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Queer is an umbrella term for sexual and gender minorities that are not heterosexual, or cisgender. Originally meaning strange or peculiar, queer developed a usage as a pejorative term for homosexual in the late 19th century. Beginning in the late 1980s, some political and social LGBT groups began to reappropriate the word to establish community and assert a political identity, with it becoming the preferred term to describe some academic disciplines and gaining use as a descriptor of non-heterosexual identities. Queer may be used by those who reject traditional gender identities as a broader, less conformist, and deliberately ambiguous alternative to LGBT.
The term is now used in the name of some academic disciplines, such as queer theory, to denote a general opposition to binary thinking. Queer arts, queer cultural groups, and queer political groups are examples of expressions of queer identities.
Criticisms of queer include those who associate the term with its pejorative usage and those who associate it with political radicalism.
Entering the English language in the 16th century, queer originally meant strange, odd, peculiar, or eccentric. It might refer to something suspicious or "not quite right", or to a person with mild derangement or who exhibits socially inappropriate behaviour. A Northern English expression, "There's nowt so queer as folk," meaning, "There is nothing as strange as people," employs this meaning.
Related meanings of queer include a feeling of unwellness or something that is questionable or suspicious. The expression "in Queer Street" was used in the United Kingdom for someone in financial trouble. In the 1904 Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Second Stain", Inspector Lestrade threatens that a misbehaving constable will "find [himself] in Queer Street", i.e., lose his position.
By the time "The Adventure of the Second Stain" was published, the term was starting to gain a denotation of sexual deviance, referring to homosexual and/or effeminate males. An early recorded usage of the word in this sense was in an 1894 letter by John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry. Usage of queer as a derogatory term for effeminate gay males become prominent in the 20th century. The term was particularly applied to men who were believed to engage in receptive or passive anal or oral sex with other men, and those exhibiting non-traditional (e.g., transgender) gender behaviour.
Beginning in the late 1980s, the label queer began to be reappropriated from its pejorative use as a neutral or positive self-identifier by LGBT people. An early example of this usage by the LGBT community was by an organisation called Queer Nation, which was formed in March 1990 and circulated an anonymous flier at the New York Gay Pride Parade in June 1990 titled "Queers Read This". The flier included a passage explaining their adoption of the label queer:
Ah, do we really have to use that word? It's trouble. Every gay person has his or her own take on it. For some it means strange and eccentric and kind of mysterious.... And for others "queer" conjures up those awful memories of adolescent suffering... Well, yes, "gay" is great. It has its place. But when a lot of lesbians and gay men wake up in the morning we feel angry and disgusted, not gay. So we've chosen to call ourselves queer. Using "queer" is a way of reminding us how we are perceived by the rest of the world.
In the late 2000s (decade) and early 2010s, a number of communities started to use the term, to represent inclusivity of forms of sexuality, gender identities and intersex status inadequately represented by the LGBT acronym.
The "hip and iconic abbreviation 'Q'" has developed from common usage of queer, particularly in the United States.
Inclusivity and scope
Because of the context in which it was reclaimed, queer has sociopolitical connotations, and is often preferred by those who are activists; by those who strongly reject traditional gender identities; by those who reject distinct sexual identities such as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and straight; and by those who see themselves as oppressed by the heteronormativity of the larger culture. In this usage it retains the historical connotation of "outside the bounds of normal society" and can be construed as "breaking the rules for sex and gender". It can be preferred because of its ambiguity, which allows queer-identifying people to avoid the sometimes strict boundaries that surround other labels. In this context, queer is not strictly a synonym for LGBT as it creates a space for queer heterosexuals as well as non-queer homosexuals.
The range of what queer includes varies. In addition to referring to LGBT-identifying people, it can also encompass: pansexual, pomosexual, intersex, genderqueer, asexual and autosexual people, as well as gender normative heterosexuals whose sexual orientations or activities place them outside the heterosexual-defined mainstream, e.g., BDSM practitioners, or polyamorous persons.
For some queer-identified people, part of the point of the term queer is that it simultaneously builds up and tears down boundaries of identity. For instance, among genderqueer people, who do not solidly identify with one particular gender, once solid gender roles have been torn down, it becomes difficult to situate sexual identity. For some people, the non-specificity of the term is liberating. Queerness becomes a way to make a political move against heteronormativity while simultaneously refusing to engage in traditional essentialist identity politics.
In academia, the term queer and the related verb queering broadly indicate the study of literature, discourse, academic fields, and other social and cultural areas from a non-heteronormative perspective. It often means studying a subject against the grain from the perspective of gender studies.
Queer studies is the study of issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity usually focusing on LGBT people and cultures. Originally centered on LGBT history and literary theory, the field has expanded to include the academic study of issues raised in biology, sociology, anthropology, history of science, philosophy, psychology, sexology, political science, ethics, and other fields by an examination of the identity, lives, history, and perception of queer people. Organizations such as the Irish Queer Archive attempt to collect and preserve history related to queer studies.
