The word “queer” has undergone something of a renaissance during the past few decades. Colleges are implementing “queer studies” programs, the LGBT+ acronym has been expanded to become LGBTQ+ in many uses and more and more people are using it as a term of endearment.
This is distressing to many LGBT+ people from outside the cosmopolitan confines of large, forward-thinking cities. To us, the word has been used as a slur far more than it has been used in its “reclaimed” form. Within the community, the term is used with no ill-intent, however, we would be better off if we simply let the word die, rather than reclaiming it.
In some small towns, even those surrounding Geneseo, society is less accepting and about a decade behind bigger cities developmentally. That means that slurs that have been largely forgotten in some areas are alive and well here. Among those is the word “queer.”
On local online boards, entire threads exist questioning whether one person or another is “a queer.” Worse terms are common, but this sticks out. For some, simply seeing the word brings to mind not a free lifestyle, but pain.
The word has an ugly history and an ugly present. When Matthew Shepard, a gay 21-year-old college student, was tortured to death, his killers referred to him as “a queer.” That was in 1998, when the word was already beginning its normalization.
In some ways, comparisons with the “n-word” are apt here. While the word has been largely normalized for use within the African American community, it has a bloody history that is impossible not to recall.
Oprah Winfrey, one of the most successful African American individuals ever, said that she cannot be friends with people who use the “n-word.” In a 2013 interview on her show Winfrey said, “I always think of the millions of people who heard that as their last word as they were hanging from a tree.”
Not only is the continued use of “queer” as a slur a problem, but its very definition clashes with the original intent of the LGBT+ liberation movement. Google’s dictionary defines “queer” in two ways: an adjective meaning strange or odd, and a verb meaning to ruin something.
One of the great rallying cries throughout the history of the fight for LGBT+ rights has been that we are human, too. The lives of straight people are no more deserving of rights than us, and we don’t request special rights either. We’re not a different group to be pointed to; we’re just like everybody else.
Alongside its use as an umbrella term for the LGBT+ community, “queer” has been used as a way to identify people who don’t fit completely within one of the labels in the LGBT+ acronym. For that, perhaps simply use the “+” as an identifier. This simple, semantic change would prevent conjuring up the pain of the word’s past to those who still experience it, without leaving out in the cold those who have adopted “queer” as their identifier.
As one of the most welcoming communities in our society today, this is a change that the LGBT+ community can accomplish. If anything, we simply need to be more welcoming to those who have experienced the problematic use of a supposedly reclaimed slur.