To hear this episode and read more about it, visit theallusionist.org/queer.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, pull language out of cryogenic storage and leave it thawing on the kitchen counter.
Today’s episode has been a particularly interesting one to work on. I spoke to a lot of people about the word in question, and everybody had very different opinions about it. Interested to hear yours too. There is so much more to say about this word, and this episode is just some.
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Content note: this episodes contains discussions of sexuality and sexual acts, as well as some problematic terms.
On with the show.
This is about a word that currently means a lot of things, to different people.
AMY SUEYOSHI: I see 'queer' as an umbrella term, as a political call for revolution as well as unity across different groups of people.
JONATHAN VAN NESS: I think of it definitely with positive and loving energy around it, I don’t think of it as an insult at all; growing up, I would have thought of it more as an insult. I think it was in 2015 when we got marriage equality, and the media, especially the LGBTQ+ media, began to use it as an umbrella term, something we could all be part of. So I think I got the cue from media to know that it was a gorgeous amazing word, one where we’re taking the love back and it wasn’t one to be offended by any more.
KATIE MINGLE: I haven’t always loved the term for myself, because it feels like an umbrella term that you can use if you’re gay and in a relationship with someone of the same sex, or you can use if you’re a basically straight couple who occasionally has a threesome with someone. That’s what ‘queer’ has come to mean: anyone who’s not inside the norm.
AMY SUEYOSHI: I think it's rejecting things like patriarchy and heteronormativity, mandates of morality. So not just to be able to keep things gray or to be postmodern, post category, but instead rather to call for a true revolution of the way we see the world, the way we categorize the world. So it's not just about LGBT rights per se but it's about creating a world that's more respectful of equity and thinks about diversity as a plus and values different ideas as a side of radical change rather than fear.
KATIE HERZOG: I sort of hate it. It’s too broad.
TOBIN LOW: It's so useful. I mean especially as there is this proliferation of identities that people can call themselves and identify with and really claim, it's a great way of just sort of acknowledging that it's all in the umbrella and that it's all valid; it's just like a way of acknowledging the validity of all the things, which I think is great.
ERIC MARCUS: This word has tortured me.
I'm Eric Marcus and I'm the creator and host of The Making Gay History podcast.
HZ: The subtitle of Eric’s podcast is ‘Bringing the voices of queer history to life’; but even so, he struggles with the word ‘queer’.
ERIC MARCUS: Because for me to say the word 'queer', having grown up in an era when the word was the same as calling someone a faggot or a homo, I'm hardwired to experience the fight or flight response when I hear the word queer. So for me to say the word ‘queer’, as I'm doing now, sends all kinds of adrenaline through my system, and all I want to do is fight or run.
TOBIN LOW: My name's Tobin.
KATHY TU: And I'm Kathy.
TOBIN LOW: We are the cohosts of Nancy, which is a podcast about all things LGBTQ .
KATHY TU: Queer.
TOBIN LOW: Queer.
KATHY TU: It's queer. It's a queer podcast.
HZ: So what does the word queer mean to you?
KATHY TU: I've been using it interchangeably with LGBTQIA .
TOBIN LOW: Yeah, I would say the same. I use it as a blanket term to refer to a very wide-ranging community and to sort of make the point that I feel unified with those people. And when I say “those people”, I mean across the community: that it's not just like me as a gay person; that I feel connected to trans people, intersex, asexual, bisexual; that we're in a community and we should be taking care of each other.
HZ: And do you self-identify as queer?
KATHY TU: I do. Yeah. I call myself a queer woman.
TOBIN LOW: I identify sexually as gay and maybe politically as queer, if that makes sense.
HZ: So the Venn diagram would be queer, and then gay would be a subset in the diagram for you.
TOBIN LOW: Yes.
HZ: But for some people this term is not very welcome.
KATHY TU: Yeah, well, it wasn't welcome for me when I was younger - I really didn't like the word. I just honestly didn't use it very much in my life so when I heard it I was like, I think this is derogatory, so I'm going to see it that way, and so I just really avoided it.
TOBIN LOW: It feels like one of those words that you grow up and it's on a list of words you know you're never supposed to say.
KATHU TU: Yeah.
