Why we shouldn’t be using “queer” as a catchall for the LGBTQ+ community.
Growing up keenly aware of my complicated relationship with gender and sexuality definitely changed how I viewed myself as a teenager – alongside with how others viewed me. I was never fully open to anyone but a few close friends in my rural Scottish secondary school, but as fruit flies swarm to rotting fruit I was pelted with a charming array of derogatory insults if I slipped any sort of clue that I was anything but cisgendered and straight.
The words I was called as a child definitely shaped the blossoming self-hatred every adolescent keeps in their chest into something a bit more violent. “D*ke” and “queer” are the two I remember most intimately, with the latter being, in all its modern omnipresence, the one that drags nails down the chalkboard in my brain whenever I have to hear it in reference to myself. Now that I’m much more obviously “out” (especially in more curated internet spaces with close friends who all share similar experiences, but as well as with the people I’ve met through the University of Glasgow), I am much more exposed to queer in its positive usage. For some people, that’s fantastic! For me, however, hearing the word “queer” still pains me almost as much as it did back then. In this article, I’ll be picking a bone with the usage of queer as a catchall for the LGBTQ+ community as a whole.
Hearing “queer” in reference to the LGBTQ+ community is something I notice now more consistently online, as well as in the University - both in academia and social spaces. The word itself of course has been adopted from its negative beginnings as a general term for LGBTQ+ identifying individuals, used by said individuals, since the late 1990s. The process of reclaiming the word itself, to me, speaks wonders of the bravery and immense strength of my community as a whole. I fully support and emphasise that anyone who wants to identify with the word can and should - just not in reference to me and those who may not be comfortable with it.
Reclamation of slurs in general for many people can be a powerful and invigorating experience. But there is something specifically about the word “queer” that can still sting for some of us. For me, it’s that taunting tone of childhood bullies that still rings in my ears despite my now complete acceptance of own personal identity. It’s hard and abruptly upsetting to now go through University doing an Arts degree and seeing a word that was lobbed at me in papers and journals, as well as feeling somewhat pushed out of spaces like the LGBTQ+ society on campus, due to their zine being named Uniqueer. It’s a catchy name, for sure, and perhaps I’m being a bit oversensitive, but in first year when I probably needed that support the most, that was the thing that kept me from getting more involved.
Otherwise, I feel like I straddle an interesting international line which has perhaps changed my viewpoint on the word itself. My closest friends are American and my social media experience is largely dominated by the American experience of growing up LGBTQ+, right down to the memes about crying in high school bathrooms (not secondary school ones).
Therefore I find myself more heavily exposed to a culture wherein “queer” is used much more liberally as an inclusive word. A discussion with two of my close friends, who both identify outside of cisgender and heterosexuality, revealed that the word was hardly if ever used against them as a derogatory term when growing up. Of course, this is not at all the rule for how “queer” is used in the USA, but it still served as a shock to the system for me. In comparison, British children seem overly fond of utilising a word as a weapon.
Nevertheless, Americans basically influence the strata of social media now to the point where I feel that it’s bled perhaps too heavily into the wider world. Not all experiences are universal, which is clearly the case with my experience (as well as many others). Perhaps this is a reason why the usage of the word “queer” – especially within younger individuals – has picked up so much traction. Loads of people identify as queer, which isn’t the problem here; the problem is employing “queer” as a catchall for people who haven’t given permission for its usage against them in that manner, despite it being positive.
Sharon D. Clarke says in an interview for Gay Times: “I will always classify myself as gay, as opposed to queer. I think that is because of growing up in a generation where queer was such a derogatory word. […] Define yourself how you want to define yourself, that’s just not my choice.” This is a sentiment with which I emphasise completely. I don’t like associating myself with the negativity I grew up with - with the scared kid that I was. Aligning myself with the word “queer” serves only as a reminder of the bad times, rather than the good. Additionally, now that I’m older, I’ve come to much better terms with my specific identity as both a lesbian and nonbinary. Calling myself queer rids myself of that eureka moment of full, happy, total acceptance. It draws away from the weight of those labels that I’ve fought so mentally hard to find solace in.
But, for some people, the word “queer” feels safe. It allows for an easy and quick way to refer to a wonderful community. As a concept, that’s lovely. And for the people who emphasise and identify with the word, it is. But for me and many others that struggle with hearing it, I raise you this – why is using LGBTQ+ not enough? I understand that it can seem somewhat disarming to lay out identities in acronym form in that manner, but is that not a small price to pay for total inclusivity of the community you call home?
To conclude, if you use queer for yourself and for other people that accept its usage, that’s awesome! You do you. But please, next time you’re making that tweet or post about the “queer community”, remember the people like me who only feel more put out hearing it than included. Being LGBTQ+ is already hard enough without more strife in our community, so I’d truly appreciate it if you kept me and other people who feel similarly in mind when we’re brought into conversation.