Why I use the word “queer”

I don’t remember why I initially joined Tumblr, but it quickly became a valuable tool for me to stay abreast of current trends, slang, and discourse about civil rights issues among Gen Z.

One thing I’ve found surprising, though, is a stunningly prevalent backlash to the use of the word “queer,” sometimes referred to as the “q-slur” by people who believe it shouldn’t be used.

When I studied abroad in Australia 20 years ago, the LGBTQIAP2S+ space was called the “queer space,” I took a class called “Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Cultures,” and the term “queer” was generally considered preferable to the ever-increasing acronym. I found I really liked using the term, and have grown to like it even more as I’ve gotten older.

Part of what I like about the word “queer” is that it originally meant (and, to an extent, still does mean) “strange.” As a smart kid with a quirky sense of humor growing up in the Midwest, kids often (pretty much daily) called me “weird” in a derisive way. It used to hurt my feelings to be “othered” in that capacity, but one day I thought to myself, “You know what? I am weird. And that’s something I like about myself!” From that day on, the word ceased to have power over me.

In a similar way, people in the queer and other civil rights movements have a long, proud history of reclaiming words used against them by their oppressors. People in the queer community have been reclaiming the word “queer” since before the first brick was thrown at Stonewall.

Not only that, the term has been mainstreamed to the point where the academic discipline of Queer Studies came into being in the early 1990s – nearly 30 years ago!

For some, it is indeed difficult to hear words that have been hurled against you by your oppressors – and in some parts of the world, “queer” is used almost exclusively as a slur. I have compassion for those against whom the term is routinely weaponized, and I acknowledge nobody should be forced to use the term as a personal identifier, even as I advocate for its use as a catch-all term in our community.

I fear that some of the effort to demonize “the q-slur” originates in the Trans-Exclusionary Radial Feminist (TERF) community, a group that works to remove transgender people from inclusive queer spaces. Because as much as the lengthy LGBTQIAP2S+ acronym has the potential to unite us under a common umbrella, it also separates us into sometimes-unhelpful subcategories, and leaves room for people who would benefit from this community to slip between the cracks. Transgender people for too long have lived in the shadow of the queer community, as well as nonbinary people and asexuals, who often get left out of critical conversations.

By using “queer,” we acknowledge that the umbrella is large and can fit a wide array of people beneath it, including people whose identities are in flux, uncertain, or don’t yet have a comfortable label (people like me, quite honestly – as I write this, I have not yet found a specific gender descriptor that fits me, so “queer” is a nice catch-all for “I’m not cisheteronormative”).

I’m glad for those who put language under the microscope, who prod terms to see if they are still the best terms to serve our needs. I’m glad these conversations are happening. Perhaps someday we’ll find a better term than “queer” to succinctly and inclusively describe our community (one option, that has yet to gain mainstream traction, is GSRM: Gender, Sexual, and Romantic Minorities). When that day comes, I’ll happily embrace its replacement.

But for now? I’m here. I’m queer. Get used to it!

Photo by Kon Karampelas on Unsplash

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