations of such a word are going to be vastly different from this new place of empowerment. Merriam-Webster called it a neutral term, but that designation may be contestable; calling such a word “neutral” can be seen as a move towards
"Queer" Evolution — The Present — 15
Photo by David Dee Delgado / Getty Images
acceptance —as a reflection of changing ideas about gender and sexuality— or to some, as a popularization of a slur. I question who gets to determine the neutrality of such a historically harmful term? Perlman brings up a good point that “...while ‘queer’ is acceptable by some people or groups, even preferred, it is by no means a blanket term” and there’s a lot of debate over who, how,
and when the word can and should be used (Perlman, 2019). Writers and reporters are constantly having debates over “queer” because LGBTQI+ folks who are Gen X or older take issue with its use due to the fact it reminds them of the time it was used negatively against them (Rocheleau, 2019; Perlman, 2019). Playground games like “smear the queer” were all too common, traumatizing folks who weren’t deemed acceptable by their peers.
Now, [queer] means something so much more freeing and peaceful. The meaning takes on power and advocacy for myself and for all of the queer folx who came before me and who will come after me. — Suzanne (she/her)
If you’re someone who came of age, or came out, before the modern queer movement took place, this word was and is a weapon. Usage of “queer”, that is who uses it and who doesn’t,
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"Cable Car Kiss In held by Queer Nation San Francisco." Author unknown.
has been shown to fall into generational categories. Studies done on the specifics of who identifies as “queer” have shown that “among the demographic differences, younger adults were significantly more likely to identify as queer: 7.1% of respondents aged 18–25 and 6.0% of respondents aged 34–41 identified as queer, compared with less than 1% of those aged 52–59” which further shows there is a strong correlation between the moves to reclaim the word and one’s age within that time frame (Goldberg et al., 2020). For some older folks, the moves being made toward becoming a more accepting and open society gives them hope; but the word can still hurt. For other folks, it feels like part of history is being erased or stolen from them in the
fight for liberation and inclusivity. Lear, as quoted in Cheves puts it this way: Seeing
gay male friends reclaim “queer” makes me happy for them, but I’m still ambivalent about the term being “reclaimed” (acquired? co-opted? expanded?) by younger generations to mean anything they want it to mean.On the one hand, I'm glad that younger people won't have to fight as hard as I did for inclusivity. On the other hand, I feel like I’m watching youngsters steal history from those who struggled and died for it and turn it into something that is, at times, both powerful and farcical. (Cheves, 2019). All of these discussions are being had frequently by LGBTQIA+ folks across all walks of life. Who is “queer”? Why use it as a self-identifier; or even at all? How are people’s
feelings being represented? A lot of the discussion comes down to empathy and understanding that not all LGBTQIA+ folks are going to identify with “queer”; and those who do should not force it onto others. For folks who do identify as queer, the word provides a way to be without being beholden to the way society wants you to be; it becomes an umbrella term that encapsulates what it means to be themselves (Cheves, 2019). A survey I conducted echoed these sentiments. While the definitions folks gave of the word varied, one thing was common: it’s an umbrella term for folks who are LGBTQIA+ —who sometimes don’t necessarily identify with any one letter in the acronym— to define for themselves. For some people, it’s simply a way to signal that they are not straight, or cisgender; it’s an easier term to name rather than describing and defining all the nuance of who they are (Riske, 2020). That is: there is nuance built-in to the word itself based on its past and how it exists within the present.
"Queer Liberation March, 2019," photos by Ryan McGinley/Vogue
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“Have changing ideas about the word ‘queer’ had an impact on you personally?” This was a question posed to respondents at the end of my Evolution of Queerness and Language survey and the results (Figure 1) received puts into perspective how this evolution has affected the newer generation of LGBTQIA+ folks (Riske, 2020). “Queer” having such a big impact on how we talk about genders and sexualities —that is, by expanding who is now included within these conversations— has meant we can begin to dive even deeper into understanding each other. Both as people and as a community. What the queer movement has done is made it possible for us to move into a place beyond the solidarity needed during the AIDS crisis; a place where we can really begin assessing what we can accomplish through the power of language.
