The Evolution of Queerness: A Short Lexical History (Pt. 2)

November 8, 2017 in inQueery


The Advent of Queerness

Tracing the history of a word is not an easy task. However, 1508 marks the first recorded use of the word “queer.” The word appears in “The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie,” flyting being a medieval form of poetic joust characterized by its crudeness and often enjoyed as court entertainment. It is unclear though, if, in that context, “queer” had any sexual connotation. In fact, “queer” has long been associated with the idea of inadequacy and used to characterize people who were perceived as either strange, intellectually lacking, or depraved.

A major turning point regarding the use of the word “queer” as a derogatory term aimed at a gay person happened when a Scottish Marquess named John Sholto Douglas used it in a letter complaining about another nobleman whom he thought had seduced and perverted his son. (The Marquess also famously initiated Oscar wilde’s downfall, but that’s a story for another time.)

So it seems that the word evolved pretty naturally from being used to designate an array of idiosyncrasies to addressing only one: the kind of “sexual perversion” that causes a man to be attracted to other men (you’ll note that “queer” has rarely been used in correlation with female homosexuality).

And so, “queer” became an insult, one that has marked the life of gay people (and people thought to be gay) for decades and is still in use today. Testimonies to the prevalence of “queer” as a slur directed at gay people abound. Take conservative pundit William F. Buckley’s outburst during an infamous televised debate with Gore Vidal, when he threatened: “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face, and you’ll stay plastered.”

It is hence not surprising for blogger Jake Hall to write “I grew up believing that ‘queer’ was a term used only to express hatred, anger and prejudice.”

However, something happened to that insult. Hall goes on to say that, in thinking that “queer” was nothing more than an insult, he was mistaken: “As I grew older I discovered queercore, queer theory and shows like Queer as Folk which introduced me to broader context.”

What, exactly, prompted this epistemological shift? Well, in mentioning queer theory and queercore, Hall pointed out two major determinants.

Societal changes are often brought about by grassroots movements. First, activists do the things activists do (take to the streets, stage dramatic protests, create their own media, petition the government, etc.). Then, universities and other thought-shaping institutions (the mainstream media, museums, think tanks, etc.) acknowledge those social developments by diffusing knowledge of them. Finally, society at large adjusts to those mutations, notably by integrating them into pop culture and writing them into law.

In the case of the word “queer”, the process started in the early 1990s and intensified during that decade. It is still taking effect today as attested by countless contemporary takes on the validity of “queer” as a definer for people who elude gender norms and mainstream sexual expectations. Browsing the internet these days, you will find emphatic endorsements of the “queer” label along with vehement rejections of it. One gay man from Pennsylvania even recently decided to file a formal complaint against a Colorado University he was applying for a job at over their use of the category “Queer” in their application form.

The reclamation of “queer” was mainly a cultural movement concerned with the redefinition of gender norms, but it was also wielded as a political tool. Talking about the reappropriation of the word in the UK, English language professor Paul Baker explains: “There was a shouty defiance about queer too -it wasn’t just pride, it was political activism and opposition to homophobic government policy like section 28.” (Section 28 being a piece of legislation that, among other things, prohibited “promoting homosexuality in teaching”), adding, “It was a disruptive and anarchic response to conservative forces at that time.”

There is one seminal text that conveys the cultural battle “queer” has been at the forefront of. The document I am thinking of is a manifesto titled “Queers, Read This that was distributed during the 1990 Pride March in New York City and is one of the most notable and compelling defenses of the term. The following extract illustrates beautifully some of the main arguments in favor of reclamation:


“Ah, do we really have to use that word? It’s trouble. Every gay person has his or her own take on it. For some it means strange and eccentric and kind of mysterious. That’s okay, we like that. But some gay girls and boys don’t. They think they’re more normal than strange. And for others ‘queer’ conjures up those awful memories of adolescent suffering. Queer. It’s forcibly bittersweet and quaint at best — weakening and painful at worst. Couldn’t we just use ‘gay’ instead? It’s a much brighter word and isn’t it synonymous with ‘happy?’ When will you militants grow up and get over the novelty of being different?


Well, yes, ‘gay’ is great. It has its place. But when a lot of lesbians and gay men wake up in the morning we feel angry and disgusted, not gay. So we’ve chosen to call ourselves queer. Using ‘queer’ is a way of reminding us how we are perceived by the rest of the world. It’s a way of telling ourselves we don’t have to be witty and charming people who keep our lives discreet and marginalized in the straight world.  We use queer as gay men loving lesbians and lesbians loving being queer. Queer, unlike GAY, doesn’t mean MALE. And when spoken to other gays and lesbians it’s a way of suggesting we close ranks, and forget (temporarily) our individual differences because we face a more insidious common enemy. Yeah, QUEER can be a rough word but it is also a sly and ironic weapon we can steal from the homophobe’s hands and use against him.”


It is this reversal, accomplished with the help of people like the activists behind Queers, Read This, that now allows us to regard the term with less anxiety. That is how an contributor is able to think of the word “queer” as “a good friend,” while  writer Jenny Block claims that, while she was born a lesbian, she decided to be queer.  

Here she is, explaining how, to her, “queer” opens the door to a better world:

“I want to live in a world where everyone is queer. Now, don’t get all bent out of shape. I’m not talking about sexual orientation. I’m talking about the true meaning of the word, the things that really do make me queer and proud of it. ‘Queer’ means ‘out of the ordinary.’ It means ‘curious.’ It means ‘unexpected.’ It also means ‘weird.’ And I’m that too.”


Next week, we will explore the multitude of terms that have cropped up to describe gender identity and address the opportunities that this diverse terminology offers as well as some of the headaches associated with it.




Anne Errelis is a Staff Contributor at InQueery.