Reclaiming ‘queer’

This is a re-print of an article that I wrote for the Student Newspaper, published 01/03/11. 

I had a conversation the other day that left me blinking in the cold light of reality. In reference to someone or other’s sexuality, I said the following:

“They describe themselves as queer”.

“Queer?! That’s an insult!”

I blinked. “No, it’s a term they use themselves…”

“But it’s offensive!”

And therein lies a problem.  As an adjective, as a term of self-definition and as a reference, ‘queer’ is most simply explained as a rejection of heteronormativity. Its variety of meanings include its use as a catch-all term for a matrix of sexual preferences, and the habits and preferences of the non-exclusively-heterosexual and non-exclusively-monogamous population, as well as a label of sexual orientation used in place of ‘bisexual’ to acknowledge the existence of more than one gender to be attracted to, or to describe an intimate relationship without having to label the gender of the other participant(s).

Importantly, ‘queer’ is also an excellent example of the subversion of a derogatory term. In the 1980s, gay and lesbian activists began to use the word in pride and in defiance, beginning a slow process of reclamation which continues to this day.

Queer theory is now a recognized academic school of thought, deconstructing the boxes surrounding sexuality. Communities in which the word ‘queer’ is used as a non-insulting word are common. I spent last weekend at a conference in Brighton, ‘Revolting – Bodies, Politics and Genders’, in which the majority of the papers presented included at least a tacit reference to the ‘Q’ at the end of ‘LGBT’ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-).

Generational differences are important. The reclamation of ‘queer’, and its use as a term of pride or at least as a term of non-derogatory reference, is more common-place amongst the under-25s than amongst the over-40s. Accepted labels, especially for sexuality and gender, have a habit of entrenchment in culture, language and psyche which is hard to break.

But break them we must. As the pluralities surrounding identity expand, so the acronyms expand – LGB gained a T, became LGBTQ, and grew again to LGBTQIA (… intersex, asexual). The obvious comment is that this ever-expanding sequence of letters is merely a reactive lumping-together of all gender and sexual identities that do not meet the norm. But there is further comment to be made on the self-labelling inherent in many of these terms.

Saying that I am a ‘lesbian’ implies two things – first, that I am a woman myself, and second that I am attracted exclusively to other women. If, say, my gender was fluid, or I slept with people whose gender was fluid, I would no longer fit the label. Labelling myself ‘bisexual’ doesn’t implicitly label my gender, but it does state that I am attracted to both men and women – were I to find myself attracted to someone who rejected the gender binary, my ‘bisexual’ identity would no longer fit me.

I don’t for a minute suggest that these labels are not important. Labels construct identity, solidify communities, engender political action and are reassuring in their certainty. What I suggest instead is that ‘queer’ has a place in society, and has a place in common language – not as an insult, but as a term of reference.

Just as L, G and B are part of mainstream culture, so Q deserves its place as a descriptor and as an accepted identity.

– Suzi Compton


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