Comment & Analysis
Jan 26, 2017

The Question of Reclaiming the Word Queer

As we approach the end of Rainbow Week, Lauren Guy examines how the word 'queer' is being reclaimed as an all-inclusive term by many in the LGBT community.

Lauren Guy LGBT Editor
Anna Moran for The University Times

The LGBT community is continually expanding to include additional minority groups that were previously overlooked. Alongside the community, the LGBT acronym has been expanding and, some would say, is beginning to cause some problems. In its fullest expression, the acronym now stands at LGBTQQIP2SAA – standing for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersexual, pansexual, two-spirit, asexual and allies. For convenience, only the shortened acronym is used by most advocacies and organisations.

This decision, however, to overlook the additional categories of sexual orientation and gender is causing offense amongst the community and making some minority groups feel excluded and less important than those whom the LGBT acronym represents. Some have suggested that the lengthy acronym is obsolete and that we should simply discard it altogether and replace it with a word that is inclusive of all genders and sexual orientations. One such word which seems to have taken root is “queer”.

This decision to overlook the additional categories of sexual orientation and gender is causing offense amongst the community


When you look “queer” up in the Oxford English Dictionary, one definition given is: “Denoting or relating to a sexual or gender identity that does not correspond to established ideas of sexuality and gender, especially heterosexual norms.” This would seem to pertain to each of the gender and sexual identities that the LGBT community are seeking to represent. It defines what they are and their confrontational challenge to the status quo that refuses to adhere to a binary understanding of gender and sexuality.

However, a second definition of the word has more negative connotations: “informal, often offensive (Of a person) homosexual.” This definition unearths the long history of abuse that the LGBT community has suffered as the target of queer bashing and other forms of abuse. So if the word has a history of being used as a pejorative against the LGBT community, why would the LGBT community want to actively establish themselves using it? Is it possible to reclaim this pejorative from those who would seek to injure with it and turn it into something positive? Or will re-appropriating the term only serve to reinforce harmful stereotypes and add fuel to the fire of homophobia?

The reappropriation of the word “queer” has not been universally accepted amongst the LGBT community and remains a contested subject. The community stands divided on whether the word should be reclaimed, with those who believe that the pejorative can be reclaimed and its derogatory connotations overruled, and those who believe that the word will always retain its abusive history and adopting it will only seek to reinforce this cycle of abuse.

Those who believe the word and its derogatory connotations are indistinguishable are usually the older generation of the LGBT community who have been victims of its debasing intentions and have suffered directly from it. They believe that attempting to take back the word “queer” from those who seek to do harm with it is futile. Their fear is that using the word queer will only serve to perpetuate its existing stereotype and the prejudice associated with it and may even aggravate discrimination and violence against the LGBT community.

What we need to keep in mind is that words and their meanings are in constant flux

Those who support the reclamation of the word contend that “queer” can be separated from its pejorative and that by taking it back they can transform it into something positive and oppositional and remove the stigma attached to it. However, whilst this may be an admirable project with good intentions to unite the LGBT community and remove the need for a lengthy acronym, it may have alienating consequences. In practice, the word “queer” often denotes gay men and lesbians whilst excluding bisexuals, transgendered and the other groups that the community are seeking to include. Additionally, whilst the word may be used amongst members of LGBT community to represent the whole spectrum of gender and sexuality identities, this may be largely ignored by the media and the public who may continue to use the term under its old derogatory meaning.

So can the linguistic reclamation of the word “queer” be successful? Can we rightfully envision a future where all alternative genders and sexual expressions are united under one term? What we need to keep in mind is that words and their meanings are in constant flux. In a society that is saturated with new words and phrases and in which the meanings and uses of words are always morphing, it is possible to subvert and reverse the original meaning of a word. However, it is impossible to predict the future of the word “queer” and what the outcome of any attempts at linguistic reclamation will be. One thing is certain though: “queer” will have as colourful a future as those who seek to reclaim it from their oppressors.

Sign Up to Our Weekly Newsletters

Get The University Times into your inbox twice a week.