Is "Queer" a Derogatory Word?

Is "Queer" a Derogatory Word?

Rainbow Flag
Portra Images/Getty Images

The word "queer" is most often used today to define the LGBT culture. But it wasn't always like that. "Queer" was often used during the 16th century onwards to describe something strange, eccentric or peculiar. I still remember reading through Bram Stoker's Dracula and often come across lines like "He was in such a queer mood that morning". But despite the variations that the word 'queer' took along history, it is now used in a non-derogatory way.

"Queer" was once used by homophobes to negatively describe a gay man or woman. That change began to happen early in the 1900's when the word started to be used as a form of insult towards men and women who engaged in same-sex relationships and to those who exhibited non-normative gender expressions. 

The term later began to be reclaimed by the gay community, by the beginning of the 1980's, and became a synonym of the LGBT fight towards equality - it is used as a positive or neutral descriptive of each other. By embracing a word that was used to attack or degrade, the gay community has demagnetized the strength of the word, making it a common everyday term. This lessens the effect of the word when used against them.

One particular episode helped transforming the way the LGBT community reacted to the word: during the year of 1990, a flier was made and distributed describing why the community should adopt the term "queer".

It read:

"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… And for others "queer" conjures up those awful memories of adolescent suffering… 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."

This process by which a word meaning changes from negative or neutral to more positive is called amelioration. The word "fag" has also been ameliorated by gays themselves. Other communities embrace words used to degrade them as well, such as women using the "B" word to describe each other or African-Americans using the "N" word to describe themselves.

Nonetheless, much care should be taken when using an ameliorated word as some may take offense. For instance, just because gays have embraced the word "queer" does not mean it cannot be used as a term of hate by a homophobe, which unfortunately continues to happen. Those who often use the term should have in consideration its important history. 

Nevertheless, the word "queer" is an exceptional example of how we can transform something bad into something good, of how we can have the power to confront the obstacles and bring out the best of an awful situation. Which in itself is a metaphor for everything else that happens in our lives.

View the Gay Life Glossary!