Updated: Nov 1
The word "queer" has a long and complicated history, with its first recorded use in the English language dating back to the early 16th century. Its use still remains a complex and controversial one, but its use now, particularly by young LGBTQ+ people, is bringing it more into the zeitgeist of the 2020s LGBTQ+ and queer communities. There are often arguments and comments online about whether the word should be used; opinions often being based on people’s own experiences. But with many young people, organisations including governments, and increasingly publications such as Pink News using the phrase to describe the whole LGBTQ+ community, is it time that we all accepted the word, or is there a more nuanced approach? Here I will explore the history of the word, links to transphobia and Queer Theory, and what we can learn as a community.
Early examples of the word "queer" in print
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of the term Queer, was by William Dunbar in around 1513 in his poem, Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy
Off Edinburgh, the boyis as beis owt thrawis,
And cryis owt ay, Heir cumis owr awin queir Clerk!
Than fleis thow, lyk ane howlat chest with crawis,
Quhill all the bichis at thy botingis dois bark
Now, of course the word queer appears as ‘queir’, but this was before the standardisation of spellings and varied spellings of words and indeed names were very common; Shakespeare himself spelling his own name in many different ways.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the word "queer" continued to be used as a general term for anything strange or unusual. However, it also began to be used more specifically to refer to people with same-sex desires or relationships; although the more common term was ‘Molly’, which gave its name to Molly Houses, the precursor to LGBTQ+ venues
The use of the word "queer" as a slur
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the word "queer" began to be used more commonly as a slur against LGBTQ+ people. This was due in part to the increasing visibility of LGBTQ+ people in society, as well as the growing opposition to homosexuality from religious and conservative groups. One example of the word "queer" being used as a slur is in the 1895 trial of Oscar Wilde. During the trial, the Marquis of Queensberry referred to Wilde and other homosexual men as "snob queers."
Another example of the complexity of the word is in the 1914 novel "Sons and Lovers" by D.H. Lawrence. In the novel, the character Paul Morel describes his homosexuality as being a "queer thing." What’s interesting about this text is the frequency with which the word is used and how versatile a word it is:
‘When he rose to go forward he felt queer’,
‘It seemed queer to the children to see their mother…’,
‘On one side was a queer, dark, cardboard factory…’.
So at this time, the word is certainly polysemous and could be used in many different contexts, but it is certainly being used to ‘other’ certain people.
The reclamation of the word "queer"
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, some LGBTQ+ activists began to reclaim the word "queer" as a term of empowerment. Erin J. Rand, in their book ‘Reclaiming Queer: Activist and Academic Rhetorics of Resistance’, says that the word was intertwined with a shift in ideology and aligned with the more activist nature of the community. At this time, some argued that the word was more inclusive than other labels, such as "gay" or "lesbian," which could be seen as limiting or restrictive. They also argued that the word "queer" was more challenging to the status quo, as it refused to conform to traditional labels of sexuality and gender. This is similar to modern discussions about the word, but demonstrates that the argument that the reclamation of the word queer is a modern venture by millennials or Gen Z, is simply a false one.
In the 1990s, reclamation of the word began to be seen in various types of media. In the 1990 book "Queer Nation" by Michelangelo Signorile, Signorile argues that the word "queer" is a "powerful weapon" that can be used to challenge heteronormativity and homophobia. And the 1991 film "Paris is Burning", many of the LGBTQ+ people of colour interviewed use the word "queer" to describe themselves. Shows such as 'Queer as Folk' and 'Queer Eye for the straight guy began to introduce the term in a positive light, challenging the perception of Queer as a negative word.
The increase in use has continued in many modern TV series such as Sex Education, where the word queer is used very freely to describe small groups and individuals use it to describe themselves. This echoes society, where more people than ever are describing themselves as queer and an increasing number of organisations and businesses are using the word in their title. However, most of these uses are aimed at individuals or small groups who have self-identified as queer; it is rare that these programmes use the word to describe the whole LGBTQ+ community. When they do, there is often backlash from members of the public; which of course contain a mixture of homophobic and transphobic slurs, but also people who do not feel comfortable having their identity being labelled as queer without their consent.
Despite the journey of this reclamation of the word in the populace, I went to school during the 1980s and 1990s and it was one of the foremost pejorative words used; in amongst faggot, poof, and gay itself. For people of my generation and older, the word is often associated with shame, embarrassment and can be very triggering. Any time I talk about the word on X, I get several responses from people who say that even seeing the word can be difficult, due to the vicious nature in which the word was used in the past. This time cannot be forgotten as for many people in the LGBT+ community, it is still very recent and fresh in their minds.
