Lesbi Reasonable: A Queer Conundrum

Caitlin Saunders 15 May 2014

Queer. The word carries a lot of weight. Most probably still think of it as a slur: something shouted across a playground or muttered by grandparents. But for others, the term ‘queer’ is not only powerful but also positive: a word that gives them a sense of strength and identity. So is the stigma a thing of the past? Is it now perfectly acceptable to call someone queer?

Personally, I have no problem using the term to describe myself. It’s handy, it’s to the point, everyone knows what it means. ‘Queer’ feels open-ended to me: it’s not a tiny box laden with stereotypes – as ‘lesbian’ can be. Its definition is looser, like ‘Arts student’.

But no one has ever used ‘queer’ to insult me – it’s never been tagged onto the end of a threat or shouted at me with venom. It’s a word I’ve seen used by the LGBT(Q) community as an umbrella term, grouping an array of sexualities and genders into one big, happy bubble. We the Queer People, if you will. So there’s no reason for it to make me feel uncomfortable; there’s no reason for me to dislike it.

The term 'queer' is useful for those against compartmentalisation of sexuality                  Credit: avry

These umbrella terms are definitely useful – they help people with shared concerns to been seen as one united, stronger force. But is a word with a deeply negative history the right choice?

It depends whether you think ‘queer’ as a slur really does have a history of hatred and oppression. We can all think of comparatively worse examples stemming from centuries of colonial rule and racism, and arguably ‘queer’ isn’t even the most insulting word that’s thrown at LGBT people. For a long time, it meant odd or suspicious; its 20th century derogatory side may have developed from there, but it didn’t go unchallenged for long.

In 1990, a Queer Nation leaflet redefined the term as encapsulating the attitudes of lesbian and gay men in New York, not just their sexual tendencies – “When we wake up in the morning we feel angry and disgusted, not gay.” Here ‘queer’ became an act of rebellion for gay people; a firm middle finger to a state that ignored them and a public that despised them. The term wasn’t just useful for rallying greater numbers under a single banner, it was empowering.

The term can be a unifying source of pride                                     Credit: Neil Ward

So is this reasoning enough to ignore the discomfort and upset ‘queer’ causes in so many people? I think not. If you want to call yourself queer, if you want to embrace the word’s reappropriation in all its rainbow-soaked splendour, then go for it. Live the dream.

But for now, ‘queer’ should be kept a purely self-identifying expression. Some wounds are still a little too fresh, and trying to fight the power with American lesbians from the ‘90s doesn’t come with enough of a payoff to warrant alienating some of the people you’re trying to inspire.