The Evolution of Queerness: A Short Lexical History (1 – Gay Prehistory)

October 25, 2017 in inQueery

To mark Queer History Month, we decided to consider how vocabulary around queerness has evolved over time. In this four-part series, we will examine now-antiquated ways to talk about same-sex love, study the reappropriation of the word “queer,” and meditate on the plethora of new ways to talk about gender and sexuality, which might allow us to move past the classic gender binary.


Gay Prehistory

In this section, I will occasionally use the term “sex” to address matters that are now associated with the idea of gender. That is because “gender” as a concept wasn’t well defined during the timeline that I am considering.

If there is one pitfall my college history teachers wanted their students to avoid at all cost, it was giving into anachronistic thought. That would mean, for instance, that you couldn’t talk about “Italy” as a modern state before its 1861 unification, or call Joan of Arc a feminist, or Napoleon a fascist.

Similarly, you shouldn’t use the modern concepts of “queerness” and “gayness” to describe the gender identity and sexual orientation of people who lived centuries ago. Indeed, if love is timeless, its parameters aren’t. Let’s consider the case of  the Chevalier d’Eon, a 18th Century soldier who was born male but chose to live as a woman (he claimed that he had been born female but forced to act as a male by his father). You might be tempted to call him a transvestite. However, that characterization wouldn’t render justice to the Chevalier’s self-perception, and would be, again, anachronistic.

Portrait of the Chevalier d’Eon, formerly identified as the portrait of an unknown lady. Source:

Gender and sexuality are tricky matters. If you are visiting this website and reading this article, this is a fact that you are probably already very much aware of. However, one will note that, in recent history, gender and sexuality have been systematically oversimplified, often in a normative way and for ideological purposes.

For instance, many studies have shown that the post WWII years have have been dominated by a very clear-cut separation of the traditional sexes that was sustained by popular culture and encouraged by public policies.

And so, when looking at America’s history, it’s easy to notice that the evolution of the vocabulary used to describe people who are attracted to people of their own sex, or don’t conform to gendered expectations, follows the cultural changes our society has gone through.

Let’s consider the term “invert.” Used to designate men who were attracted to other men, it started spreading in the 1700s. Its implication is that someone suffers from an “inversion of the sexes,” which entails that malehood and femalehood are two opposite poles between which you can switch back and forth through defiant attitudes like wearing clothes that are traditionally associated with the other sex. “Invert” had a surprising longevity. In his A queer History of the United States, Michael Bronski holds that the term was used alongside the word “homosexual” and understood as a synonym of it until the 1950s.

“Invert” essentially applied to men only, while female homosexuality has generally been thought of in very different terms. One fact that can come as a surprise is how new the term “Lesbian” is. According to Michael Bronski, it was first used at the end of the 19th century by sexologist Havelock Ellis. Before that, people used the term “sapphism”, a reference that is quite literally archaic as it was inspired by the Greek poet Sappho, who lived on the island of Lesbos six centuries B.C.

It took time, and the continued action of many people, for a vocabulary that was neither discriminatory, nor limitative in its consideration of gender identity and sexual orientation to develop. A lot of these changes were kickstarted in the 1960s and 1970s, at the same time women strived to be heard more clearly in the public sphere. But many of them are even more recent, as several of the the gay movement’s major strides occurred in the 1980s and 1990s.


Next week, we will dive into that period of history to study the reappropriation, by the gay community, of the slang “queer.”  



Anne Errelis is a Staff Contributor at InQueery.