Reclamation is messy. The word queer holds, in its history, both pain and empowerment. It has been a dagger and a hug, a dismissal and a welcome sign, a put-down and a motivation to stand up and march.
So we were not surprised to receive backlash against the language in our article about the attack on Jussie Smollett, a black and gay entertainer and activist. Speaking to the importance of understanding intersectionality in order to be good allies to our students, we pointed to the unique experiences faced by “black queer” people. On Facebook, especially, this touched a nerve and sparked a conversation.
“A black queer? Not acceptable!” one reader wrote. “That’s a racist group of words!” Another said, “I think another word would have been more appropriate than queer.” And we want to acknowledge this reaction, respectfully. For many people—including members of the LGBTQ community—the word queer will never seem appropriate due to its history as a pejorative.
It’s a reaction I understand both personally and professionally. Growing up in rural Kentucky, I was often reminded that queer rhymed with slur—and it was one. It was a weapon I never wanted thrust in my direction, lest I betray the secrets in my closet. It was a word for boys who didn’t belong.
The word will always be a pejorative in certain contexts. It will always cause pain when used in a derogatory way or as an insistence that someone is abnormal and, thus, undeserving of fair treatment and love.
But we also want to acknowledge that the reclamation—and reappropriation—of the word queer is not a new phenomenon. In fact, its history, as discussed in the video below, serves as a valuable learning opportunity for educators and students alike. Its reclamation dates back to at least the catalyzed LGBTQ rights movement after the Stonewall Riots in 1969, after which people began to wear the word as a badge of honor. To say, literally, “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.” To demand to no longer be left in the margins, to demand that we redefine what is “normal” and what is strange—queer’s original meaning and the reason it was placed upon so many people like a scarlet letter.
It’s been decades now since the word queer spread into LGBTQ activist, academic and community circles as a reappropriated term. It’s been less time since we adopted its usage at Teaching Tolerance. And we should make our purpose clear.
It is a word we use with respect and love.
In our guide Best Practices for Serving LGBTQ Students, we offer this editor’s note: “We recognize the complicated history of the word queer and that its reclamation as a positive or even neutral term of identity isn’t universally accepted. In this guide, we use queer as an inclusive term to refer to those who fall outside of cisgender or heterosexual identities—not as a pejorative.”
This usage came from a desire to be inclusive. The LGBTQ community—by definition—encompasses a diverse range of identities and experiences. There is no perfect umbrella term to encapsulate that community, no acronym that can contain all of its beautiful nuances. But we felt queer—defined in our guide as a reclaimed term that “describes sexual orientations and gender identities that are not exclusively heterosexual or cisgender”—came the closest.
In an internal memo, we concluded that the word queer and adding Q to the acronym served several inclusive purposes: 1) It’s gender-neutral. 2) It allows us to acknowledge identities left out by “LGBT,” such as intersex people. And 3) it allows us to include members of the community from cultures that express non-heterosexual, non-cisgender identities with different words and customs. This includes two-spirit individuals such as the winkte of the Lakota people or the nadleeh of the Navajo people. This includes hijra people from India. This includes māhū people from Hawai’i. This includes black people who prefer a term like same-gender loving to gay due to the latter’s Eurocentric roots. We wanted a word that signaled an inclusion of all identities and, again, queer felt the closest—a word that has come to represent a fluid range of people’s truths.
It is a word we use with respect and love. A word that some of us at TT wear as members of a diverse coalition, hardly homogenous and difficult to describe with mere words.
That said, it’s also important to respect how people choose to be identified. And it’s important to be specific. More than ever before, young people have a deep well of words to use in explaining who they are. The glossary in Best Practices for Serving LGBTQ Students serves as a primer on this vocabulary. And it’s important we do not flatten those experiences. So when trans people are targeted by executive orders or bathroom bills, we should be specific about who those actions harm: trans people, intersex people, etc. When someone is unlawfully denied access to the prom because of a same-sex date, we should explicitly name this as anti-gay or biphobic, not just anti-queer.
In the case of our article about Jussie Smollett, a Facebook commenter asked an important question: “I think it’s fair to consider that not every LGBT person identifies as queer,” they said. “He’s a gay black man. What’s wrong with using that terminology? What does using queer accomplish that gay doesn’t?”
Our answer: It was not our intention to flatten out Smollett's experience. We used queer because we didn't want to flatten out anyone else's experience, either. In the context of the article, we used the term “queer black person” because we were talking about intersectionality. We were talking about Smollett within the same context as an increasingly dire level of violence against black trans women. The assault on Smollett occurred within a week of the shooting of a black trans woman in Houston. Our allyship depends on understanding the intersections and differences in these events—and understanding the reality for black members of the LGBTQ community.
Having these discussions about identity, inevitably, will cause discomfort. Terms change. Meanings shift. And it is hard to divorce our history and pain from the word queer. But in conjunction with scholars, activists, civil rights organizations and an increasing number of people within the LGBTQ community, we hope to use the word queer as a beacon of representation and a push toward empowerment.
We thank you for engaging in that discussion and for helping us push toward a world where students do not have their identities used as weapons against them. Instead, in those identities, we hope they find power, see strength and feel the weight of history lifted by the promise of tomorrow.
Collins is the senior writer for Teaching Tolerance.