If you asked queer people if words matter, or if the labels have ever mattered, most will give you a resounding YES. When it comes down to it, words matter when we are grappling with who we are, from the viewpoint of heart, mind and body, as we define our sexual orientation, our gender identity and our gender expression.
Defining ourselves is loaded with nuances, mostly foisted on us by family, culture, society and even country. Often we are forced to grapple with words that hold highly negative connotations, loaded with stereotypes, and misconceptions, which can leave long lasting trauma. As Jews we know this all too well. Just think of ‘Blood Libel’ and what might immediately come to mind are pictures that were used to portray Jews being vampirish, trying to take the blood of Christians, particularly children. It took centuries to eradicate the impact of that story from our collective conscience.
Today in advocacy work by the LGBTIQA+ community, time is spent on having to unlearn, as we question who we really are and what words, and our associations with them, have come to mean. We do this to be able to embrace ourselves and find the words we are most comfortable to describe ourselves with. This is a good entry point for discussing why ‘Querying my Identity’ is so critical.
I was recently approached by the parent of a friend, and asked to please explain why I, and others use the word ‘Queer’, as opposed to gay, lesbian, LGBTIQA+, etc. ‘Queer’ makes them distinctly uncomfortable. Appreciating the candour and sensitivity with which they raised their concerns, I was happy to oblige.
The word ‘Queer’ has had different meanings at times throughout history and in different places. Originally, from the 16th century, it referred to strangeness or difference in English-speaking countries. References are found in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, and there was an American phrase ‘queer as a three dollar bill’ — referring to something that was odd or even suspicious.
It appears the first recorded use as a derogatory word, specifically abusing homosexuals, was found in an 1894 letter by the Marquess of Queensberry, accusing Oscar Wilde of having an affair with his son, Alfred Douglas. It quickly became the term used to refer to same-sex sexual relations, and anyone with same-sex attractions. Hurled as an insult, in much the same way the phrase “that’s so gay” is now used, intending to put down something that is seen to be effeminate or camp — feeding off stereotypes about a person’s (usually male) sexuality and mannerisms.
Reclaiming the word began with the Stonewall Riots of 1969, the start of the current Pride movement… Activists coined the slogan “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.” as a deliberate strategy, to nullify the very word used against them. In the late 1980s Queer Nation used it in a way that allowed people the use of a neutral word to describe themselves, and as a positive form of self-identity. As a non-binary word, many have found it as a way to define themselves without having to be more explicit about their gender.
Today, given the alphabet soup of the LGBTIQA+ spectrum, something that is also rather fluid, many of us, use it as an umbrella term to refer to anyone who does not identify themselves as heterosexual or cis-gender. We do however recognise that for some, ‘queer’, still holds a lot of pain, as they experienced it as a form of abuse, and, we need to be aware of what effect our words have on others.
In the words of Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar: A person should always be careful in the way he formulates his responses. (Talmud Megillah 25b) A truly wise person considers the effects words might have on others.
From that view, consider this: it’s not our own feelings about words we need to consider, but rather the feelings of the other person, and the words they choose to identify themselves with that is more important.
Info sourced from Queer: a graphic history by MJ Barker, J. Scheele, Aish.com & www.tolerance.org
Want to hear more ? Please like the Facebook page Jewish LGBTIQA and their Allies and connect with me.
By Jacqui Benson
Jacqui Benson is an activist, speaker, social entrepreneur, who thinks we can all play a role in making the world a place for all people to live in peace – we just need to work together on this one.
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