The term queer has traditionally meant strange, odd, or suspicious. In the twentieth century the word acquired almost exclusively sexual connotations, and as such, came to be used as a fundamentally derogatory label for homosexuals. Having been reclaimed by gay and lesbian activists in the 1980s as a term of self-identification, in the early twenty-first century queer is primarily used to refer to any form of nonheteronormative gender, sex, and sexuality, as well as in contradistinction to more straightforward categories of sexual identification, such as lesbian, gay, and bisexual. While it serves as an umbrella term to include a broad range of sexual orientation and/or gender expression, quite a number of people to whom it might apply still consider queer to be a derisive and offensive term, especially when it is used by heterosexuals. Others, in contrast, have embraced it as a liberatory, antilabeling term with the critical power to open up systems of sexual and gender classification per se. The term queer is sometimes used as a verb, in which instance it refers to the attempt to replace normative, heterosexual meanings with those of minority sexualities. The contradictory appreciations of the term's semantic values extend into its various contemporary usages and consequent critiques.
ORIGINS AND EARLY USAGE
Emerging in the English language in 1508, possibly from the German word quer (cross, oblique, squint, perverse), queer, in the sense of peculiar, eccentric, or not in a normal condition, was generally used with reference to people perceived to be suffering from a mild form of insanity or whose social behavior was not considered to be quite right. By 1800 the word had additionally acquired the slang significance of drunk. The phrase Queer Street was used in British English to refer to an imaginary street where people in difficulties, often of a financial nature, reside. By 1837 the term connoted any kind of difficulty, fix, trouble, bad circumstances, debt, or illness. Alongside these meanings the adjective queer was used from 1561 onward to designate something bad or worthless, often used with reference to thieves. The verb to queer became English slang in 1791, in the sense of to quiz, ridicule, or cheat, and evolved from meaning to spoil or put out of order in 1812—which meaning is still commonly used, as in the phrase to queer someone's pitch—to establish itself in 1845 in the sense of to put someone out, or to make someone feel queer. The term acquired its implication of sexual deviance in the late nineteenth century, undergoing a semantic shift, so that queer came to be predominantly used as a derogatory term for effeminate and/or gay males and to others displaying nonnormative gender behavior. This semantic shift has since come to overdetermine the various meanings of queer in its twentieth-century usage, especially in the United States, where it served to emphasize the supposed unnaturalness of homosexuality. Though earlier meanings persist in some contemporary usage, the overly sexual connotations of the term queer entail that even when used to describe someone who is a bit odd, the subtext implies that the subject might also be gay.
For most of the twentieth century, queer was used as a strongly pejorative term or hateful slur to designate a homosexual, usually male. As such it was also employed within gay and lesbian communities, either as a term of self-deprecation or as an epithet for a lesbian or gay man regarded as less conventionally lesbian or gay or more extravagant in her or his expression of gender deviancy. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, an important change occurred in this use of the term. Partly as a response to the gradual establishment of lesbian and gay as respectable identity categories, partly as a result of the AIDS crisis and its (enforced) opportunities for close collaboration among sexual deviants of all kinds, and partly as a result of the relative institutionalization of lesbian and gay studies in the European and North American academy, political activists, who rejected any constraining sexual and gender categories, and a number of academics, critically concerned with the emerging blind spots and silences in lesbian and gay studies about differences defined in other than the binary terms of gender and sexuality, sought to reclaim the term queer and rob it of its negative meanings. Consequently, queer began to be used as an inclusive, sociopolitically unifying term that designates all those who are sexually dissident, including self-identified gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, but also those who are transgender, transsexual, intersexual and/or genderqueer, as well as those who embrace any other transgressive form of sexuality. These may include asexuality or autosexuality, and even nonnormative modes of heterosexuality.
ACCEPTANCE AND MAINSTREAM USE
Mainstream European and North American society gradually absorbed the positive usage of the term, as is clear from the popular success of such TV shows as Queer as Folk, originally shown in the United Kingdom and exported to the United States, or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy in the United States. In the early twenty-first century, nonheterosexuals use queer with reference to their own culture, as in queer politics or queer cinema, with no negative connotation. However, the term can still be offensive, especially to older gay men who, in the 1960s and 1970s, fought for the acceptance of gay to replace the solely sexual and pathological signifier homosexual, and more generally by gays and lesbians who dislike the term, even in its reclaimed usage, because they personally remember the pain caused by its pejorative meaning. Still others object to the term queer because its all-inclusive character threatens to render invisible, and ultimately irrelevant, the specificity of the narrower categories of gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender as distinct from, and variously at odds with, heteronormative gender identities.
