CityBeat's decision a couple of weeks ago to use the word “queer”—to describe the clientele at local bars that cater specifically to the gay community—invoked a ripple of dissent among our readership. This prompted us to dig a little deeper into where “queer” fits in our popular vernacular.
The word is frequently used by younger people in the gay community who are looking for a blanket term to stand in for “the alphabet soup of inclusivity,” said Sean Wherley, director of public policy at the San Diego LGBT Center. Still, Wherley says, many older gay folks can't shake the pejorative and hateful connotations that were once associated with the term.
If you accept a Google search as an adequate reflection of contemporary culture, it would seem the word “queer” has shed most of its negative meaning. The first five hits are (in order):
* The Queer Resources Directory, which touts itself as “the net's largest database of text and links for and about gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and others.”
* Wikipedia's “Queer” page.
* The Queer Arts Resource: Gay Art Gallery and Links to Gay Art Websites.
* Bravo TV: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
* Showtime: Queer as Folk.
Still, the local Gay and Lesbian Times prefers to stick to the tried-and-true acronym “LGBT” in their news section.
“Our office policy is to avoid the word ‘queer,'” said GLT associate editor Rachel Ralston. “But if one of our commentary writers or social columnists wants to use the word ‘queer,' that's their voice.... We've had our commentary writers use it and never gotten a letter so far.”
Ralston points out that the term might be received differently if it's used by a person or publication outside of the gay community.
“CityBeat is obviously gay friendly, and most of San Diego knows that,” continued Ralston, “but people are more inclined to take offense if it comes from a ‘straight' publication.”
Nevertheless, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, an alt-weekly newspaper just like CityBeat, puts out a “queer pride” issue every year and regularly uses the term when referring to gay community members, performers and activists.
“With ‘queer,' what we saw was a long-oppressed community intentionally reclaiming what had been a derogatory name and using it with pride,” said Bay Guardian executive editor Tim Redmond. “When the community self-identified that way, we picked up the term. I think in San Francisco it would be offensive to use anything else.”
Another element to consider is queer's place in academia, where “queer theory” has become a recognized field of study.
“Queer theory,” said Dr. Deboleena Roy, associate professor of women's studies at San Diego State University, “has, in fact, made pivotal contributions to advancing our understanding of identities.
“I teach my students about queer theory and the usage of the term ‘queer,'” she said, “and, for the most part, they are straight, heterosexual students... who are learning something new that they need to think about.”