TOBIN LOW: And maybe not everything on that list you know why it's on that list; you just get the information of like, oh, I am never supposed to say this word.
ERIC MARCUS: I have to be a little more flexible and consider the fact that language is constantly evolving, and what may have been a pejorative at one time only has a sting if I choose to allow it to be so. But that said: for those of us who are older and grew up at a time when that word was hurled at us like a baseball bat, we do have hard-wiring in our brains that leaves us a little sensitive to using the word ourselves, or hearing it used in conversation, and feeling that it's benign. I grew up in such a different time. And the anxieties that went along with being gay in 1976 are still buried deep in my brainstem. So I struggle with - as out as I am, and I don't know if you can be much more out than I am, given the work I do especially, I still face issues around my internalized homophobia and my anxiety of how people will react to me if they know I'm gay. And I will take that to my grave with me.
HZ: ‘Queer’ has been in the English language for at least the past 500 years. And for the first 400 or so of those years, it meant ‘strange’ or ‘oblique’ - something out of the ordinary. And that meaning would be applied to people too, initially for reasons other than sexuality, but by the late 19th century, it was in use to imply that somebody was not behaving heterosexually.
The first known written instance of ‘queer’ as a slur for gay men was in a letter from 1894 by John Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, complaining that, I quote, ‘snob queers’ had corrupted his sons. One of said sons, Francis, had been rumoured to be having a relationship with the prime minister Lord Rosebery; his other son, Alfred, was famously the lover of Oscar Wilde, who was targeted by Queensberry until he was imprisoned in 1895 for gross indecency, which was then a legal term for sexual acts between men. Who knows how or why the Marquess of Queensberry opted for the word ‘queer’, or whether he even intended it specifically to mean homosexuals. Probably unbeknownst to him, the word was already being used thus - but not as a slur.
AMY SUEYOSHI: The term 'queer' definitely was a flag of same sex sexuality before queer meant queer as we understand it today.
HZ: Amy Sueyoshi is the interim dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University. As a historian, she specialises in race, gender, and sexuality, and her research has found that, as far back as the 1870s, people were describing themselves as queer to denote their sexuality.
AMY SUEYOSHI: This idea of sexual identity was not as solidified or firm as we think of it now. And so people would participate in same sex activities. And they're calling themselves also queer and thinking of their acts as queer, and it doesn't have the same kind of negative connotation that begins to take hold in the 1950s, when homophobes start yelling “queer” and things like that.
HZ: Why did ‘queer’ gain that negative connotation, and why at that point in time?
AMY SUEYOSHI: So there's a number of key points that happened in the turn of the century, 1890s to 1920s: sexology becomes more popular, whereas previously, even after works by Kinsey or Ellis were published, people didn't really read them. And so it's not until several years later that people start reading them, in conjunction with the rise of cities that have urban areas where lots of folks are congregating, combined with - in San Francisco there's Presidios, where military congregates, large groups of men and they kind of engage in activity that is not conventional and not suspect. And so I think it's sort of the nexus of all these three things that historians talk about: the rise of gay consciousness, or modern gay identity as we understand it. And as we see more of a modern gay identity coming to the fore, being more public, then the state says, "Hey, there's something going on; there's a trend. It looks like more people are queer, and they're forming community around it and we need to really keep an eye on this, if not shut it down, because it is going against sort of what we think is the key to a democratic society, the heterosexual household." And so it's in this context really that sort of the rise not only of awareness around gay sexuality and identity comes to the fore, but the state also begins to worry.
HZ: And then what do they do with those fears?
AMY SUEYOSHI: So they start doing things like creating anti-sodomy laws. They might have a clause in their books that says crimes against nature, but it's not really defined. No one really knows what it is. But then it becomes increasingly defined as more police begin to arrest folks for same sex sexual activity. In San Francisco there's an interesting case called the Baker Street Vice Ring: in the 19-teens, a group of pretty well-off white middle class men, if not richer, are arrested for a fellatio ring where they have all gathered on 2525 Baker Street, and they sang songs and read poetry on the first floor and then they gave blowjobs and had anal sex on the second floor. And it went all the way to the California State Supreme Court. There was one particular case where two men were convicted of fellatio. And the judge ruled that the term ‘fellatio’ was not in common understanding; that it wasn't in English; that in fact it was “a word as obscure as Chinese, Japanese characters, or Mexican hieroglyphics” is what the judge says. And under the Constitution you can’t be convicted of a crime that is not easily understood or undefinable. And so all the fellows in the fellatio ring were exonerated. And so that's kind of interesting to think that even in the 19-teens, fellatio is not clearly defined. My friends would argue that even today no one really knows what fellatio means.
