The word “queer” has occupied a prominent place in modern American gay culture, either as a hateful term of insult and denigration or as a vibrant affirmation of one’s sexuality and desire.
In a 1971 scholarly article on the “Homosexual Dialect,” linguist Julia Stanley studied the language use by homosexuals in Miami, San Francisco, Houston, New York and Chicago. Of the many terms used by those studied, she found that “‘queer’ was cited by homosexuals as the one that has the strongest connotation of distaste or disgust. One male respondent pointed out that the utterance of the word in his presence was enough to make him visibly flinch.”
Instead, in the Stonewall era of the 1970s, calling oneself “gay” or “lesbian” as (opposed to a “homosexual” or a “homophile”) was seen as a powerful political statement.
Moreover by the mid 1980s, in the face of the conservative religious right/Reaganite backlash and the escalating AIDS epidemic, openly claiming a gay or lesbian identity was an act of defiance and an affirmation of one’s desires and being.
For many lesbians and gay men, to openly call oneself a “gay man” or a “lesbian” was an act of courage, possibly leading to a loss of job, housing and even family. It represented a struggle and hard won victory.
So where did the word “queer,” as a forceful affirmation of sexual desire and identity, come from?
Two developments in the mid/late 1980s and early 1990s led to a redefining of the word. The first occurred on college campuses. There a group of feminist and other scholars writing on the nature of sexual desire and identity were beginning to question the accepted notions of sexual and gender identity as something inalterably fixed in nature.
Indeed, they questioned the whole range of categories that society used to define people’s desires and gender, including gay and lesbian. Instead they argued that, desire, sexuality and gender were fluid and were critical of attempts to create and enforce stable categories.
At an academic conference in 1990 this body of critical inquiry was formalized as “queer theory” and went on to shape much of the scholarly discussion of sex, gender and desire, particularly in the humanities.
This may have remained an arcane scholarly discussion confined to the halls of academia. However another development, this one occurring in the streets, fixed the word queer as a part of popular culture.
In the summer of 1990 at the gay pride parade in New York a group of young activists passed out an inflammatory manifesto bearing the titles “I Hate Straights” and “Queers Read This.” This group, calling themselves “Queer Nation” had previously had organized a number of direct actions aimed at increasing visibility (“outing” of closeted lesbian and gay public figures a favorite tactic) and protesting the growing anti-gay violence.
By using “queer” they distanced themselves from the more respectable lesbian and gay rights organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign Fund. They felt the strategies and methods of these organizations failed to recognize that straight society would never really accept lesbian and gay people unless forced to.
Their “in your face” tactics and energy (“We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it”) quickly connected with many younger lesbians and gay men who saw the established gay rights organizations as irrelevant to their daily experience.
Within the next year chapters of Queer Nation were organized through out the country, many of them engaging in direct actions against anti-gay violence and discrimination. In the south, chapters Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky protested against the discriminatory hiring practices at the Cracker Barrel restaurant. At the 1992 Republican Convention in Houston, they organized a major protest.
Aside from political action, Queer Nation eschewed the earlier, stricter notions of lesbian and gay identity. By defining themselves as primarily “anti-heterosexual” (“I Hate Straights”), they opened up a space for the growing transgender movement. Also many of them connected with the queer theory movement in academia.
By the mid 1990s, Queer Nation as a movement had spent itself and many of the chapters disbanded. However one important legacy was redefining the word “queer” as an affirmative term. In the early 2000s, popular television shows such as “Queer as Folks” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” made the word a part of mainstream popular culture.
Today the word “queer” functions less as a confrontational, political statement and more as a rejection of categories. Indeed, one of the findings of numerous studies of youth sexual identification is that there is a strong tendency to reject all labels. That includes both the term gay (which is tied to hyper- consumption: “That’s so gay”) and even queer which, according to one youthful respondent: “That’s so ‘90s.”
Indeed, queer may be a label that a somewhat older generation is now applying to a far younger generation, whether they want it or not. In any event, self-definition is becoming far more powerful than sexual and even gender labeling in defining a person and their life and desires.
In any event, to quote Ritch Savin-Williams, noted psychologist and researcher on gay youth, the reluctance of youth to embrace either an explicit gay or queer identity (and its politics) is “less a harbinger of the end of gay rights than a sign that gay activism has succeeded so well.”