The Case Against Using the Word Queer
Welcome back to Queering the Narrative! The week before last, I spoke in favor of using the word queer, both in description of genres and in your writing. This week, however, I’m going to provide some insight into why some people don’t think we should be using the word queer to refer to LGBTQIA+ people, and why that matters
Again, I want to preface this post by saying that I, personally, find the word queer both powerful and useful. That means that some of my arguments here might not come across as passionately as the arguments I made last week, but I do believe that this is a very real discussion that we in the LGBTQIA+ community should be having. So, with that, here are some arguments against using the word queer:
A Dubious History
The word queer originally referred to something that was strange or out of the ordinary. There’s some evidence that this was used to refer to non-straight folx early in its usage, but it would be some time before it gained that specific usage.
As time went on, queer was used in a largely derogatory way, and came to be seen as a word which explicitly and exclusively applied to members of the LGBTQIA+ community. This began in the late 1800s, and by the early to mid 1900s it was pretty solidly cemented as a mean way to refer to LGBTQIA+ people.
Because it was used almost universally as an anti-LGBTQIA+ slur in this time period, many people who grew up in the 60s, 70s, and 80s grew up hearing this word as a way to tell them they were lesser, that they were wrong. This is an experience that many LGBTQIA+ folx can identify with, and is understandably traumatic.
In the late 80s and early 90s, many LGBTQIA+ activist groups started using the word queer in an effort to reclaim it. The group Queer Nation, founded in 1990, used the word specifically to wrest it back from bigots who used it against the LGBTQIA+ community, and some other activist networks followed suit.
Since then, LGBTQIA+ folx have been using the word queer to denote the broader community in a more inclusive way. That, combined with the relative ease of the word, is likely why it now is used in academic circles — such as in reference to Queer Media Studies — and why it is so popular with younger members of the LGBTQIA+ community, who haven’t seen it used as a slur as profusely as it once was.
This winding history on its own — and the fact that the word still to this day carries some connotations of “strangeness” — makes queer a somewhat fraught phrase, and endless debate has been had (and likely will continue to be had) surrounding its use.
Because of the word’s fraught history, the word queer makes a lot of LGBTQIA+ people extremely uncomfortable, especially when the term is applied to them specifically without their consent.
This is especially common in older LGBTQIA+ folx — those born in the years before the reclamation of the term began. However, it’s not unheard of in the younger LGBTQIA+ folx. Especially in rural areas in the United States, queer is still used to bully young LGBTQIA+ kids just as they are potentially coming to terms with their identities. Because of this, the old/young distinction between who might and might not want someone using the word queer for them is, at best, unhelpful.
From my research, it seems that using the word queer to refer to LGBTQIA+ people in an academic sense is largely acceptable, but using it to refers to large swaths of individuals or entire groups can be a bit problematic. This is a simple fact of reclaimed words — no matter how broadly the term is reclaimed, someone is going to have a personal history with the word that could make it harmful to hear it.
Context is Important
There are, of course, situations where using the word queer is just flat out unacceptable.
Generally, this is when the world is explicitly used as a slur. Now, this isn’t to say that you should never ever never use slurs in your writing — they’re powerful words, and words with that kind of power can provide a lot of impact in dialogue. HOWEVER, you do have to be mindful about how you use this language. Blase or flippant use of slurs in your fiction is HARMFUL, and if you’re using the word queer as a slur without addressing that use, then you could cause harm to your LGBTQIA+ readers.
If you aren’t sure when the word queer is or is not a slur, I suggest you refrain from using it. Barring that, the baseline that I tend to go by for queer is that it’s fine as a (respectful) adjective or descriptor — a queer person — but NOT fine when it is used as a noun on its own (ie calling someone “a queer”). You should also refrain from using the word queer for individuals who have expressly stated that they don’t want the word used for them.
Using the Word Queer in Writing
So, how does all this context affect how we should use the word queer in our writing?
Since the word is largely considered acceptable in academic circles, I would argue that classifying genres as queer isn’t inherently bad — though since some folx find the term offensive, it may be unnecessarily alienating. This, I think, needs to be a judgement call based on how the word evolves going forward, and we as a community have to be willing and able to divest from the term if it proves too harmful.
In general writing, however, the term is a bit more dubious. I still believe it has its place — though perhaps not as broadly as some (myself included) use it, because it is hurtful for some folx. It can be alienating to read the term in a work of fiction ostensibly — or even demonstrably — in support of LGBTQIA+ folx.
My personal argument here would be similar to the general arguments about using the word queer: don’t use it as a slur, unless you’re really considering the textual and emotional impact of that word in that moment. It’s probably okay to have individual characters self-identify as queer, but avoid using it as a catch-all term for all LGBTQIA+ folx.
So, we’ve now heard the case for and against using the word queer in your writing. No matter which side of this argument you fall on, it can be extremely useful to have some alternatives to the word queer to use in your fiction. So next week I’ll be discussing some of the pros and cons of various alternatives to using the word queer in your writing! Until then, stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!