HZ: I think some people have figured it out for themselves.
AMY SUEYOSHI: But I think that in that early period it wasn't totally clear what same sex sexuality was or what people did with each other.
HZ: Amy pinpoints the First and Second World Wars as significant for same-gender sexuality, as they allowed large numbers of young men and women to congregate, and towns with lots of service personnel flowing through tended to be more liberal.
AMY SUEYOSHI: There's this real burgeoning of gay and lesbian culture. And as we see gay and lesbian culture burgeoning in the military, people start to freak out. And so there's a public clampdown, and then it gets conflated into other things like the Cold War and how gayness somehow seems equivalent to communism.
HZ: Because communism was seen as subversive; and homosexuality was seen as subversive; therefore communism and homosexuality were the same... Didn’t need to make sense to be an excuse to fire gay and lesbian people from government jobs in the 1950s in the US and UK.
AMY SUEYOSHI: And so it gets then wrapped around xenophobic homophobic tirades and ‘queer’ definitely then began to be used as a sword to vilify people for sure.
HZ: And it was around this time that ‘gay’ became the predominant term that homosexual men would use to describe themselves, as ‘queer’ had become such a brickbat, and, broadly, queer as a slur was directed more at men.
AMY SUEYOSHI: So the gay men are more targeted because of what they do amongst each other is criminalized more explicitly in the law. The law is very concerned about the penis, what people do with the penis. But they're less concerned if there's no penis involved, at least in this early period of persecution. So I do think that queer folks were under severe state as well as a sort of social attack. So social stigma as well as state repression; gay bars being invaded; people getting fired from their jobs. And in this moment, radical gays and lesbians as well as trans folks, they rose up and they decided to form this queer umbrella.
HZ: But it did take many years to open up that umbrella. Or even to call it ‘queer. But a major move towards the word’s reclamation came in 1990. In March of that year, the activist group Queer Nation had formed, and at a Pride march in NYC that June, they handed out a pamphlet called ‘Queers Read This’, in which they explained: “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.”
AMY SUEYOSHI: What's interesting is that in the 1990s in the wake of HIV/AIDS, we see another rise of queer as a way to reclaim the ways in which gay bodies are stigmatized and seen as diseased and so we take back queer to say, “Hey, we're queer, we're proud, we're deviant, we're proud. We don't want to be normal.”
HZ: Queer Nation’s pamphlet also explains why they rejected the suggestion of using ‘gay’ as the blanket term for the movement: “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.”
ERIC MARCUS: There was a school of thought - there is a school of thought - that by embracing a word that was used in a negative way that you can rehabilitate the word and take the sting out of it and change it. I don't happen to subscribe to that school. It takes a lot of energy to change that.
AMY SUEYOSHI: So the one thing that's important to remember is that historically, gay and lesbian activists actually reclaim the word ‘queer’. So it's a word that they're choosing for themselves. So if you're a gay or lesbian and you want to be called gay and lesbian, then great; call yourself gay or lesbian, you don't need to call yourself queer. But it's important for gays and lesbians who dislike the word queer that there's a reason why part of the gay and lesbian population called themselves queer.
TOBIN LOW: With anyone who wants to reclaim a negative term, I think it's also about forcing people to recognise the negativity, that you never want to abandon and pretend this thing didn't happen, that it didn't have a really hurtful negative connotation for a long time. So I think reclaiming is also about forcing people to reckon with what has happened before, and maybe even forcing somebody who might think of it in a negative way - or use it in a negative way rather - I guess it would be like if someone thinks of it as a negative thing they can throw at you, if you use it also, it's taking that power away; it's subverting the power structure of the word.
