Odd, strange, eccentric — more adventures in dictionaries
The argument against the word was that it had been used as an insult against children who failed to fully conform to the ideal for their assigned gender, resulting in many adults in the LGBTQ+ community to experience great pain when hearing the word. I understood that argument, though I had found myself at the receiving end of a lot of vitriol from within the community if I happened to use the word “gay” as an umbrella term, because it left out lesbians. Similarly, I had also been yelled at from using the term “lesbian and gay” because it excluded bisexual people. And the arguments and screaming fits over the word “homosexual” are so convoluted (and intimately tied to the etymology of the word) that they deserve a separate blog post.
So I had found myself, as an active member of a couple of non-profit organizations related to the LGBTQ+ community, constantly trying to say the full initialism in every sentence.
Some gay friends who really disliked Queer Nation saw me marching up the street behind the Queer Nation banner that day (we were actually doing the Queer Hokey Pokey when we passed in front of the bar where a bunch of my friends had met for other reasons). And I got a lot of grief later from them. Some of them just teased me about it, but some were a bit more upset. While I was trying to explain why I wasn’t embarrassed about marching with Queer Nation nor did I regret it, one friend got in my face pretty angrily about it. And thus I found myself retorting, “I am going to call myself Queer if I want to, and fuck you if you don’t like it!”
My feelings about the word shifted during that argument.
Because I realized the argument has a big flaw. Yes, I was bullied as a kid with the word “queer,” but I was also bullied just as viciously with the word “gay.” And the people who argued most vehemently 25 years ago that queer was completely unacceptable, just as emphatically insisted that I should proudly call myself gay. Similarly, I know many women who were bullied during childhood and beyond with the word “lesbian” and derivatives of the word, yet now they’re supposed to proudly call themselves that word, and we’re supposed to call them that rather than use “queer.”
According to several of my dictionaries, in the last two hundred years queer has gone from an adjective meaning “strange, peculiar, or eccentric” to a verb meaning “to spoil or ruin” to an adjective meaning “of or related to homosexuality” to a noun meaning “a homosexual man” to a both a noun and an adjective: “a non-heterosexul person” or something “related to non-heterosexuality.”
Words change. Queer may be derived from the Old High German twerh which was an adjective describing something that was “oblique or not at a right angle.” In other words, not straight. One can see how describing something that was physically at an odd angle would come to metaphorically refer to something that was odd or peculiar in other ways.
My dictionaries that cite the first use of a each particular sense of a word by date indicate that the word was not used as an adjective referring to homosexuality until 1922, and then the noun usage for a homosexual man came 1935. Yet an unabridged dictionary I have that was published in 1957 lists only the definition, “odd, strange, eccentric.”
I see people who are too young to really remember the heyday of Queer Nation amid the horrors of the AIDS crisis in the 80s and 90s still making the argument that we shouldn’t use the word. They say “some people” are triggered by the word queer, so we shouldn’t use it. What they mean is they have been told by some LGBTQ+ folks my age that they are triggered by the word. I, however, remain extremely skeptical of anyone who claims a single word is a consistent trigger. Triggers are tricky, but in my experience, the people claiming to be triggered by the mere utterance of a single specific word really mean that they dislike the word, not that hearing it gives them flashbacks forcing them to relive horrific experiences. This kind of claim cheapens the very useful meaning of the word “trigger” to describe a phenomenon that some survivors of trauma experience. And I’ve never, ever heard anyone claim to be triggered by the words “gay” or “lesbian” even though those words were used as vicious insults just as often as “queer” was.So, I’m not going to try to squeeze the various QUILTBAG initialisms (LGBT, GLBT, LGBTI, LGBTQ, LGBTQ+, LGBTQA ad nauseam — and boy, does it get nauseam!) into every sentence. I’m queer. I’m a queer man who is a member of the queer community. The community includes trans people, bisexual people, pansexual people, asexual people aromantic people, non-heterosexual people of all genders, genderfluid people, two-spirit people, bigendered people, ambigendered people, et cetera, et omnia, et perpetua. No matter how you look at all of those people, if you get us all together, many of us are quite strange, a little odd, or wildly eccentric in wonderful ways. So queer is a word that encompasses us well.
If a specific person asks me not to call them queer, I will make an effort not to use the word to refer to them specifically, but I’m going to go right on calling myself and the community queer. I’m here, I’m queer, and I’m not going to be silenced by anyone.