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LGBT topics

The meaning of queer: Moving beyond our resistance to language

As educators, we can all attest to the power of language and the challenges of naming. Finding the right word or terminology can be quite difficult, especially when we are looking to describe a person or a group of persons appropriately. This has certainly been the case when we are trying to find the right words and phrases to describe persons across sex, sexual, and gender differences. Naming and describing lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-identified (LGBT) and other persons across these differences (see Definitions in the article, Bringing Youth Voices Out of the Closet: Are You Asking the Right Questions to Help Prevent Suicide?) has been a challenge both inside and outside the LGBT community. In recent years, the LGBT acronym has been extended to include a Q, which stands for queer. Queer is a contentious word not only for heterosexual persons but also for some (often older) members of the LGBTQ community.

Historically, queer has been used in a derogatory way to describe someone with a same-sex attraction. The word, at least in a British context, has also been used to connote someone odd, curious, different, peculiar, strange or unusual—not necessarily in a sexual way. In 1990, a grassroots action group was formed in New York to fight homophobia and hate crimes against LGBTQ persons. They named themselves Queer Nation as a way to take back the word queer and re-describe it as a politically meaningful and powerful term. The group reclaimed the word queer in an effort to counter its use as a term to belittle and disparage LGBTQ persons. Since then queer has grown in popular usage. Today the term has import and impact, especially among younger LGBTQ persons who see it as a more expansive term to include a spectrum of sex, sexual, and gender differences. As well, since the early 1990s, queer theory has emerged in academe as an interdisciplinary study that challenges binaries such as male/female and heterosexual/homosexual, which do not account for the spectral nature and fluidity of sex, sexual, and gender differences. For example, we are only beginning to understand such differences as intersexuality (anatomic sex differentiation such that a person is neither specifically male nor female) and transsexuality (gender dysphoria or dissonance between one’s biological sex and intuited gender).

For some, especially many younger LGBTQ persons, queer has become a colloquial term used as a descriptor in everyday conversation. It is even employed in the mainstream as evidenced by the names of such television shows as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Queer as Folk. For those still uncomfortable with the word queer, it is important to understand that LGBTQ persons who reclaim queer and use it as a descriptor are doing so to remind other people that some words have histories connected to stereotypes that defile and dismiss those named. By exploring the history and meaning of the word queer, educators have a springboard and an opportunity to explore the meaning of other derogatory terms like faggot, which refers to the bundle of sticks that gay men carried to the stake when they were burned during the Inquisition in Europe.

These days, the word queer is used in educational resources (such as those found on the Alberta Teachers' Association web site on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) that address LGBTQ diversity. Including queer has become part of extending inclusive educational vocabulary to discuss contemporary issues of LGBTQ diversity and inclusion. Rather than resisting the use of the word, educators should take the opportunity to explore the historical and contemporary meanings of queer, meanings that help us build understanding of sex, sexual, and gender differences. This exploration helps us understand why LGBTQ people have been excluded in the past and reinforces the importance of protecting the human and civil rights of LGBTQ persons in Canada today. Building this knowledge and understanding will help overcome the popular ignorance and fear that can lead to symbolic (verbal slurs and anti-LGBTQ graffiti) and physical (assault and battery) violence against LGBTQ persons in our schools and communities.

Additional resources and information:
The above article appears with the author's permission.

Similar articles and publications are available from the Alberta Teachers' Association web site on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. Readers may also wish to order a copy of the special double issue of Canadian Woman Studies (Volume 24, Numbers 2,3). The issue is a great reference on LGBTQ issues in Canadian and other contexts across a variety of topics.

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