HZ: ‘Queer’ has had this gradual, incremental development towards becoming this umbrella term, and it’s tricky to find the precise point at which it broadened to encompass gender, expressing trans and non-binary identities. This remains a point of contention for some, who don’t want sexual orientation and gender identity to be united under one term.
AMY SUEYOSHI: I love ‘queer’ because it does kind of blur sexual identity and gender identity. I think that it's a privilege for folks to be able to separate sexuality and gender. Most of us live with it overlapping.
KATHY TU: I would also say that I know that some people don't like the word queer, not because they have a negative association with it, but because they really crave a very individualized focused label. That makes them feel like they are seen, and that's fine too, if that's why you don't want to use the word queer. I get that.
JONATHAN VAN NESS: Can you understand me? Can I understand you? Why can’t I be queer and a cis gay man? I think we can claim both.
AMY SUEYOSHI: There's a way in which queer politics really defines this larger community where gay men and lesbians and other folks can come together and create this unified formidable force to change society. And in that way I've always found ‘queer’ to be productive, not just for obviously gays and lesbians, but all folks who are in the queer community that that also don't fit those neat categories.
KATHY TU: One of the reasons I personally identify as queer is because it's a shortcut for me in trying to tell people what my identity is, because I would say I identify as a bisexual person but I don't date men, and immediately people are like, "Well, that's not bi!" But the thing is, I don't date men because I don't fall in love with them. And so the easiest thing for me is to say that I identify as a lesbian. But then they're like, “But are you, though?”
TOBIN LOW: You have a lot of people defining you.
KATHY TU: I identify as queer instead of having to explain the whole backstory, and maybe I don't really honestly crave a singular label like some people do, which it's totally OK if you do, OK if you don't.
HZ: People who have no real business in your life, why are they so anxious to categorise you?
KATHY TU: Well, I think it might be because we host the podcast about queer life.
TOBIN LOW: To be fair, we invite some of it.
KATHY TU: Yeah yeah yeah yeah. We're queer! And then they're like, “Well, what kind? And they really zeroed in on certain things like I've been asked so many times like what it I mean in the very first episode when I said I'm not completely gay, which was my attempt at explaining to my mom this very fuzzy middle ground that I actually live in.
HZ: Not that you have a heterosexual knee?
TOBIN LOW: I have the most heteronormative feet; they're just straight as can be, my feet. Nothing I can do about it.
HZ: In the late 1980s, people started using initialisms to refer to identities that aren't heterosexual and cisgender. First there was LGB - lesbian gay bisexual - or GLB - gay lesbian bisexual - then expanding to LGBT - lesbian gay bisexual trans -, LGBTQ lesbian gay bisexual trans queer - LGBTQIA - lesbian gay bisexual trans queer intersex asexual, and the initialism keeps expanding, to represent more identities - LGBPTQQIAAGNC+ - lesbian gay bisexual pansexual trans queer questioning intersex asexual allied gender non conforming plus...
JONATHAN VAN NESS: It’s so long!
HZ: Easier to have one syllable.
JONATHAN VAN NESS: Yeah! And I think it’s just a way for us to come together. As marginalised people, I think it’s important for us to come together as a family. Let’s try to be more connected than separated.
HZ: So now, to express spectrums of sexual orientations and gender without having to provide specific categories or an impractically long list of initials, many will just use the word ‘queer’ instead.
ERIC MARCUS: I think that the wonderful thing about this one word - and I'm really pushing myself to say the wonderful things about this word -
HZ: You’re really making a lot of progress today, Eric.
ERIC MARCUS: I hope it's not my therapy session! I think the wonderful thing about the word is it does not make distinctions between gender identity, sexual orientation: we are all so different, and as we continue to evolve in our understanding about sexuality and gender expression, the cumbersome salad of letters to identify the different variations on the human theme will become completely unwieldy. And just to add the plus sign at the end of a long list of letters is going to leave somebody left out, will leave people feeling slighted. So by having one word that's inclusive, people feel included.
