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Is "Queer" a Derogatory Word?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
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  • Last Modified Date: 29 March 2014
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The question of whether or not the term “queer” is derogatory has a complex answer, partly because the definition of the word is so malleable. Some people find the usage of this word to describe anyone extremely offensive, and they have very legitimate reasons for feeling this way. Others have chosen to reclaim “queer,” using it as a self-identification, and they support its use in a positive way. Ultimately, the decision to use or avoid the use of this word depends on you, but you may want to think carefully about how and when you use it.

Before delving into the murky waters surrounding the usage of this word, it may help to know how it is used. In a literal sense, “queer” means “unusual.” In the late 19th century, the term came to be used to describe members of the gay community, and it was used in a very derogatory way. However, in the 1980s, some members of the gay community decided to reclaim “queer,” much as other minority groups have reclaimed words that have historically been used in a derogatory way. At this point, the meanings of the word began to diverge, as did the venues in which its usage was appropriate.

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”Queer” can be used to talk about someone within the homosexual community, but it is also used as a more general umbrella term to describe people with other sexual practices, such as asexuals, along with transgendered people, practitioners of BDSM, and other people who engage in activities outside the social norm. In this sense, “queer” could be considered an antonym to heteronormativity, a word which is sometimes used to discuss traditional heterosexual relationships. The use of this word as a convenient shorthand to describe people with non-heteronormative practices is very common, because other words to describe this large and varied community are very clunky.

Some people feel that the term is only appropriately used by people who identify as queer. For example, a gay man who identifies as queer could refer to himself and others this way, but a heterosexual man could not, even if he considered himself to be gay-friendly. Others feel that the use of the term is also appropriate among people who identify as “queer allies,” meaning that although they do not personally identify as queer, they support this community.

Like many words with a charged history, the appropriateness of this word depends on the context and the intent of the speaker. When people use “queer” as an insult, it is indeed derogatory and offensive, even when it is used to insult people who would normally happily self-identify with the word. However, increasing examples of positive usage of this word can be found; several popular television shows, for example, use “queer” in their titles, and campus associations for people who identify as gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered/asexual/etc. often use the term in their names to be as all-inclusive as possible.

If you decide not to use this term because you find it personally offensive, no one is going to fault you for it. In fact, people who self-identify as queer would much rather see people refraining from use of the word out of uncertainty than see people using it as an insult. However, you might want to be prepared to see people using it as a positive term, and some people may specifically request that you refer to them this way.

As always, being aware of the language you and others use is never a bad thing. By being unafraid to speak up when you hear someone using a term in a way you find offensive, you may be able to spark a conversation which could be mutually educational. In addition to thinking about how words like “queer” and “gay” are used around you, you might also want to think about ablelist words like “lame” or “retarded,” or sexist terms such as “slut.”

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Discuss this Article

anon346349
Post 6

I must admit I'm a little unsure on this one. I've been on the fence about my sexual orientation for a while now, finding I'm mostly attracted to people of the opposite sex but do on occasion have crushes on people of the same sex. (Gay friends tell me I'm heteroflexible.) However, I think that for practical purposes, people would consider me an ally.

With that in mind, I wonder if my usage of the term would be considered offensive. I don't use it to describe any specific person, unless they prefer it, but I do use it to describe the LGBT community. I guess my question is whether or not saying something about the "queer community" is socially acceptable.

amypollick
Post 5

@anon309841: For many people, using the word "queer" to refer to a gay person is insulting. And if they feel that way, I'm certainly not going to say they're wrong. Using a pejorative like "queer" may be insulting, insensitive and downright mean, and it may even be considered "hate speech," depending on the person and the context. However, just saying the word is *not* a hate crime.

anon309841
Post 4

It is wrong to use the word. It is hurtful to members of the gay community. Gay people who use it are traitors to the community. Straight people should never utter the word under any circumstances. It is a hate crime.

ZipLine
Post 3

@MikeMason-- I agree. It also depends on the kind of relationship you have with the person that's saying it. I'm gay and I have a lot of friends who are straight. I have a couple that I have known since I was a kid. We literally grew up together.

Sometimes when we're hanging out and I'll say something or do something and my friends will say "you're so queer," but we just laugh. I'm never offended because I know they're joking and I know that they would never make fun of me about my sexual preference. They have been more open-minded about it than my parents.

So it really depends on the situation and the context the word is used in. It also depends on who's saying it and the kind of relationship you share with that person.

bear78
Post 2
So basically, the term is only derogatory if the person being described thinks it's derogatory? I don't know, that seems like kind of a slippery slope to me. For instance, I could see someone using this term in a hateful manner, then saying that he or she didn't think it was derogatory, since so many people who are not cisgendered are OK with the term. Thoughts?
stoneMason
Post 1

With words like this, how you say it and your tone of voice and facial expression is really important. Two people can be saying the same word but the way one person says it can make it derogatory. So the underlying perceptions and the worldview of the person is important. We might not even realize sometimes how we're saying things and whether that is offensive to someone or not.

And of course, there are people who use the word "queer" in a derogatory way on purpose. So if you want to make sure that you don't insult anyone, it's better not to use this word. I don't use it just because there are better words I can use instead. There is no need to risk insulting someone.

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