By Mikkel Hyldebrandt
How do we change the meaning of a word and concept from something that was created to intentionally harm to something empowering? The word queer is shapeshifting right before our eyes and ears to be embraced as a term of empowerment in a whole new context. Here’s how!
The word queer is frequently used when referring to events and parties, and generally when we are talking about our vibrant community of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. But queer wasn’t always a word that was so mainstream that it could be used to name a popular makeover show on Netflix. In fact, queer was deeply offensive and used intentionally as a harmful term of discrimination. In the being of the 20th century, the word queer came about as a derogatory term that described those people who didn’t conform to the expectations of a hetero-normative society. They were the effeminate men and manly women that were probably gay, lesbian, and even transgender, and they were openly scorned by society as queer as in “odd” or “unconventional.”
The word still carries that dark side with it. Last year, when I started to refer to identify more as ‘queer’ as opposed to ‘gay,’ several people openly questioned why I would choose such an offensive term as an identity cue.
Yes, there is no doubt that the word has a history of derogatory use and bullying, but today the term is experiencing a re-empowerment from within the community. Somehow, the word queer manages to unify us under a queer and rainbow-colored umbrella. Instead of dividing us into lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, questioning, et cetera, the term queer is being used to recognize the many complex identities that make up our LGBTQ+ community, and instead of being derogatory and divisive, being queer is recognized as a unifying term of identity and inclusion – a far cry from its derogatory origins.
There is also no doubt that self-identifying as queer has come from the younger generation, which is why there is this mismatch of meaning in the use of the term, as some within the community will still see the term queer as hurtful. But with this new association for the word queer, it is also becoming clear that the word and its identity is changing and is becoming less hurtful and more empowering. In fact, queer is now being used proudly to fiercely reclaim and reshape it in a positive light.
For some, drawing parallels between the use of the word queer and the ‘N-word’ is another way to explain how a community has taken the power back over a word. Even though there are similarities in how a harmful term has been reclaimed and empowered, there are critical and significant differences between how these words have been used and are being used in relation to the communities. While both communities of people of color and queer communities continue to discuss and explore how the words are used, it is safe to say that the use of the ‘N-word’ is on an entirely different level of appropriateness, and is still a very explosive term that can be used to incite racism and aggression in different contexts. So simply put; although there are connections, it is impossible to make a one-to-one comparison.
With all that being said, I fully support the use of the word queer – as long as you understand the underlying meaning, the history of the term, and engage in the proper use of the word. Anything else and you’re just using it to intentionally do harm or hurt someone who identifies with the word. By using the word queer in its reclaimed and empowered state, we can collectively create a space that recognizes all of our complex identities under one word.
It is clear that we haven’t ridden the term entirely of its offensive and hateful connotations – this very article is proof of that – but it is also clear that the word is no longer loaded with the same derogatory associations. Instead, it has been re-loaded with the power to unite our diverse experiences as a term of defiance and inclusion. And that is empowering, proud, loud, and queer!