A reader writes in:
I’d be grateful if you could clear some things up for me.
By all means.
What is ‘queer’? I’ve only ever been aware of it for the most part as a slur.
‘Queer‘ is a complex term with a complex set of related ideas – that’s what makes it a useful and powerful term – but suffice to say it refers to everything non-heteronormative: everyone not cisgender-and-heterosexual, everyone excluded from straight society and everything that belongs to our communities and culture. Queer people are bisexual, pansexual, transgender, genderqueer, agender, a rainbow of other things – and, yes, gay.
Some of us also identify purely as queer, whether on political grounds, because we aren’t sure how else to identify or because we feel the details of what we are matter less than the fact of what we aren’t (that is, straight). That ‘queer’ a negative term allows it to be all-inclusive in this way: the difference between ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ is somewhat analogous to the difference between ‘African American’ (a specific identity) and ‘person of colour‘ (anyone non-white).
Other queer members of this blog network identify as bisexual, trans(female), demisexual, gender-questioning and (sometimes) lesbian – as well as simply or primarily ‘queer’. Personally, I identify as ‘queer’ foremost and ‘bisexual’ when relevant, because I don’t want to define myself by how much I’m interested in each gender.
Why is ‘homosexual’ considered a slur?
‘Homosexual’ was coined in the 1880s by psychiatrists and popularised by a text called Psychopathia Sexualis, which as the name suggests didn’t propose a positive view of non-heterosexuality. (It was similarly negative about kink and asexuality.) Organised medicine referred to ‘homosexuals’ from then on as perverted and mentally ill, often subjecting to them to unethical, abusive, traumatising ‘treatment‘. It was only in 1990, the year before I was born, that the World Health Organisation removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses.
A lot of contemporary ideas on sexuality take root in this pathologising history, I think – the idea of orientation as a fixed natural state, the idea of gay bodies and straight bodies, gay brains and straight brains; the idea we’re born with predetermined sexualities. That’s another discussion, though.
Today’s conservatives use ‘homosexual’ to conceal their queerphobia with the respectability of ‘neutral’ language, instead of using words and phrases we’ve adopted like ‘gay’, ‘queer’ and ‘LGBT’. It’s noteworthy the the first two of these were both originally straight slurs as well: queer people have been able to reclaim them, but never really attempted to do so with ‘homosexual’. That should tell you something about how powerful its history of violence is and why we use it so rarely.
Why is pronouncing it to rhyme with ‘promo’ particularly bad?
The best way to explain this is probably to demonstrate, so here’s an audio file. You have to understand even speaking this word makes me shudder.
Some people use Greek pronunciation and say /hɒməʊsɛkʃuːəl/ (which is more accurate); some people use Latin pronunciation and say /hōməʊˈsɛkʃuːəl/ (as in Homer Simpson). My mum does the latter, but she pronounces it /hōmōsɛkʃuːəl/ so the second ‘o’ is as long as the first. If you use the prefix on its own – if you call someone a homo – it sounds like that (it rhymes with ‘promo’), but saying /hōmōsɛkʃuːəl/ has always been particular to her.
It’s a especially strained pronunciation: it sounds like you’re forcing your mouth around something so strange and unpalatable that even saying it is unpleasant. Combined with the background of the word, I always found that extremely othering.
Do you find acceptance as a bisexual with people who are not bisexual?
Generally, no. (I’m not that keen on the concept of ‘acceptance’, actually – usually I prefer ‘respect’.)
I’ve written before about the challenges bisexual identity tends to entail – here’s a post you might find useful – and being constantly perceived (even described) as gay is one of them. This is especially the case with straight people, but gay people – gay men in particular – do it too, and damaging myths about bisexuality are rife in gay communities. For that reason, most of the queer people I know are bisexual: we’ve had to build our own communities because we’re excluded.
A more subtle form of this is how terms like ‘gay and bi’, ‘LGB’ and ‘LGBT’ are used in reference to queer people but bisexuals aren’t included in reality – when ‘LGB’ charities, for example, don’t give us any representation or when ‘LGBTQ+ community’ events are dominated by cisgender gay men. The same problem affects trans people and to an extent lesbians and queer women, and a pragmatic feature of the word ‘queer’ is that it’s often used by people from these groups. Search for gay bloggers, columnists and groups and predominantly, you’ll find cis gay men; search for queer ones and you’ll find far more queer women (including queer feminists), bisexuals and trans people, as well as activists with other identities.