Queer is an umbrella term for sexual and gender minorities who are not heterosexual or cisgender. Originally meaning "strange" or "peculiar", queer came to be used pejoratively against those with same-sex desires or relationships in the late 19th century. Beginning in the late 1980s, queer scholars and activists began to reclaim the word to establish community and assert an identity distinct from the gay identity. People who reject traditional gender identities and seek a broader and deliberately ambiguous alternative to the label LGBT may describe themselves as queer.
Queer is also increasingly used to describe non-normative[note 1] (i.e. anti-heteronormative and anti-homonormative) identities and politics. Academic disciplines such as queer theory and queer studies share a general opposition to binarism, normativity, and a perceived lack of intersectionality within the mainstream LGBT movement. Queer arts, queer cultural groups, and queer political groups are examples of expressions of queer identities.
Critics of the use of the term include members of the LGBT community and others who associate the term more with its colloquial usage as a derogatory insult or who wish to dissociate themselves from queer radicalism.
Definition and etymology
Entering the English language in the 16th century, queer originally meant "strange", "odd", "peculiar", or "eccentric". It might refer to something suspicious or "not quite right", or to a person with mild derangement or who exhibits socially inappropriate behaviour. A Northern English expression, "There's nowt so queer as folk," meaning, "There is nothing as strange as people," employs this meaning.
Related meanings of queer include a feeling of unwellness or something that is questionable or suspicious. The expression "in Queer Street" was used in the United Kingdom for someone in financial trouble. In the 1904 Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Second Stain", Inspector Lestrade threatens that a misbehaving constable will "find [himself] in Queer Street" (i.e., lose his position).
Queer as a pejorative
By the time "The Adventure of the Second Stain" was published, the term was starting to gain a connotation of sexual deviance, referring to feminine men or men who would engage in same-sex relationships. An early recorded usage of the word in this sense was in an 1894 letter by John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry. Usage of queer as a derogatory term for effeminate men become prominent in the 20th century. In the early-20th century, individuals with non-normative sexual or gender identities, including English poet and author Radclyffe Hall, preferred the identity of invert. In the mid-20th century, the invert identity lost ground and shifted toward the homophile identity. In the 1960s and 1970s, the homophile identity was displaced by a more radicalized gay identity, which at the time included trans and gender-nonconforming people.
During the endonymic shifts from invert to homophile to gay, queer was pejoratively applied to men who were believed to engage in receptive or passive anal or oral sex with other men as well as those who exhibited non-normative gender expressions.
Beginning in the late-1980s, the label queer began to be reclaimed from its pejorative use as a neutral or positive self-identifier by LGBT people. An early example of this usage by the LGBT community was by an organisation called Queer Nation, which was formed in March 1990 and circulated an anonymous flier at the New York Gay Pride Parade in June 1990 titled "Queers Read This". The flier included a passage explaining their adoption of the label queer:
Ah, do we really have to use that word? It's trouble. Every gay person has his or her own take on it. For some it means strange and eccentric and kind of mysterious [...] And for others "queer" conjures up those awful memories of adolescent suffering [...] Well, yes, "gay" is great. It has its place. But when a lot of lesbians and gay men wake up in the morning we feel angry and disgusted, not gay. So we've chosen to call ourselves queer. Using "queer" is a way of reminding us how we are perceived by the rest of the world.
Queer people, particularly queer people of color, began to reclaim queer in response to a perceived shift in the gay community toward liberal conservatism, catalyzed by Andrew Sullivan's 1989 piece in The New Republic, titled Here Comes the Groom: The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage. The queer movement rejected causes viewed as assimilationist, such as marriage, military inclusion and adoption.
The "hip and iconic abbreviation 'Q'" has developed from common usage of queer, particularly in the United States.
Inclusivity and scope
Because of the context in which it was reclaimed, queer has sociopolitical connotations and is often preferred by those who are activists—namely, by those who strongly reject traditional gender identities; reject distinct sexual identities such as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or straight; or see themselves as oppressed by the homonormativity of the politics of the broader gay or LGBT community. In this usage, queer retains its historical connotation of "outside the bounds of normal society" and can be construed as "breaking the rules for sex and gender". It can be preferred because of its ambiguity, which allows queer-identifying people to avoid the sometimes rigid boundaries that are associated with labels such as gay, lesbian, or even transgender.
While initially used only to refer to radical homosexuals, opinions on the range of what queer includes can vary. For some people, the non-specificity of the term is liberating. Queerness thus becomes a path of political resistance against heteronormativity as well as homonormativity while simultaneously refusing to engage in traditional essentialist identity politics.
Intersex activists have sometimes talked of intersex bodies as "queer bodies". Activists and scholars such as Morgan Holmes and Katrina Karkazis have documented a heteronormativity in medical rationales for the surgical normalization of infants and children born with atypical sex development. In "What Can Queer Theory Do for Intersex?" Iain Morland contrasts queer "hedonic activism" with an experience of insensate post-surgical intersex bodies to claim that "queerness is characterized by the sensory interrelation of pleasure and shame".
However, concerns have been raised among intersex activists that LGBT or queer groups including them could give the wrong impression that all or most intersex people are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Another concern is that the addition is only cosmetic, and that among groups that do this, LGBT goals are always prioritized over intersex ones. Emi Koyama states:
"To make it worse, the word 'intersex' began to attract individuals who are not necessarily intersex, but feel that they might be, because they are queer or trans. Many of these people felt that to be intersex meant a social and biological justification for being who they are, as in it's okay that you're queer or trans because they were literally 'born that way.' This obviously clashes with the majority of people born with intersex conditions, who despite their intersex bodies feel that they are perfectly ordinary heterosexual, non-trans men and women."
