By Tara Cavanaugh
Sara Spurgeon loves using the word queer. In fact, she thinks she’s always been a queer girl.
“As a pre-teen, I dreamed that the princes in my fairy tales were butch girls,” the 33-year-old said. “As a teen activist, I was a hard-hitting, outspoken, purple-haired dyke in high school. My best friend was a pretty boy who secretly dressed for class at my house.
“It was our defiant queerness that helped us survive a very traumatic educational experience, fraught with bullying and harassment.”
But Spurgeon, who works for Equality Michigan, is aware that other people might not feel the same about queer.
“Queer is a powerful word – it stirs up emotions,” she said. “I use the word carefully.”
Spurgeon knows that queer, a simple single-syllable word, carries a lot of baggage.
Depending on the mouth it comes out of or the ears that are around to hear it, queer can signify power, pride, inclusiveness, victimization, oddity or antiestablishment – and any combination thereof.
So what’s behind the controversy and baggage of one little word? A long and twisted history.
From strange to sexual difference
Queer, which generally means “strange or odd,” was first used in regards to sexual deviance in the 1920s, said Tim Retzloff, who’s working on a doctorate from Yale in gay and lesbian history. Retzloff cited “The Well of Loneliness,” a lesbian novel from 1928, as one of the first places queer was used.
Even though the book was one of the first lesbian novels, Hall never actually uses the word lesbian. But she does use queer 59 times, Retzloff said. “Queer was generally related to this sense of sexual difference.”
According to Retzloff, queer became a popular pejorative sometime after WWII. In the thousands of Detroit police reports from the 1960s he’s researched for his dissertation, Retzloff found countless examples of police officers using the word queer to describe the men they arrested in gay bar raids. “So it really was this nasty term,” Retzloff said. “You see why anyone from that generation would cringe at its use.”
Sue Eisman, a 64-year-old retiree who splits her time between Florida and Michigan, was a young woman in the 1960s. The word queer makes her think of danger and violence. To her, it’s the kind of word that LGBTs can now use between themselves, but not a word that anyone outside of that community can use without being offensive.
“I don’t feel that I, as a non-gay ally, have the right to use any word like that. Doesn’t make sense to me,” said the former Triangle Foundation volunteer.
Meesha Michelle, a 40-year-old biracial woman from Southfield, said queer also reminds her of the difficulties she faced when coming out in the 1980s.
“It was rough,” Michelle said. “It was really rough. Coming out now is a little easier.”
Even though coming out may be easier now for some people, hearing a word like queer still “takes me back to that place,” Michelle said, and she doesn’t like it. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard queer used in a positive connotation.”
Eisman said different groups have tried to reclaim pejorative terms in her lifetime – words like fag, dyke, lesbo and queer – but she doesn’t think any of those attempts were successful.
Those attempts happened in the early 1990s, when queer was used by a group called Queer Nation. “In terms of AIDS activism, gay and lesbian activists wanted to reclaim the word queer, as both a more inclusive term and a more in-your-face term too,” Retzloff said.
And it wasn’t only the independent groups that made up Queer Nation that wanted to reclaim queer. The University of Michigan was home to Queer Action and the Queer Unity Project in the early 1990s, and many other schools around the country were home to similarly-named groups. “There was this active effort to reclaim the word, to include bisexuals, and the trans community was coming forward too,” Retzloff said, adding that queer was considered shorthand and inclusive, and still often is today as well.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, “queer” was also indoctrinated into academia, as it became the label of classes, studies and certificates. “Queer theory is a vein of scholarship which is critical and challenging of the status quo. It’s this disruptive vein, rooted in feminism, that looks at where power comes from,” Retzloff said. “It’s also part of this divide in people in the ivory tower and people outside of it.”
So what side are you on?
In 1993, Retzloff noted that BTL used the word queer often, and a letter to the editor that year decried the usage. “There was this tension,” he said. “An older generation that didn’t think that the younger generation understood the pain that went with the word.”
That tension is still around today.
Cookie Woolner, a 37-year-old graduate student in history at U-M, prefers to use queer even though she is well aware of how negative it may seem to people like Eisman or Michelle.
The word has never put her in danger, and she knows how “very, very easy” it is for her to claim. “It’s completely from the work of those generations that I’m able to call myself that,” Woolner said.
The tension about the word queer is not just between the older generation and the younger generation, but it’s also present in another kind of battle of ideals: Are you a part of the commonly accepted vision of what it means to be LGBT? Or is that vision too limiting?
The debate’s roots come from “the anxiety” of deciding whether being sexually different “should be emphasized, or if it’s just an incidental part of everybody,” Retzloff said.
Some, like Michelle, don’t want those differences to be the cause for division anymore.
“We get so much oppression from the outside and I’m seeing a lot of oppression within our own community,” she said. “We have boy bars and girl bars. Black bars and white bars. Black pride and white pride. I’d like to see a positive representation of our community as a whole.”
She likes that gays and lesbians are showing up more often in TV shows such as “Glee” and “Modern Family” in a positive way. “We’re not the freak neighbors,” she said. “We’re integrated. I would like to see more of that.”
Nick Piotrowski, on the other hand, doesn’t like how the word gay has “moved toward a more homogenized existence.” The 23-year-old architecture student from Detroit stopped using gay to describe himself and now uses queer.
“I think gay culture has in some ways moved away from accepting people who are different,” he said, and more toward heteronormative activities like marriage and adoption.
For Piotrowski, “Identifying as queer is a way to identify as someone who is interested in members of the same sex, but not necessarily with the baggage of having to fit into a set identity that’s portrayed by the media and larger cultural forces.”
He also likes that queer “doesn’t force you to identify as X label … It’s vague and amorphous.”
One important thing to remember in these conversations is that people can “look back into LGBT history, and at different terms that have been used over the last 100 years, and can see what they relate to and they don’t,” Retzloff said. “They can self-identify as what they want, not confined to those parameters.”
Woolner agrees: “I think sexuality is a really wide spectrum. Some find their identities more complex or fluid than (the typical labels).”
Woolner, who identifies as a “queer femme who mostly dates people who identify as trans or gender queer,” said queer is about “destructing binaries, whether it’s the binary of heterosexual and homosexual or masculine and feminine.”
The long and winding road
The journey of the word queer doesn’t stop here. Just like any other word changes over time, queer will keep bending to the will of whoever chooses to use it.
“It’s certainly not as shocking a word as it was in the early 1990s,” Retzloff said.
“While queer may become this comfortable term that’s not going to raise people’s ire, who’s to say what it might mean 50 years from now?”