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'Why Queer?' or: What we're talking about when we talk about Queer Theory

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

There’s a question that sometimes comes up when you start to talk to people about queer theory, and it is this: why use the word queer? Why not just… gay?

It’s a great question, tbh, and until very recently I didn’t know the answer. I just knew that you used the word queer because it was the word everyone in the field used. Why is any area of study called what it’s called? Physics is just physics, and literature is just literature, and so on. Queer is just queer.

Only, it isn’t quite the same, is it? Queer means a lot, to a lot of different people, and manages to refer to both an area of study and a type of identity, while still also being a valid adjective for referring to something unusual. So why do we use the word queer?

What’s remarkable is that the answer to that question is actually incredibly straightforward, and interesting to boot. So, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to offer my brief and readable guide to the history of (and ideas behind) queer theory, and our current use of the word queer.

As I mentioned in our very first blog post, queer was originally a Scots word (we think it originated around 1500) meaning odd, peculiar, or eccentric. By the late 1700s, it was being used to refer to anything that was appearing, feeling, or behaving otherwise than normal. By 1922 it was being used as an adjective for a describing someone homosexual, and in 1935 it was used as a noun to refer to someone homosexual, usually as an insult. This progression is fairly straightforward, if problematic: when homosexuals were first starting to assert themselves as a valid identity in the English speaking world, they were behaving outside of what was thought to be normal. They were queer, and they became queers. That word became an insult: to call someone a queer was to assert that they were outside the normal because they were a homosexual.

So how did we get from there to here? According to Mimi Marinucci in her excellent book Feminism is Queer, the change started when the homosexual men of the late nineteenth century felt they needed a re-brand.

Around that time homosexuality had became a recognised medical condition, and men who were homosexuals had begun to form communities around their shared identity as men-who-fancied-men. Those communities were eventually shaped into what was called the ‘homophile’ movement, which took up a very ‘sorry-for-being-here’ attitude to the role of homosexuality in society that certain members of the group began to resent. Those members, wanting to pull away from the medical connotations of homosexuality, and the apologetic vibes of the movement, decided to claim the word gay as their own, ultimately creating the gay identity.

By the late 1960s, the gay identity was pushed onto the global cultural stage as the Stonewall Riots began and gays started to fight for their rights. At that time, women in the movement felt it was important to distinguish themselves as separate, given the simultaneous women’s rights movement. Lesbian identity became a separate part of homosexual identity, and the gay rights movement began to be referred to in terms of gay-and-lesbian rights.

Around the same time, people who identified as bi-sexual realised it was going to be extra important to make their own selves known. This was particularly because of the way in which bi-sexuality was (and often still is) assumed to be a stepping-stone on the way to being a ‘proper’ gay or lesbian, or an exploratory blip in the otherwise heterosexual interests of a ‘normal’ person. This issue, though, was that Gays-and-Lesbians-and-Bisexuals was becoming a bit of a mouthful. So the acronym GLB came about to make it a bit easier to shout about the movement on the streets, and talk about it on the tv.

Hold on: GLB? Not LGB? Well. Here’s my favourite fact from this whole tale. At the time of this acronymisation, the gay-and-lesbian-and-bisexual community felt strongly about the fact that women always seem to come second in life. In an effort to put women first, they thought it would be sensible to rearrange the order of the letters in their acronym to put women symbolically ahead of men. Thus, GLB became LGB. Cool, right?

By now, we’re looking at the beginning of a very familiar acronym: LGB… and soon the T was added to acknowledge transgender folks - that is, those individuals who experience a discrepancy between the biological sex they were assigned by a doctor at birth, and the way they feel as a man or as a woman. This one was a little different than those that came before it, however: where gay, lesbian, and bisexual identities all hinge on the question of sexual partner choice, trans identities do not. It is entirely possible, for example, to be a woman who was assigned biologically male at birth, but who nevertheless fancies members of the opposite sex, and is therefore technically straight. What aligned transgender identity with homosexual identity was not sexual preference, but rather the serious discrimination both identities faced for deviating from heterosexuality. In other words, the LGB community welcomed the trans community because they were all being shamed and persecuted by society for not behaving ‘normally.’

This is where the queer movement, at least conceptually, was born. It was the moment when the conversation changed from being strictly about gay rights to being about something else. Something bigger.

As more letters were added to the acronym to account for more identities - I for intersex, A for asexual, etc - a need for a word that did more than list types of otherness became necessary. This word would need to work as an umbrella term for a diverse variety of sexual identities - with more being added each year as the gay rights movement became increasingly visible and multicultural. But also, and maybe more importantly, this word would need to name the way in which certain behaviours, traits, thoughts, and concepts were discriminated against for not being normal.

And so we circle back to the word queer. While the G, GL, LGB, and then LGBT community was forming and naming itself and demanding rights from its government, the term queer was still primarily being bandied about as an insult. It wasn’t until the 1980s that, in New York City, some young people began to use it as a gay-affirmative term for themselves and eachother.

Though we can never trace exactly which cool-ass kid started that shift in meaning (I myself like to picture someone a lot like Roscoe from It's A Sin), it was Teresa De Lauretis who decided to place it in an academic context for the first time. And initially she placed it there as a cheeky sort of joke, combining the slur queer with the holy word theory when deciding on a name for her upcoming conference. At that conference in Santa Cruz in 1990, the term Queer Theory was born: a gay-affirmative theory that looks at the world in a new, queer way.

Now, when we use the word queer, or refer to queer theory, this is the way in which we use it. Not as a term for one sexual or gender identity, - not even specifically a sexual or gender identity! - but simply as that which defies or is shunned by the norm. That norm is, for the most part, heterosexuality, but as the field grows, so does its meaning. Now it can be queer to be anti-capitalist, or queer to not want to have children. It can be queer to fancy everyone and it can be queer to fancy no one. It can be queer to be black, or poor, or differently abled. Queer theory is a theory that tries to look at a world outside of the norms, and to highlight the ways in which different texts (like video games, for example) challenge the strict but unspoken rules about how life should be.

Challenge those rules.

In her book Marinucci acknowledges how complicated all this could become. We at Queer Me know it too, which is why, like Marinucci, we ultimately love Krista Benson’s 2010 definition best: queer theory is the recognition that ‘sh*t’s complicated.’ By that definition, to be queer is simply to complicate the expected. And when the expected is complicated, brilliant things can happen.

Sources for the nerds:

Marinucci, M 2010, Feminism is Queer : The Intimate Connection between Queer and Feminist Theory, Zed Books, London. Available from: ProQuest Ebook Central. [10 March 2021].

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