The Power of Words
Historically many social movements that have centered around oppressed groups of people have consciously made an effort to "reclaim" certain terms used as pejorative identifiers. One interesting part of this "reclamation" process is that the terms originally were not necessarily considered pejorative, but because of their association with the dominating subset of the culture the terms became pejorated. Take for instance the term nigger. Its origin comes from a very simple reference to the descent of African people and their skin color. However, as the issue of racism became less tolerated the term took on a pejorative nature because it was no longer an acceptable term to use when classifying an individual by her/his race. Part of the pejoration then can be attributed to a shift in perspective when a dominant cultural group begins to face opposition. Another part of the pejoration can be attributed to the nature of the word itself. In the case of nigger it is obvious to understand from our perspective today in a country that has struggled through the civil-rights movement and abolition of slavery. We can see that using such terms as nigger can be and most often is very offensive because of the historical weight of the word's use. However, an interesting turn of events can be witnessed as a "reclamation" of such terms. I use quotes around reclamation because it is not necessarily taking something back that was once present or used, but it is more of a theft of the word from the dominant culture and used as a self-identifier of the minority group. We see this today in the use of the term nigger especially in the gangster rap sub-culture as well as many facets of African American cultural groups. This theft is very often a conscious act by the minority group in order to weaken the pejorative power of the term, or to demystify it. Once the word is claimed by the minority group as a self-identifying term, the dominant cultural group has very little oppressive power to wield with that word. This same process of pejoration and consequent amelioration can also be seen in the history of the word queer. However, the amelioration, or thievery as I'm calling it, is still very much in-process. The word queer has had a rather interesting progression in its amelioration process that has been different from the word nigger as well. Through analyzing its colloquial and formal uses one can see this process taking place and expect that one day the term queer will only have a history of being a pejorative term and be completely ameliorated.
It seems appropriate to begin the process of examining the word queer at the very beginning or best estimation of when the word entered the English language. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the predecessor to the word queer entered the English language as a direct borrowing from Norman French in the mid to late 1300's as a verb meaning to ask, inquire, or to question ("queer, v.1"). To trace the roots back further, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, queer was borrowed from Spanish in the tenth century CE and its derivative can even be found in classical and post-classical Latin. All of the historical roots of the word queer meant to inquire or to question. There is very little evidence, however, that this use of the term queer is actually the root of the adjectival form. In 1513 CE Gavin Douglas, in his translation of Virgil's Aeneid into English, is the first person historically to use the word queer in print as an adjective meaning "strange, odd, peculiar, eccentric...of questionable character" ("queer, adj.1"). A folk-etymology could very easily be assumed that there is some link between the older use of the word queer as a verb and it's later adjectival form; however, according to the Oxford English Dictionary the two are not clearly linked. Nonetheless it isn't until 1894 that the word queer is associated with people who were identified as homosexual ("queer, n.2"), and its first use as an adjective to describe individuals identified as homosexual was in 1914 in the Los Angeles Times ("queer, adj.1"). At that point in history having homosexual contact was illegal. Therefore it was originally a term used by the dominant culture to identify an oppressed minority group in much the same way as nigger was.
The thievery of the word queer happened in a very interesting way that diverged from the way in which nigger began its amelioration. Academics started using the term as the most neutral to describe a subset of the feminist and LGBT movements of the 1960's that included both gay men and lesbians. I could not get my hands on the book Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography by David Halperin, but there is a great quote from it on the wikipedia page entry for queer theory that explains the conscious efforts to ameliorate the word queer in the realm of academia. "Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence. ‘Queer’ then, demarcates not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative" ("Queer Theory"). This quote also makes a stab at defining the word queer not as a term with the lexical definition of homosexual but defined as "whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant." Not only did the efforts of the queer theory movement take conscious effort to ameliorate the word queer, but it also strove to use the word in a more broad sense of any entity that went against the dominant culture. This then allowed the word to not only ameliorate but broaden as well.
The broadening of the term queer is seen today in some of its colloquial uses, however it's also taking on a new narrowing that seems unique to identifying terms like it. Queer is beginning to be used as a term to describe individuals that don't necessarily fit into the categories of gender and sexuality that are available today. This is seen firsthand in the term gender-queer. Individuals that identify as gender-queer don't necessarily have the outward presentation that conforms to either of our stereotypical presentations of masculine or feminine. These individuals quite often have outward gender presentations that portray pieces of both genders. The term is also used by many people as a self-identifier when they don't fit into categories of sexuality. This can be seen in the existence of a forum group on the social networking site Fetlife.com. On that website there is a group titled "Kinky Queers, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexuals, Trans, Gender Queer, InterSex." This title very obviously puts people identified as queer in a category separate from the others and also includes gender queer as another category. In this example of "demarcation [of] positionality," as Halperin describes, it can be seen that the word queer is no longer being used as a term exclusively meaning homosexual or individuals that are identified as homosexual. It has now not only ameliorated as a self-identifying term, but it has also broadened as a catchall term for things other than sexuality that is not the normative sexuality.
This movement toward amelioration has also relied heavily on a need for agreement between the implication of the speaker and the inference of the listener. When there is a disconnect between the two there can be some quite dramatic consequences. An example of a phrase in which this disconnect could quite easily happen is, "You're so queer." If the term had completely ameliorated at this point there would be no pejorative bias, and therefore the individual the statement was directed to would not have any biased feelings. However, if any person I didn't know came up to me and said, "You're so queer," I'd be liable to get into a fistfight. This demonstrates that the term still has much of its pejorative bias still in place. So it begs the question of whether or not the word queer will eventually ameliorate completely, or if it will maintain a portion of its cultural bias like the word nigger has. In any case it can be seen quite clearly that a conscious shift is being experienced in the pejorative use of the word queer.