TOBIN LOW: I feel like a lot of people are very scared at this moment to just ask someone like how do you identify or what is your truth or whatever. And I think that there's no shame or no fear in asking that question if you're coming from a place of respect, of like, “I want to respect you the way you want to be respected.” So I think if someone uses the word ‘queer’ for themselves and you feel weird about it, it's not that big a deal to be like, "Is it cool if I also refer to you as queer? Is that kosher? How would you prefer I refer to you?" I think that there's a lot of stigma around that conversation; and as long as you're being respectful about it, I think that's totally fine to ask.
ERIC MARCUS: I think, in that regard, it's terrific that young people growing up do have the breadth of options in terms of their gender expression and their sexuality expression that I didn't have growing up; there weren't many choices at all. I think it also offers challenges, and I've watched the children of friends grow up and some have struggled mightily with with great confusion over themselves and feeling that they needed to declare one way or another; and the word ‘queer’ does simply give them the option to make it a placeholder. So you could say “I'm queer” and then you can figure out along the way as you grow through your adolescence where you fit within that within the subcategories, if you choose to place yourself in one of those subcategories. These are all social constructs. Aside from behaviour, the labels are something we've made up. And why should young people - why should any people - be bound by these conventions which are artificial to start with? So the word queer or a word that takes in all of the variations of humanity is not a bad thing. I just wish it weren't the word queer!
Eric Marcus is the host of the podcast Making Gay History, and the author of the book of the same name, an oral history of 45 years of the struggle for equal gay and lesbian rights - the book is being reissued this month.
Kathy Tu and Tobin Low are the hosts of Nancy Podcast from WNYC - you can find it in all the podplaces, and they have a very busy new Facebook group too.
Amy Sueyoshi is the interim dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University. And she has a new book out: it’s called Discriminating Sex, and it’s about sexuality, gender experimentation, and the Asian American experience in San Francisco in the 1890s.
You also heard from Katie Mingle, Katie Herzog, and Jonathan Van Ness from the podcast Getting Curious, and the TV show Queer Eye, the new season of which will be on Netflix worldwide from 15 June.
This episode is sponsored by Bombas, who wondered why athletic shoes have come on in leaps and bounds over the years while the socks you wear inside them are still just the same old knitted tubes your grandpa was wearing. Not the exact same pair - well, maybe, your family might be very into thrift and/or heirlooms. What I meant was, Bombas thought the sock form was well overdue an update. So they spent two years on research and development to perfect the comfort and function of socks: so they don’t slip; they protect you from blisters; they have no seams so won’t chafe; they gently swaddle your foot with support. If even after all that you’re dissatisfied with your Bombas socks, they will refund you. You can save 20% off your first purchase by visiting bombas.com/allusionist and entering ALLUSIONIST in the checkout code space. Treat yourself, and then let grandpa have his socks back, yeah?
The Allusionist belongs to Radiotopia from PRX, and the collective is about to get bigger. This summer, we have new shows joining us, and the first premieres on June 14th. It’s called Zigzag, and it’s from Jen Poyant and Manoush Zomorodi, formerly of the show Note to Self. In Zigzag they’re charting a new path for capitalism, journalism, women and tech. No biggie! We’re very excited to have Zigzag on board, and there are more new things in the pipeline. Find out more at radiotopia.fm/summer.
Radiotopia only exists because of you listeners. Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
midinette, noun: a seamstress in a Paris fashion house. Origin: French, from midi ‘midday’ + dinette ‘light dinner’, because only a short break was taken for lunch.
Surprise insight into working conditions and gendered professions from etymology there.
Try using it in an email today.
This episode was produced by me and Matt Collette at Nancy Podcast. Thanks to Caroline Crampton, Dan Hall, Dave Pickering, Phoebe Judge, Eleanor McDowall, and Gerard Koskovich and Nalini Elias at the GLBT History Museum in San Francisco. Martin Austwick helped produce this episode and he also makes the music for the Allusionist, and will be providing the live soundtrack at the Allusionist gigs in Perth, Australia on 22 June, and Wellington, New Zealand on 16 July. And more live shows will be happening; as soon as tickets are available, I’ll be adding fixtures to the listings at theallusionist.org/events. The show is on Facebook and Twitter - allusionistshow is the handle - and on the website you can hear all the episodes, find out more about each topic, read transcripts, and see the full dictionary entries for the word of the day. All of it is at theallusionist.org.