Queer – a Defining Word

It is quite amazing to me really how little of my childhood years I remember beyond vague, though some significant, generalities. I suppose I could view this as suppression of lots of terrible stuff but I really think it is more a matter of not much out of the ordinary or worthy of sublimation ever happening. Lord knows my rather intense at times Catholic upbringing and schooling might have been a source of great consternation and resulting psychopathology, but for whatever reason I think I sailed through those years queer as a three dollar bill and largely unscathed.

As I have written before (my apologies for the repetition) one episode though that has stuck with me was when I asked my mother what the word “queer” meant.  I think I was about 12 years old when I first heard it used. She said it was a bad word and I should never use it. I then went straight to the dictionary but the only definition provided that stuck with me was that it meant “odd”. I went back to her with this piece of information but she persisted that it was not a word to incorporate into my vocabulary. I suspect that I or someone near me had been called a “queer” and being totally oblivious to any homosexual connection with the word thought this to be a weird choice especially delivered in less than loving fashion.

Queer to this day remains a loaded and offensive word by some LBGT folks, despised as much as the “F” word. The “F” word being “faggot” of course and not “fuck”. I could have written about “Faggot” as a defining word but thought I had enough to tackle on my plate with “Queer”. And I actually thought for a fleeting minute of writing on the work “fuck” one of my favorites but decided to keep it closer to home. And besides other than this little phrase I ran into on Facebook the other day I don’t have much more to say about “fuck”: “ I have been told I am going to hell for my excessive use of the word FUCK. I have rented a bus if any of you fuckers need a ride.” From Fsensitivity Web Site

Back to Queer. Certain words used to describe us are ones that we have simply and innocently appropriated like “gay”.  Others are words that have been used to denigrate and belittle us, some of which we have reclaimed and others not so much. The use of language to offensively describe some folks as ‘other’ has often been used as a means of control. Though for a minority struggling for self-definition and empowerment the re-appropriation of often-derogatory words is I think a legitimate exercise that can enhance identity and liberation. And such is the case I believe with the word “Queer”.

In looking for the origins of the word I kind of fell down an Internet rabbit hole. The use of it as a derogatory term aimed at homosexual folks may well date back to 16th century Scotland. The actual roots of the word seem perhaps lost to time. However, my go to person, for meaning of the Queen’s English if you will, remains Judy Grahn and her seminal work from 1984 Another Mother Tongue. Grahn states that the original word was “cwer” (c-w-e-r) without directly attributing any tribal or national origin to that word. After an hour or so of floundering around the ether a possible source for “cwer” I stumbled on is that it was old Welsh in origin. However, don’t take that to the bank.

Let me quote Grahn’s take on the possible meaning of this descriptive moniker:

“ ‘Sinful,’ ‘of the devil’ and ‘evil’ are all expressions that have been used very effectively against gay culture, as has ‘queer’, which derives from cwer , crooked not straight, kinked. Perhaps the difference between queer and straight originated very simply with the difference between the straight-line dance of male/female couples and the Fairy round dance”. 
From  Another Mother Tongue. Page 276.

So perhaps it was a word used originally to acknowledge that we were different from straight folks in a rather kinked or crooked sense and that the evil or sinful associations were added later. Maybe we were the ones who preferred to dance in circles rather than in straight lines and this bit of nonconformity was one thing I hope, among many, that set us apart. And of course anyone set apart from the norm was often then fair game for ostracism that could become nasty.

I suspect there is a rich history to this word “Queer” that is lost to the mists of time. I am choosing to reclaim it as a defining word, one that helps set us apart from the hetero-hordes. A word that hints at our uniqueness and the valuable contributions we bring to the human tapestry by way of our otherness.

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