Queer theory is a field of post-structuralist critical theory that emerged in the early 1990s out of the fields of queer studies and women's studies. Applications of queer theory include queer theology and queer pedagogy.
The label queer is often applied to art movements, particularly cinema. New Queer Cinema was a movement in queer-themed independent filmmaking in the early 1990s. Modern queer film festivals include the Melbourne Queer Film Festival and Mardi Gras Film Festival (run by Queer Screen) in Australia, the Mumbai Queer Film Festival in India, the Asian Queer Film Festival in Japan, and Queersicht in Switzerland. Chinese film director Cui Zi'en titled his 2008 documentary about homosexuality in China Queer China, which premiered at the 2009 Beijing Queer Film Festival after previous attempts to hold a queer film festival were shut down by the government.
Multidisciplinary queer arts festivals include the Outburst Queer Arts Festival Belfast in Northern Ireland, the Queer Arts Festival in Canada, and the National Queer Arts Festival in the United States.
Queer culture and politics
Several LGBT social movements around the world use the identifier queer, such as the Queer Cyprus Association in Cyprus and the Queer Youth Network in the United Kingdom. In India, pride parades include Queer Azaadi Mumbai and the Delhi Queer Pride Parade. The use of queer and Q is also widespread in Australia, including national counselling and support service Qlife and Q News.
Other social movements exist as offshoots of queer culture or combinations of queer identity with other views. Adherents of queer nationalism support the notion that the LGBT community forms a distinct people due to their unique culture and customs. Queercore (originally homocore) is a cultural and social movement that began in the mid-1980s as an offshoot of punk expressed in a do-it-yourself style through zines, music, writing, art and film.
The term queer migration is used to describe the movement of LGBTQ people around the world often to escape discrimination or ill treatment due to their orientation or gender expression. Organizations such as the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees attempt to assist individuals in such relocations.
Controversial nature of the term
The use of the term queer is not uncontroversial. Many LGBT people refuse to use the word, and there are others who also do not use it. There are several reasons for this.
- Some LGBT people disapprove of using queer as a catch-all because they consider it offensive, derisive or self-deprecating, given its continuous use as a form of hate speech in English.
- Other LGBT people resent the use of the word queer in this sense because they associate it with political radicalism. They also disagree with how the deliberate use of the epithet queer by political radicals has played a role in dividing the LGBT community by political opinion, class, gender, age, and so on. The controversy about the word also marks a social and political rift in the LGBT community between those (including civil-rights activists) who perceive themselves as "normal" and who wish to be seen as ordinary members of society and those who see themselves as separate, confrontational and not part of the ordinary social order.
- Some LGBT people avoid queer because they perceive it as faddish slang or academic jargon.
- For a number of reasons, some LGBT people do not see themselves as being members of the queer community.
- "queer". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 2014.
- "queer". Merriam-Webster. Encyclopædia Britannica. 2014.
- Doyle, Arthur Conan (1904). "The Adventure of the Second Stain". The Return of Sherlock Holmes.
- Foldy, Michael S. (1997). The Trials of Oscar Wilde: Deviance, Morality, and Late-Victorian Society. Yale University Press. p. 22. ISBN 9780300071122.
- Robertson, Stephen (2002). "A Tale of Two Sexual Revolutions". Australasian Journal of American Studies (Australia and New Zealand American Studies Association) 21 (1): 98–110.
- Czyzselska, Jane (1996). "untitled". Pride 1996 Magazine (London: Pride Trust & Gay Times): 15.
- Queer Nation (June 1990). "Queers Read This".
- " Queerbook, What's In A Name?" Retrieved on September 2, 2010.
- "Alphabet Soup: Labels and Empowerment". Retrieved on September 2, 2010.
- Tran, Tini (June 18, 2009). "Gays In China: Beijing Queer Film Festival Goes Off Without A Hitch". The World Post. Retrieved 30 January 2014.
- For example, see Drew Cordes "New Yorker magazine refuses to use the word queer". Retrieved 29 January 2014.
- Wisegeek, "Is Queer a Derogatory Word?" Retrieved 29 January 2014.
- Joshua Gamson, Must Identity Movements Self-Destruct? A Queer Dilemma, Social Problems, Vol. 42, No. 3 (Aug., 1995), pp. 390-407, University of California Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of Social Problems. Retrieved on 29 January 2014.
- Anon. "Queercore". i-D magazine No. 110; the sexuality issue. (1992).
- Crimp, D. AIDS DemoGraphics. (1990).
- Katlin, T. "Slant: Queer Nation". Artforum, November 1990. pp. 21–23.
- Tucker, S. "Gender, Fucking & Utopia". Social text, Vol.9, No.1. (1992).
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