Reclaiming a slur- the semantics of ‘queer’

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There is no denying the divisive nature of the term queer.

The history of the term as one which represents LGBTQ+ populations is both complex and a matter of great sensitivity. Used pejoratively as far back as the 19th century as a term to denote and, at times dehumanize individuals expressing same-sex desires, queer became a term through which gender and sex variant communities across much of the postmodern Anglophone West were subjected to hostility, vitriol and violence of emotional, physical and structural natures. In the 1980s, it was activist groups such as Queer Nation who generated the momentum behind the reclamation of this slur; “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” being perhaps one of the most significant slogans which emerged from this process of reclaiming- reclaiming which occurred within LGBTQ+ spaces and sites of political protest alike. Undoubtedly this term has been deemed innately political; queerness and politics appear inextricably linked by the very fact that queer was a term used to oppress, to deem an individual unworthy of basic human rights and dignities. When we talk of what the term ‘queer’ means, there is a dialogue present; that dialogue presents itself as an accusation first, and a response which serves to reframe the term and subsequently disarm those who sought to use the term as a weapon against gender and sexuality variant individuals. For many individuals, queer is a term which is now used to represent that which is non-normative, that which is pushed to the margins, that which was once shamed but can and should be celebrated. For many individuals, including myself, it is a means through which to state that, without the need to constrain myself with communicating the parameters of what I am, I can tell you what I am not. The normative, the socially desired and the expected; queerness is a resistance against these factors.

However, the sentiment of a word such as ‘queer’ necessitates the incredibly delicate application of that term to cultures from which it has not originated or been actively (re)claimed. When considering queerness, it is often tempting to draw upon cross-cultural, transnational examples of gender and sexuality diversity, of which there are multitudes. Undoubtedly, this wider lens is important in justifying the value of gender and sexuality variant inclusivity and education; but we risk not only tokenizing these communities in falling back on them as novelty examples of queerness, but also risk applying the term ‘queer’ to communities for which this word is not appropriate nor wanted. Queer, as a concept, risks resembling a (post)-colonial export, pasted over the languages and terminology used by these communities as a means of stripping dimension and complexity from these narratives (which do not, could not possibly, always resemble the narratives of western queer individuals), to homogenize them, make them uniform with ours. In doing this, queerness becomes the Great Queer Conglomerate, corporate and all-consuming, transforming a concept which was born from the desire and need to disavow and disregard boundaries and categories into one which has become its very own category; and that category is the exotic. It is the other.

When we talk about exporting, homogenizing, colonizing with our language, we must consider how defining others through our language transposes, imposes sentiment. As mentioned, the history of the term ‘queer’ finds its foundations in struggle- in pain, in trauma, in the denial of rights and freedoms. It is presumptuous at the very best to expect all gender and sexuality diverse individuals, especially those from non-Western cultures, to want to identify with, through and under this word. I am reminded of Over There: A Queer Anthology of Joy, in which artists collaboratively contributed to creating a book which asks the question “What is joy? Is joy possible in the world today? If so, how do queer people imagine or experience it?”. How do queer people imagine or experience joy? It can be argued that many experiences which allow for a queer form of joy take a distinctly bittersweet form; I myself have experienced queer joy in having my pronouns used correctly, or in experiencing gender euphoria. My queer joy, in experiencing gender euphoria, that wondrous feeling of being comfortable in my body, readable as who I am in a gendered manner- it exists because I have been denied it for so many years before. My queer joy is a response to queer pain, my dysphoria, the feminized expectations placed upon my body. My queer joy in hearing someone refer to me as they, or he, is experienced as a relief when I anticipate being presumed to be both cisgender and exclusively always female. It is a queer joy because to be joyful about your queerness is often bittersweet; it is because it is the social condition (not the human condition, but integral to our social selves nonetheless) to grapple with queerness as if it were a rupture, a malfunction. Undoubtedly, queerness is a rupture, and its existence as a rupture is determined by the fact that in contemporary Western society, there has never been a place for queerness to exist without enacting some kind of discord; queerness dissevers.

So if queer joy is a joy born from that discord, from denial, emerging from internal and external conflict- how can we possibly expect all gender and sexuality variant individuals to want to be called queer? Queer has sharp edges; it has subtext from which it cannot and should not ever be disentangled. Language steeped in such potent emotional weight is language which should only ever be chosen by an individual in the act of defining themselves. In the analysis of queer through the lens of cross-cultural semantics, of ethnolinguistics, it becomes evident that the sedimentary layers of ‘what queer means’ are almost untranslatable and arguably are transformed temporally, as queering becomes a reflexive, organic practice, queer communities operating as organisms within which what that term means, what it represents, grows and evolves with them. Queer cannot be a static term; static queerness is innately oxymoronic. In acknowledging this, in respecting the roots of queer and the spaces into which it will naturally grow, we must take an inductive approach. What is queer will show itself, declare itself to be, given the opportunity to learn and understand what this term means. Queerness cannot be imposed, cannot be exported, cannot be disseminated amongst the masses as the appropriate catch-all for that which defies the norms of our current construction of ‘the West’. Queerness is Althusserian in nature, as much language is; the words we use to express ourselves come to shape our sense of self in turn, the cyclical practice of growth and identity consolidation (and reconsolidation) through aligning ourselves with the sentiment of the terms with which we make ourselves heard, make ourselves visible.

I am queer. I am queer because, amongst other reasons, I have struggled for my identity. I have struggled with my colleagues, teachers, loved ones, and myself. I am queer, in-part, because my gender and sexuality are non-normative by the social standards I have been subjected to. But above all else, I am queer because I am reclaiming something that has been used to other me, my predecessors, and render us invisible. Queer is how I choose to make myself seen. I made this choice for myself, by myself, because I welcome people seeing the bittersweetness in my queer joy, seeing who I am now as the outcome of great efforts to teach myself to foster the self-worth people sought to deny me. I encourage all that identify with this word, whether or not theirs has been a queer struggle or a joyful queerness, to use it as freely and proudly as they rightfully should. I encourage all others to make seen and heard the words which can only ever encapsulate their experience in a way queer never will. The space for this language should be taken, claimed and reclaimed. It is not our duty to bend to the vocabularies of people who do not represent us- but it is our right to teach them how to speak us into visibility. We do not need unity under queer; we only ever need our solidarity.