THE FUTURE Where do we go from here? At the beginning of this zine, I mentioned this deep dive into the history of the word “queer” was brought about by a realization that LGBTQIA+ folks exist within a group of folks who have struggled and fought for acceptance; we struggled to accept ourselves, to be accepted by others, and fought for the right to be who we are. Being part of a wider community like this means we are connected. However, being in community with one another doesn’t mean we automatically understand each other; how we all think or what meanings we assign to different words or ideas. My hope is that through understanding where we started, with “queer” being a stigmatized slur, to where we’ve gotten, with it being Maybe we can create a future where we are all understood a little bit better. To quote Michael Stipe: What I feel we have arrived at with all
this, is that queerness —as I am happy to call an all-embracing, foundational tenet— is really a state of mind brought about by an understanding: it is understanding difference, accepting your own truth, desire and identity, and lovely, lovely choice. It is the final, completely obvious contemporary acceptance and understanding that this enormous world of beauty, sexuality, identity, lust, feeling, excitement, and love isn’t just black and white, or simple, at all — it is literally every shade and gradation of the rainbow. It doesn’t just lie in one of two camps. It includes accepting and supporting positions that you may not even completely understand; and to arrive at that conviction is so, so beautiful, and to quote my great friend Casey Legler: “Fierce!” (Stipe, 2014). Thank you for reading!
"Queer" Evolution — The Future — 21
“NYC Gay Pride March, 1990” by Suzanne Poli/Getty Images
Anonymous. (1990). QUEERS READ THIS [Pamphlet]. New York City, New York: Queer Nation. Cheves, A. (2019, June 4). 9 LGBTQ+ People Explain How They Love, Hate, And Understand The Word “Queer”. https://www.them.us/story/what-does queer-mean Galinsky, A. D., Wang, C. S., Whitson, J. A., Anicich, E. M., Hugenberg, K., & Bodenhausen, G. V. (2013). The Reappropriation of Stigmatizing Labels: The Reciprocal Relationship Between Power and Self-Labeling. Psychological Science, 24(10), 2020-2029. doi:10.1177/0956797613482943 Goldberg, S. K., Rothblum, E. D., Russell, S. T., & Meyer, I. H. (2020). Exploring the Q in LGBTQ: Demographic characteristic and sexuality of queer people in a U.S. representative sample of sexual minorities. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, 7(1), 101-112. http://dx.doi. org.proxy.lib.pdx.edu/10.1037/sgd0000359 Hall, J. (2016, July 28). Tracing the history of the word ‘queer’. https://www. dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/32213/1/tracing-the-history-of the-word-queer Hanhardt, C. B. (2019, May). Queer history. https://www.oah.org/tah/issues/ 2019/may/queer-history/ Higgins, M. (2016, February 04). Is the word “Queer” Offensive? Here’s a look at its history in The lgbtqa+ community. https://www.bustle.com/ articles/139727-is-the-word-queer-offensive-heres-a-look-at-its-history -in-the-lgbtqa-community Marusic, K. (2015, July 6). So what’s up with the word ‘queer?’ http://www. mtv.com/news/2200271/so-whats-up-with-the-word-queer/ Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Queer. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/queer Perlman, M. (2019, January 22). How the word ‘queer’ was adopted by the LGBTQ community. https://www.cjr.org/language_corner/queer.php Riske, R. (2020) Evolution of Queerness and Language. Unpublished survey, Portland State University.
"Queer" Evolution — References — 23
Rocheleau, J. (2019, August 21). A Former Slur Is Reclaimed, And Listeners Have Mixed Feelings. https://www.npr.org/sections/publicedtor/ 2019/08/21/752330316/a-Former-slur-is-reclaimed-and-listeners-have mixed-feelings Slagle, R. A. (1995). In defense of Queer Nation: From identity politics to a politics of difference. Western Journal of Communication, 59(2), 85– 102. https://doi-org.proxy.lib.pdx.edu/10.1080/10570319509374510 Staff, N. (1991, October 11). What Is Queer Nation? https://www.newsweek.com/what-queer-nation-202866 Stipe, M. (2014, October 26). Michael Stipe: QUEERNESS is a state of mind brought about by understanding. https://www.theguardian.com/world/ shortcuts/2014/oct/26/michael-stipe-queerness-is-a-state-of-mind brought-about-by-understanding
Ronnie Riske — Winter 2021 — Thesis II — Portland State University