In 1894, John Douglas, the Ninth Marquess of Queensberry, wrote a furious letter to his third son, Lord Alfred Douglas, concerning the suspicious hunting-related death of his first son, Francis, earlier that year. He suspected that Francis had been sleeping with his boss, Lord Roseberry, who had recently become the United Kingdom’s new Prime Minister. In his letter to Alfred, the Marquess blamed “Snob Queers like Roseberry” for Francis’s death.
What the Marquess didn’t realize, however, was that he had addressed the letter to another “Snob Queer”. His son, Alfred, had been carrying on an affair with an Irish poet named Oscar Wilde for several years. A scandal, indeed.
That insult, “Snob Queers,” made history: it’s the first recorded instance of “queer,” at least to the knowledge of historians, used as a sex-related slur. The word itself had been in use for 400 years (e.g., strange, drunk, or having syphillis), but now “queer” meant sexually deviant, too. By then, the word “homosexual” was already in use, coined by sexologists and social reformers to categorize those who were attracted to the same sex––without relying on morally-coded words like “sodomite” or “degenerate.”
Only a few decades later, sexual deviants across the English-speaking world were calling themselves “queer.” (In New York, for instance, “queer” meant a man who slept with men but also adopted masculine gender traits, in contrast to a “fairy.”) But then came along “gay,” a word that sometimes referred to sex workers but more commonly appeared in other, innocuous (i.e., straight) contexts. As a result, it worked better as a code word. “Gay men could use it to identify themselves to other gays without revealing their identity to those not in the wise,” wrote George Chauncey in his seminal book, Gay New York.
Throughout the 20th century, and especially after the Stonewall Riots of 1969, LGBTQ+ Americans increasingly adopted the word as a sign of visibility and pride: the “Gay Liberation Front” and “Gay Activists’ Alliance” replaced organizations like “The Mattachine Society” or “The Daughters of Bilitis.” Yet, at the same time, the word “gay” increasingly meant “white,” “male,” and “cisgender” (i.e., identifying with your sex assigned at birth). Trans activists like Sylvia Rivera joined the Gay Activists’ Alliance but soon found themselves unwelcome, labeled a threat to the palatability and political progress of those groups. If you didn’t conform to a certain type of “gay,” then you weren’t welcome. As a result, Rivera changed the name of her new organization, Street Transvestites for Gay Power, to one that more accurately reflected her identity and politics: Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (STAR).
The AIDS crisis forced activists to reconsider their language, since “gay” didn’t properly capture the anger they felt towards the government, pharmaceutical companies, and the ruling class. At the 1990 Gay Pride parade in New York City, a group of "Anonymous Queers" handed out 15,000 flyers titled “Queers Read This,” which it called a “manifesto of rage and its politics.” Respectability politics––mirroring the oppressor in the hopes of achieving acceptance––clearly wasn’t working, so the activists called for a new language of radical visibility:
Well, yes, "gay " is great. It has its place. But when
a lot of lesbians and gay men wake up in the morning we feel
angry and disgusted, not gay. So we've chosen to call
ourselves queer. Using "queer" is a way of reminding us how
we are perceived by the rest of the world. It's a way of
telling ourselves we don't have to be witty and charming
people who keep our lives discreet and marginalized in the
straight world. We use queer as gay men loving lesbians and
lesbians loving being queer.
Queer, unlike GAY, doesn't mean MALE.
And when spoken to other gays and lesbians it's a way of
suggesting we close ranks, and forget (temporarily) our
individual differences because we face a more insidious
common enemy. Yeah, QUEER can be a rough word but it is
also a sly and ironic weapon we can steal from the
homophobe's hands and use against him.
Around the same time, scholars like Gloria Anzaldúa were using “queer” to show how sexual and racial differences can (and must) overlap, interact, and intersect:
“We are the queer groups, the people that don’t belong anywhere, not in the dominant world nor completely within our own respective cultures. Combined we cover so many oppressions. But the overwhelming oppression is the collective fact that we do not fit, and because we do not fit we are a threat. Not all of us have the same oppressions, but we empathize and identify with each other’s oppressions. We do not share the same ideology, nor do we derive similar solutions. Some of us are leftists, some of us practitioners of magic. Some of us are both. But these different affinities are not opposed to each other. In El Mundo Zurdo I with my own affinities and my people with theirs can live together and transform the planet.”
“Queer theory” became a new field of academic inquiry, and in popular culture, we soon had shows like Queer as Folk and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. “Gay,” unfortunately, still implied “white,” “male,” and “cisgender.”
So why is this class called Queer History 101?
Well, above all, it’s both handy and inclusive. It can mean so many things, but it never means normal, which allows me to cover an incredibly diverse array of topics throughout human history. As queer theorist David Halperin explains, "Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant."
Plus, when dealing with history, the word is especially useful. After all, if we have evidence that a man (or, rather, what we would now call a “man”) who has been dead for 4000 years loved another man, who are we to call him gay––rather than bisexual, pansexual, or even trans? Is it appropriate to use those categories when they certainly didn’t exist during his lifetime?
“Queer” is important because it allows us to identify historical figures who were different––who were special––without importing all the baggage of our modern vocabularies.
Finally, to those of you who have an aversion to the word “queer” because you first learned it in the context of homophobia or trauma: I hear you. It’s hard to embrace a word that has caused so much pain, and I understand if you’d prefer not to adopt it for yourself. (I, for one, identify as both gay and queer.)
But do me a favor and try something: go to the bathroom, look at yourself in the mirror, and say: “I’m queer and I fucking love it.”
You might laugh or smile, which is the point. And that confidence you feel inside: that’s queerness.
What did the word “queer” mean when you were growing up? What does it mean to you now?
What terms do you use to self-identify? Have these changed over time? If so, what was the cause of that change?
How do you feel when someone incorrectly identifies your gender or sexuality? What steps do you take to correct them?