In 2019, language is adapting and changing more quickly than ever — causing some people to feel liberated and empowered, some happy to be inclusive, and others like they’re walking on eggshells or being restrained. Using words relating to any marginalised group you don’t belong to can be tricky, especially when it comes to slurs.
As writers, words are our bread and butter, so this topic can be even pricklier for us.
Of course, some words raise more eyebrows than others. One such term is the eponymous ‘Q-word’ — and let me take this opportunity to say that I’ll be spelling it out from now on. As a member of the LGBTQ community who uses this word myself, I will do so sensitively, but if you’re troubled or offended by it, please consider this your trigger warning.
Alright! Let’s talk about the word ‘queer’.
What Is It?
These days, English speakers use ‘queer’ as a very broad term. ‘Queer’ can refer to any person who is not heterosexual and/or cisgender; it is deliberately vague and all-encompassing. It’s a label for people who don’t like labels — but the word hasn’t always been used this way.
Initially, ‘queer’ simply meant ‘strange’: somehow offbeat, twisted or perverse. It was first used to mean ‘gay’ in the late Victorian era, and more so in the 1920s. It was always derogatory and referred specifically to men who slept with other men or who exhibited ‘effeminate’ behaviour.
Only in the 1980s did activists begin to reclaim the term — to apply it willingly to themselves. Reclaiming the term essentially says, ‘Yes, I am exactly what you say I am. So what?’ However, the process of reclaiming words is a long road. Many people have unpleasant memories associated with the word and may never feel comfortable using or hearing it.
When Can I Use It?
Although the use of ‘queer’ is still contentious within the community, there are some scenarios in which it is definitely acceptable to use the word.
If you’re quoting a queer person or repeating someone else’s self-defined label, no fear. It’s a-okay to write it out, provided that you’re using it in a similar context.
What About the Grey Area?
With this word in particular, there is a lot of grey area, which is where non-queer people can feel understandably frustrated. Hard-and-fast rules would be much easier to follow — but of course, queer people are not homogeneous, and what delights one of us may offend another.
To be safe, avoid describing anybody as ‘queer’ unless they’ve openly done so themselves or invited you to.
Fiction is, of course, a little different. If you’re writing a character who would feasibly identify with the word, then go for it! So long as you understand its context and use it reasonably, queer readers should have no quarrel with it.
Again, however, it may be better to steer clear of the noun form. ‘I’m queer’ carries a much different connotation to ‘I’m a queer’, which is still predominantly used as a dehumanising slur. Using the adjective also implies that queerness is just one facet of a person — not everything they are.
Also, stay away from negative uses where possible. It’s okay to craft homophobic characters, but peppering lots of slurs through their dialogue will likely come across as offensive, unnecessary and heavy-handed. Remember the weight and asperity of the word, and season accordingly!
What If We Get It Wrong?
If you do mess up, like we all have and do, it’s okay to apologise and move on.
Many queer people won’t mind a bit. Hyperventilating articles might have you believe that we’re a pearl-clutching, super-sensitive bunch who’ll attack at the first sight of an error, but the reality is a different picture entirely. We see actual bigotry often enough, and we can tell the difference between a slip of the tongue and something said in malice.
In short, intent does matter, but so do the feelings of people who are hurt by this word. That’s the only reason we’re careful in the first place. There may be only one person in the room who’s upset by it, but for them, it’s a specific and sharp pain — and it’s entirely preventable.
That’s really all it’s about. Nobody wants to police your language. Queer people don’t see ourselves as gatekeepers setting rules that you must follow lest you invoke our wrath, though I’ll admit the idea is tempting! We just want to take care of each other. Frankly, the people who want to insult us will do so anyway. Guides like this are simply meant to help people who don’t want or mean to cause offence.
Remember, if in doubt, ask a queer person! You can hire a queer sensitivity reader to look over your novel, article or any other piece of writing to ensure that it’s all above board. Find them by searching the hashtag #sensitivityreader on Twitter or by enlisting the services of a specialist editor.