Even though the word is increasing in usage, particularly by young LGBTQ+ people, LGBTQ+ organisations who purport to be inclusive of all have been guilty of using the word without acknowledging the difficulty that this word causes some people. I was recently at a training session with one of the largest LGBTQ+ charities in the UK, where the facilitator continuously used the word queer to describe the whole LGBTQ+ community. When I challenged them on why they were using this word in this way, they were quite taken aback and claimed that they did not realise some people still find the word offensive. Whether this was ignorance or an attempt to cover up their position is unclear, but it shows that even people purporting to be ‘experts’ sometimes forget the complex nature of the word and the upset that it can cause some people.
Links to transphobia
Another common place we see the negative use of the word queer is in X (Twitter) biographies of people who are transphobic, often stating ‘Gay not queer’; this being synonymous with the group ‘Gays Against Groomers’. In this case, the word is generally being used to describe transgender, or gender-fluid people only, and direct or indirect links are being made to grooming or paedophilia. This not only simplifies the word into a term which denies its complexity, but also echoes the homophobia of the 1980s; ironic considering many of their followers grew up in this time and should know the danger that the ‘grooming’ rhetoric is, particularly themselves using the word queer as a slur.
The relationship between the word "queer" and "Queer Theory" is complex and evolving. Queer Theory is an academic field that examines the nature of sexuality- and gender-based normativity and how society defines and polices the concepts of heterosexuality, homosexuality, and gender and sexual identities.
Queer Theory emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in part as a response to the limitations of traditional lesbian and gay studies. Queer theorists argue that sexuality and gender are not fixed or natural categories, but rather are socially constructed and fluid. They also argue that heterosexuality is privileged and normalised in society, while homosexuality and other sexualities are marginalised and oppressed.
Queer theorists have used the word "queer" in a variety of ways. Some queer theorists use the word to refer to all non-normative sexualities, while others use it more broadly to refer to anyone who challenges the status quo in terms of sexuality, gender, or identity.
Queer Theory has also been used by opponents of Relationships and Sexuality Education, and LGBT+ inclusion, arguing that Queer Theory seeks to destroy social norms and open doors for paedophillia. Again, this dangerous rhetoric echoes the homophobia of the 1980s and makes tenuous links between arbitrary subjects, that only seek to enact oppression, under the guise of protecting children. I shall be exploring Queer Theory in a future blog post as it is a complex topic, but suffice it to say, Queer Theory and the use of the word queer, are very different things!
The word "queer" has a complex and contested history. It has been used both as a slur and as a term of empowerment by LGBTQ+ people. While some people have embraced the term "queer" as a way to reclaim it from its history of hate, others still find it offensive.
When people are confused about why queer shouldn’t be used for the whole community, I use this analogy: in the same way that most English people are British but not all British people are English, most queer people are LGBT+, but not all LGBT+ people are queer. We are are complex community of many different identities which often, but do not always overlap.
In the midst of this divisiveness, it is crucial to emphasise the importance of respecting individuals' choices regarding self-identifying terminology. While 'queer' may be empowering for some, it may be hurtful for others. It is essential to honour each person's right to use words that make them feel comfortable and accurately describe their identity. The LGBTQ+ community should strive to create an inclusive environment where individuals are not pressured into using labels that do not resonate with them. This includes having conversations with young people about the complexity of the word so that they understand the history of this word, and why not all LGBTQ+ people share their comfort with it.
Side note: Fake history
When researching this article, I read many sources of ‘history’. One of which was using Google Bard to identify sources of the word queer in history. In the research was the claim that ‘Queer’ was used in the 1590 play "Tamburlaine the Great" by Christopher Marlowe. It is claimed that in the play, the character Tamburlaine describes his enemies as being "queerer than the wind." However, this does not appear anywhere in the play.
A similar claim was made by Bard in that an early example of the word "queer" being used in print is in the 1662 novel "Hudibras" by Samuel Butler. It says that in the novel, the character Hudibras describes his horse as being "queerly caparisoned." However, I could find no evidence of this, even using different spellings.
And so when looking at the history of these words, we need to be careful when using AI writers and unreferenced sources, as they are notoriously unreliable and could be used to spread fake news.
 https://digital.nls.uk/dcn6/8133/81333518.6.pdf  https://www.history.com/news/10-things-you-didnt-know-about-william-shakespeare  https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/regency-gay-bar-molly-houses  https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/queer-history-a-history-of-queer/