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  • Writer's pictureyannick-robin eike mirko

The History of "Queer"

It’s fair to make space for this starting out, though you’re probably not going to like it. The origin of the word queer is relatively uncertain, it entered the English language by the early 16th century, and was primarily used to mean “strange, odd” or “peculiar”. According to the National Archives, the word was thought to have been used in relation to a person’s identity for the first time in 1894, in a trial of Oscar Wilde’s where a letter from the Marquis of Queensbury detailed his “disgust” at Oscar’s relationship with the Marquis’ son Lord Alfred Douglas. The letter, read aloud in court, described Wilde and other homosexual men as ‘Snob Queers’. In the late 19th century, queer was unfortunately used pejoratively against those with same-sex desires or relationships.

[image description:a picture of Oscar Wilde, left, and Alfred Douglas, right.] via NYLON

I know, I'm sorry, look - if I could travel back in time to ensure queer was always a word associated with positivity and beauty, I would! All I can do now is help those around nowadays keep it positive for queers, which is why it’s important to understand that it wasn’t always a good thing to be associated with. Lucky for us, in the late 1980’s there were brave advocates who began reclaiming the word as a politically radical alternative to its bullying nature at the time, an example of such behavior being found in an LGBTQ activist organization founded in March 1990 in New York City, calling itself Queer Nation.

[image description: the Queer Nation logo, which is black with black lettering on white highlight, made to look like cut magazine pieces.]

It came up as a spin off-of ACT-UP, a group that was started in the 1980s to address the AIDS crisis in NYC, with the focus on combating homophobia and violence while promoting queer visibility. Imagine protests with banners and flags all covered in big bold lettering, normalizing the use of ‘queer’ as a positive for us. Both orgs sound pretty cool, right? Thank you, New Yorkers for your continued charges against hate! It’s rippled around the world and we’d be in such a different place without the work of those who took back queer as a word we could smile about and use to describe ourselves, our friends, our community.

[image description: the ACT-UP logo, which is black with white lettering, and says, “AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power”]

[image description: Young folks holding a Queer Nation banner and kissing, Photographer Unknown, 1990 (from the Outweek Photographs Collection)]

Today’s society describes queer as “sexual and gender identities other than straight and cisgender,” which I’m grateful for, because otherwise it would mean I’m calling myself “peculiar” whenever I identify with it which, for the record, I am incredibly normal and very much someone worth being friends with - like all queer people are! Not everyone is going to like using the term, not everyone that is LGBTQIA+ identifies with it, or uses it as an umbrella term - all of this is completely okay, as it’s important to respect not only those who identify with it, but those who don’t that are LGBTQIA+. There is never going to be an umbrella term for LGBTQIA+ that 1000% of its members are pleased with, though mindfulness with use of terms and with whom, is definitely important and appreciated.

[image description: Queer Nation activists at a "Take Back the Night" march in New York City in 1990. (Ellen Neipris)]


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