The Q Word

Last month I received some feedback about Michigan LGBTQ Remember that caught me off guard.

The message came from Leonard Graff, who was a key and pioneering activist in the Gay Liberation Movement at Michigan State University in the early 1970s.  Leonard expressed appreciation for the project, then shared his deep dislike for the Q at the end of LGBTQ.

Here is his initial comment in full, shared with his kind permission:

First, I want to say that this is a terrific project.  It was quite sobering to peruse the obits of my fellow Michigan activists.

My friends and I were very active in the nascent gay rights movement of the early ‘70s.  We lobbied successfully in East Lansing, for the nation’s first law to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation; we created the first state wide network of gay organizations; we brought an action against MSU to compel it to promote Gay Pride Month on campus; and, we helped organize the first gay pride parade in Detroit.  I’m pretty sure we were, at the time, the largest student organization on the MSU campus.

We fought for our right to be free from discrimination and for the dignity to be ourselves—proud gay, lesbian and bi people.  That is how we wanted to be known; not as the more clinical term of homosexual.  I can say with some certainty that none of fought to be known as queer or would want to be part of any organization that referred to us as queers.

Queer is a pejorative. It is hate speech.  When one is called queer, it is often followed by additional epithets such as pansy, sissy, faggot, and then physical assault.  That was true in the ‘70s and I think still true today in most parts of America.

So, when I die, and note that I don’t expect it to be anytime soon, please do not include my obit in your project.

In an email exchange that followed, Leonard consented to my including his comments in a blog post to explore the connotations of the word.  I much appreciate his willingness to join in a dialogue.

More importantly, he gave permission to use his comments in class so that my LGBTQ Studies students, all in their late teens and early twenties, might understand the gravity and history of terms we use.

My idea here is to explore my own navigation of using the word queer, and question my responsibility to engage language thoughtfully, honestly, and ethically.

The term has become commonplace, but has not been embraced wholeheartedly.

The GLAAD Media Reference Guide, 10th edition, offers these guidelines for its use:

An adjective used by some people, particularly younger people, whose sexual orientation is not exclusively heterosexual (e.g. queer person, queer woman).  Typically, for those who identify as queer, the terms lesbian, gay, and bisexual are perceived to be too limiting and/or fraught with cultural connotations they feel don’t apply to them.  Some people may use queer, or more commonly genderqueer, to describe their gender identity and/or gender expression (see non-binary and/or genderqueer…).  Once considered a pejorative term, queer has been reclaimed by some LGBT people to describe themselves; however, it is not a universally accepted term even within the LGBT community.  When Q is seen at the end of LGBT, it typically means queer and, less often, questioning.

Current usage notwithstanding, I grew up experiencing queer as a slur.  I heard it on the playground in junior high.  I had it used against me by classmates who didn’t like me.

I probably first encountered queer in the context of its reclamation in the Village Voice in 1990.  In the years since, I’ve grown increasingly comfortable with it as it came to permeate politics, culture, and academics.

In its Winter 1991 issue, the journal Out/Look declared “Birth of a Queer Nation.”

Histories such as Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area from 1996 and John Howard’s Men Like That: A Southern Queer History from 1999 put the word in their titles.

I presented my first scholarly paper at the Future of the Queer Past conference at the University of Chicago in 2000.

Mainstream media then took up word in its newly asserted friendliness with the U.S. adaption of Queer as Folk, which ran on Showtime from 2000 to 2005, and the chipper reality show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which ran on Bravo from 2003 to 2007 (and is being revived with a new cast of experts for Netflix).

In 2010, the successor group to Leonard Graff’s Gay Liberation Movement at MSU was renamed the Alliance of Queer and Ally Students.

This lexical ascendance is a hard trend to buck.

Plus, there’s something sassy and in-your-face about the ACT UP chant, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” especially as the current administration seeks to turn back recent LGBTQ gains.

The history is further complicated by the fact that, as I noted in a 2011 article by Tara Cavanaugh in Between The Lines, queer did not always carry a negative meaning prior to 1990.

In the rich introduction to his book Gay New York, historian George Chauncey explains that prior to World War II, men who were homosexually inclined commonly described themselves as queer with little or no pejorative connotation.  By the late 1940s, however, the code word gay had replaced queer as the preferred term used among homosexual men to identify themselves.

Chauncey quotes a 1951 diary entry that captures the shift.  “The word ‘queer’ is becoming more and more derogatory and less and less used by … the homosexual, especially the younger ones, and the term ‘gay’ taking its place,” wrote a man who entered gay life in the 1930s.  “I loathe the word, and stick to ‘queer,’ and am constantly being reproved, especially in so denominating myself” (Gay New York, page 19).

Today, I embrace the word gay to identify myself, yet understand that this word can be problematic as well.  Gay, too, was once seen as an umbrella term.  Over time, however, some people came to see it as inadequate for its perceived exclusion of women or bisexual people or those who prefer to describe themselves as same-gender-loving or gender non-conforming.

And, as the kids of our friends can attest, gay has become a playground taunt, or at least a synonym for lame.

In my own work as a historian, I strive to use terminology that accurately describes the practices and self-conceptions of the past I am writing about.  Many men who were arrested for homosexual offenses in Detroit in the 1940s and 1950s would not have seen themselves as homosexual or gay or bisexual.  The word queer provides a convenient, accessible, and historically justifiable means to try to understand these men.

In this blog about what I have chosen to call Queer Remembering, I find that the word allows some looseness and fluidity for a range of sexual and gender identities that hold collective salience.

Perhaps I should not take it as encompassing a word as I do.

“Who decided that ‘we’ need an umbrella term to cover everyone, and that term should be Queer?” Leonard asked in a follow-up email.  The question is not only valid, it is crucial.

I hold Leonard Graff in high esteem.  I interviewed him in San Francisco in 1994 about his Gay Lib activism in Michigan.

Following graduation from MSU, Leonard earned his J.D. at Cooley Law School and moved to Washington, DC, where he worked with the Gay Activists Alliance and engaged in landmark litigation.  In the mid-1980s, he served as legal director of National Gay Rights Advocates.  As a resident of San Francisco for more than three decades, he was deeply steeped in local gay and lesbian politics and witnessed firsthand the devastation of AIDS on our community in one of the epicenters of the disease.

I do not aim to sway Leonard from his view, nor would I want to.

My own embrace of queer is probably too lukewarm for me to defend it with full gusto.  But I also cannot pretend that I will abandon using the word queer—for one, it is so ubiquitous in academia that it would be nearly impossible, in that context, for me to do so—but I can promise to take greater care in its use.

The word still clearly causes stinging pain, and for some it can never be a term of reclamation and empowerment.  As a historian who strives to be sensitive, I much appreciate being reminded of its continued toxicity.

Tim Retzloff


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