Why “Queer” Is Still An Important Term For The LGBTQI+ Community

There's a reason, both historical and utilitarian, that queer is one of the letters in LGBTQI+, and it shouldn't be removed.


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Of all the words in the LGBTQI+ acronym, “queer” may be the most controversial.

Over time, queer has meant a lot of different things — historically it’s been used to describe someone who’s a little strange, it’s been a homophobic slur, and it’s eventually come to represent a specific portion of the gay community. But most recently, it’s been the source of a whole lot of debate — with some arguing we should be more selective about who has the right to use the word.

It’s a discussion that blew-up this week when musician Kehlani came out as “queer” on Twitter. She said that she chose the word over something like “gay” or “bisexual” for a reason — “I felt gay always insisted there was still a line drawn as to which ‘label’ of human i was attracted when i really jus (sic) be walking around thinking ERRYBODY FINE.”

“I’m queer. not bi, not straight. i’m attracted to women, men, REALLY attracted to queer men, non binary people, intersex people, trans people,” she added. “lil poly pansexual papi hello good morning. does that answer your questions?”

Kehlani later deleted a bunch of the tweets after she was called out for using the word “queer” to describe herself. So, how did we get to the point where self-identifying as queer is enough to kick the hornet’s nest?

Why Do People Think Queer Is A Slur?

Back in the bad old days queer was used in newspapers mostly to mean “strange,” but also occasionally to suggest homosexuality. By the 1950s, queer had become a negative, homophobic word in a similar fashion to dyke or faggot.

Many of those in the LGBTQI+ community who are middle-aged or older (especially gay-identifying men) have had it used against them as a taunt or form of harassment, and therefore don’t like it. Which is obviously fair.

However, it fell out of vogue like many old timey insults tend to do, and some time after that the queer community started to reclaim the word.

The word was reclaimed in the midst of the AIDS epidemic and quickly became a symbol of anarchy. The classic chant “We’re here, we’re queer, we will not live in fear” originated from protests during the eighties and nineties, and was an important part of turning the word into a rallying point for a beleaguered community. A similar thing has happened to fag and faggot in recent years, with many self-identifying gay men using it as a somewhat sassy identifier.

It helped define academic thinking around gender and sexuality, with the term ‘queer theory’ being used by seminal thinkers like Judith Butler, and still being taught today.

As this article in Dazed succinctly puts it:

“The former insult was worn as a badge of honour; not only did it become a definitive symbol of anarchy and rebellion, it became the ultimate linguistic ‘fuck you’ to homophobia.”

Now, it’s more commonly used to describe non-normative identities with regards to both gender and sexuality — it’s an umbrella term used to define a spectrum of marginalised identities. The word evolved.

We’re Here, We’re Queer, It Used To Be A Jeer

So much of the argument around the word queer is based on ownership.

While some are trying to delegitimise the term entirely, many are pushing for the word to be recognised as a slur again — specifically from the mouths of straight people. Essentially, they’re sorta okay with the LGBTQI+ community self-identifying, but want to limit it being used as common parlance, especially by non-queer media.

But historical purists don’t take into account that back in the early 1900s — before it even became a slur — “queer” was sometimes used as a self-identifier in the homosexual community, such as by Gertrude Stein in her poetry.

It has a long history of being intertwined with the homosexual and gender diverse community, and seeking to limit queer to its one function as an insult doesn’t do it justice. It also walks back all the hard work and time earlier generations spent reclaiming it.

Some proponents of the argument against queer place it within the same canon as the “n” word — a word which a specific community has the ability to use, but is grotesquely insulting for anyone else to say. There’s two key differences here. Firstly, it’s been decades since queer was used as an insult. The word has also been reclaimed in practical ways — its day-to-day use has completely changed from that of a slur to a way to describe the LGBTQI+ community.

Trying to take it out of common usage and media terminology — especially as a weird, belated kickback against a hereditary insult — is not only reductive, but insulting to the people who do identify strongly with the word.

I’m Here, I’m Queer, I’m Going To Drink A Beer

Frankly, those who endured hearing the word as a homophobic taunt are completely valid in not wanting to use the term to identify themselves. It basically boils down to this — if you don’t like the term queer, don’t use it.

But trying to take the word ‘queer’ away from other people misses the point. As Kehlani so perfectly expressed, queerness is a malleable, active term that has the necessary energy to leap over stricter and more binary definitions. It performs a unique function.

For some people, ONLY a more generous definition like queer can encompass how they describe their sexuality. For others, it’s a handy catch-all for less easily defined sexual and gender notions. For some, it’s a way of identifying with a community while struggling to work out exactly where they are on their own journey of sexual and gender identity — not everyone is firm and definite in their own labels.

There’s a reason, both historical and utilitarian, that queer is one of the letters in LGBTQI+, and it shouldn’t be removed.

Patrick Lenton is an author and staff writer at Junkee. He tweets @patricklenton.