While certainly no less disputed, or even straightforwardly rejected, by academics involved in lesbian and gay studies, it is within the phrase and practice of queer theory that the newer usage of the term has gained most effective and abiding currency. Introduced by feminist theorist Teresa de Lauretis in her introduction to a special issue of the journal differences in 1991, queer theory entered critical discussions as an antiessentialist term aimed at critical self-reflection among gay and lesbian scholars and as aligned with other modes of postmodern theorizing. In this context queer designates, in the words of critical theorist Annemarie Jagose, a "suspension of identity as something fixed, coherent and natural" (Jagose 1996, p. 98), aiming at the deconstruction of all forms of identity categories, and especially opting for the strategy of denaturalization with regard to sexual and gender identities defined in constraining, binary terms (i.e., straight/gay; male/female). As such, queer also refers to changing understandings of more broadly defined concepts of subjectivity, identity, and sociopolitical conditions. The queer critique of identity-based models of theory and politics of all kinds—whether defined in terms of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, age, or ability—is usually accompanied by a constructive emphasis on multiplicity, instability, and fluidity. Instead of conceptualizing identities as fixed or stable and unitary, queer theorists foreground the contextual and contingent, hence provisional, nature of any mode of identification, including such oppositional forms of sexuality and gender identification as those commonly captured under the acronym GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender).
Queer is a controversial term not only in sociocultural contexts but also within theoretical debates due to its negative history and the concomitant ambiguity of its simultaneously elusive connotations. Whereas some celebrated the term as a tool of resistance against essentialist readings of sociocultural realities as well as cultural texts, and thus as an instrument capable of "point[ing] to things that destabilize existing categories, while it itself is becoming a category—but a category that resists easy definition … except that it is something non-straight or non-normatively straight" (Doty 2000, p. 8), others have been concerned that queer "will neutralise [sic] the efficacy of lesbian and gay as an identificatory category, and that its flexibility will connect lesbians and gay men with others whose commitment to homophobic politics is disputed" (Jagose 1996, p. 112). Indeed, though de Lauretis, three years after coining the phrase queer theory as a critically disruptive term that she hoped would inaugurate a new self-reflexivity within lesbian and gay studies, openly rejected it as a "conceptually vacuous creature of the publishing industry" (de Lauretis 1994, p. 297), others continue to embrace the queer project as a fundamental critique of identity, as a "way of pointing ahead without knowing for certain what to point at" (Jagose 1996, p. 131). As a category under construction, or a site of permanent becoming, the term queer ultimately remains elusive, offering what Jagose defines as the "ambivalent reassurance of an unimaginable future" (Jagose 1996, p. 132).
see also Homophobia.
Brett, Philip; Elizabeth Wood; and Gary C. Thomas, eds. 1994. Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology. New York: Routledge.
Beasley, Chris. 2005. Gender & Sexuality: Critical Theories, Critical Thinkers. London, Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
De Lauretis, Teresa. 1991. "Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities: An Introduction." In differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 3(2): iii-xviii.
De Lauretis, Teresa. 1994. The Practice of Love: Lesbian Sexuality and Perverse Desire. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Doty, Alexander. 2000. Flaming Classics: Queering the Film Canon. New York: Routledge.
Jagose, Annemarie. 1996. Queer Theory: An Introduction. New York: New York University Press.
renée c. hoogland
queer / kwi(ə)r/ • adj. 1. strange; odd: she had a queer feeling that they were being watched. ∎ dated slightly ill. 2. inf., usu. offens. (esp. of a man) homosexual. • n. inf., usu. offens. a homosexual man. • v. [tr.] inf. spoil or ruin (an agreement, event, or situation): Reg didn't want someone meddling and queering the deal at the last minute. DERIVATIVES: queer·ish adj.queer·ly adv.queer·ness n.
Queer Street an imaginary street where people in difficulties are supposed to reside; the term is recorded from the early 19th century, and is now used particularly in relation to financial difficulty.