In 2016, Organisation Intersex International Australia wrote about the sponsorship of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) events by IVF clinics in Australia, in a context where genetic diagnosis of intersex leads to the genetic de-selection of intersex traits, stating that, in addition to ethical issues raised by their de-selection, "sponsorship of "LGBTI" events by such businesses raises more ethical issues still, including the nature of community and comprehension of issues relating to intersex bodily diversity."
In academia, the term queer and the related verb queering broadly indicate the study of literature, discourse, academic fields, and other social and cultural areas from a non-heteronormative perspective. It often means studying a subject against the grain from the perspective of gender studies.
Queer studies is the study of issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity usually focusing on LGBT people and cultures. Originally centered on LGBT history and literary theory, the field has expanded to include the academic study of issues raised in biology, sociology, anthropology, history of science, philosophy, psychology, sexology, political science, ethics, and other fields by an examination of the identity, lives, history, and perception of queer people. Organizations such as the Irish Queer Archive attempt to collect and preserve history related to queer studies.
Queer theory is a field of post-structuralist critical theory that emerged in the early 1990s out of the fields of queer studies and women's studies. Applications of queer theory include queer theology and queer pedagogy. Queer theorists, including Rod Ferguson, Jasbir Puar, Lisa Duggan, and Chong-suk Han, critique the mainstream gay political movement as allied with neoliberal and imperialistic agendas, including gay tourism, gay and trans military inclusion, and state- and church-sanctioned marriages for monogamous gay couples. Puar, a queer theorist of color, coined the term homonationalism, which refers to the rise of American exceptionalism, nationalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy within the gay community catalyzed in response to the September 11 attacks. Many studies have acknowledged the problems that lie within the traditional theory and process of social studies, and so choose to utilise a queer theoretical approach instead. One such study was conducted in Melbourne in 2016 by Roffee and Waling. By using queer and feminist theories and approaches the researchers were better equipped to cater for the needs, and be accommodating for the vulnerabilities, of the LGBTIQ participants of the study. In this case, it was a specifically post-modern queer theory that enabled the researchers to approach the study with a fair perspective, acknowledging all the varieties of narratives and experiences within the LGBTIQ community.
The label queer is often applied to art movements, particularly cinema. New Queer Cinema was a movement in queer-themed independent filmmaking in the early 1990s. Modern queer film festivals include the Melbourne Queer Film Festival and Mardi Gras Film Festival (run by Queer Screen) in Australia, the Mumbai Queer Film Festival in India, the Asian Queer Film Festival in Japan, and Queersicht in Switzerland. Chinese film director Cui Zi'en titled his 2008 documentary about homosexuality in China Queer China, which premiered at the 2009 Beijing Queer Film Festival after previous attempts to hold a queer film festival were shut down by the government.
Multidisciplinary queer arts festivals include the Outburst Queer Arts Festival Belfast in Northern Ireland, the Queer Arts Festival in Canada, and the National Queer Arts Festival in the United States.
Queer culture and politics
Several LGBT social movements around the world use the identifier queer, such as the Queer Cyprus Association in Cyprus and the Queer Youth Network in the United Kingdom. In India, pride parades include Queer Azaadi Mumbai and the Delhi Queer Pride Parade. The use of queer and Q is also widespread in Australia, including national counselling and support service Qlife and Q News.
Other social movements exist as offshoots of queer culture or combinations of queer identity with other views. Adherents of queer nationalism support the notion that the LGBT community forms a distinct people due to their unique culture and customs. Queercore (originally homocore) is a cultural and social movement that began in the mid-1980s as an offshoot of punk expressed in a do-it-yourself style through zines, music, writing, art and film.
The term queer migration is used to describe the movement of LGBTQ people around the world often to escape discrimination or ill treatment due to their orientation or gender expression. Organizations such as the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees and Rainbow Railroad attempt to assist individuals in such relocations.
Controversial nature of the term
The use of the term queer is not uncontroversial. Many people and organizations, both LGBT and non-LGBT, refuse to use the word. There are several reasons for this.
- Some LGBT people disapprove of using queer as a catch-all because they consider it offensive, derisive or self-deprecating, given its continuous use as a form of hate speech in English.
- Other LGBT people resent the use of the word queer in this sense because they associate it with political radicalism. They also disagree with how the deliberate use of the epithet queer by political radicals has played a role in dividing the LGBT community by political opinion, class, gender, age, and so on. The controversy about the word also marks a social and political rift in the LGBT community between those (including civil-rights activists) who perceive themselves as "normal" and who wish to be seen as ordinary members of society and those who see themselves as separate, confrontational and not part of the ordinary social order.
- Some LGBT people avoid queer because they perceive it as faddish slang or academic jargon.
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Willful participation in U.S. imperialism is crucial to the larger goal of assimilation, as the holy trinity of marriage, military service and adoption has become the central preoccupation of a gay movement centered more on obtaining straight privilege than challenging power
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- "Non-normative" does not mean "not normal", but rather refers to the privileging of "normal" genders and sexualities over the "non-normative". The term "normative" implies that "normal" does not exist in and of itself, but is created. See also heteronormativity for more context.
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