an exploration of the ever-changing world of queer terminology

Is queer the "right" word? Daniel Reynolds of 'The Advocate' explores the multitude of words for the LGBT community.

by Daniel Reynolds
26 August 2016, 5:15pm

The first time I said the word "gay", it wasn't in a positive sense. In middle school and high school, I used it again and again to describe anyone or anything bad, weird, or just plain lame.

After years of saying, "That's so gay," I came out as gay. It was a strange feeling to identify with a word I formerly used as a sign of disrespect (at best) and a slur (at worst). But this feeling, I learned, is a universal experience for people who are coming to terms with identities that are not straight.

For anyone in this boat, there are sadly no labels that have a hate-free history. Even the proudest of word choices can, in the wrong mouth, be thrown back at us to diminish us and demean our value as human beings. This reality presents a conundrum for our allies. In an era when there have never been so many labels to describe a person's identity, how can well-meaning straight people speak respectfully about not-straight folks without unintentionally choosing the "wrong" word and running afoul of a painful history?

GLAAD — an organization devoted to preventing defamatory media representations and navigating this thorny terrain — has a helpful reference guide devoted to this topic, which breaks down which terms are offensive and which are preferred. For example, "homosexual," a word with its own troubling history as a categorization of same-sex attraction as a medical diagnosis, is defined as offensive, whereas "gay" is a preferred term. The guide also lists language that GLAAD considers defamatory: "fag," "faggot," "dyke," "homo," "sodomite," "tranny," "she-male," etc.

However, defamatory is in the eye of the beholder, even for the most verboten of terms. There are many people who identify as these labels. In fact, our community has a proud history of reclaiming words that have been historically been used to marginalize us. The recent movie Pride retold a wonderful example of this reclamation, when gay and lesbian activists threw a "Pits and Perverts" benefit concert to help raise funds for the families of the 1984 miners strike in the United Kingdom. More recently, millennials have embraced the term "queer," which was considered a slur by previous generations, as a more encompassing alternative to "gay."

These dual meanings can be confusing for outsiders, as well as insiders like myself who are still struggling with this history. Along the way, I've fumbled. Shortly after I came out, I used the word "fag" to describe myself among my gay friends. This is the worst word one can call a gay man. I thought its use would defuse its power over me. When I attempted to defang another slur by calling a female friend a "dyke," I learned from the swift, brutal, and well-deserved backlash that I was out of my rights. And as a white, cisgender (non-transgender) man, there are some words that I should never use.

Sexuality and gender identity may not be a choice, but the word used to describe one's experience is. And it's a deeply personal one. I found as a gay person — and later as a reporter for The Advocate, the nation's oldest LGBT magazine — that if there's ever any doubt, ask a person how he, she, or they identifies. Hopefully, this question will also start a conversation that extends beyond the etymological to greater issues of acceptance, understanding, and friendship.

When it comes to labels describing not-straight communities, the process isn't as simple. Members of these groups disagree amongst themselves as to what their umbrella term should be. This debate erupted earlier this year, when Gay Voices, a vertical of The Huffington Post, rebranded itself as Queer Voices. For many of this news outlet's readers, "queer" is still a slur, a term that may be preceded by an act of hate-motivated violence. The name-change even incited one of its gay writers, James Peron, to quit as a contributor. In an op-ed announcing his departure, he spoke to the painful history of the word in his own life and others.

"'Queer' is a traumatic, painful word for many of us. To have it inflicted us by our allies is no less traumatic and painful. If anything, it is worse," stated Peron, adding, "I've never denied another person the right to embrace whatever term they want. But, I'm not embracing 'queer,' it is being imposed on me, just like it was when I was growing up.

The more popular alternative to "queer" is "LGBT," an acronym — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender — that has become the most politically correct term to describe the combined members of these communities. Less frequently, media outlets will use LGBTQ — the "Q" meaning "queer" or "questioning"— as a means of incorporating those who no longer identify with the four aforementioned labels. (Presidential candidate Donald Trump infamously used the latter acronym in his speech at the Republican National Convention — perhaps a tactic to convince voters he is a more enlightened candidate than Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who has historically favored the leaner "LGBT" in her addresses.)

In other spheres, especially academic spaces, many extend the umbrella to LGBTQIA (and further) to add those who are intersex and asexual. The growing alphabet soup is confusing but well-meaning. It's the result of efforts to be inclusive of those who have been historically erased or marginalized.

I report on these issues daily in LGBT media, and I still struggle sometimes to find the right words to describe my tribe and its members — myself included. Sometimes, there are no clear answers. Just this week, out athlete Robbie Rogers illustrated this conflict when he was reportedly called "queer" at a soccer match. Afterward, he experienced shock, regret, and was "even a bit ashamed that a single word could make me feel, even just for a moment, all the awful feelings I felt for so many years: small, less than, wrong, and unworthy of love and respect by my family or god forbid by my teammates."

Yet even when bigotry reminded him of the word's potential for harm, he still identified as the word, and is "proud more than ever that I had the courage to come out as a queer man."

Once upon a time, I might have said, "That's so gay" about Rogers' response. And today I say: That is so gay — because by "gay" I mean wonderful, brave, and any other positive word that could describe a person who has the courage to be themselves. See the difference? The wrong word is also the right word. It's as simple — and as complicated — as context.


Text Daniel Reynolds
Photography via Flickr

daniel reynolds
the advocate