Words are powerful. They have the means to uplift or to tear down. Many words are only imbued with power because of how they are strung together or because the speaker/writer is charismatic or hateful. Some words are imbued with power because of how they have been specifically used. In the case of pejoratives, some have centuries of ugliness held within them.
I was coming out as a baby dyke in the 1980s, a time of reclamation for many words relating to being gay. Like “dyke”, for instance. It has always somewhat amused me that I never had any negative associations with the word “dyke” and I used it from the beginning. To me it’s a strong word, both in sound and meaning.
The word “lesbian” on the other hand flustered me. It was imbued with all sorts of emotions. Not negative, because I was lucky to escape internalizing any homophobia. But I think because I’d been questioning whether I was a lesbian or not for several years before coming out it was a word that was too personal at first, if that makes any sense. The first time I ever applied it to myself in a conversation with another person (who was a lesbian) I tripped over it. Embarrassing!
Because I had not had to deal with any real blatant homophobia directed my way, or internalized negative associations with being gay, prior to coming out, many of the historically pejorative words simply had no demeaning power for me. It helps that I was a teen in the 70s and coming out as a young adult in the 80s. I suspect my feelings may have been quite a bit different if I’d been struggling to accept myself in the 1950s.
So I came to the gay community at a time when “queer” was in the process of being reclaimed. And I liked the word. If you remove the emotional baggage of the word being hurled in hatred or disgust, you come up with a not-so-bad descriptive word. We are queer in the sense that we have our own subculture and we are only a small segment of the overall population.
But what I like most about the word is its inclusiveness. Rather than having to string out all the “alphabet soup” labels, I can say the word “queer” and it’s understood that it applies to everyone under the umbrella. Not only that, but it applies to people who are not so easily defined under one of the existing labels.
Personally I have no problem with the older labels, and in fact will have to admit that because of the time in which I came out, they have deep meaning to me and I cling to them. I am a lesbian and that label fits me perfectly, so I hold on to them even though the world has moved on and our understanding of orientation has expanded. The labels have lost some of their usefulness due to the fact they are in many cases too narrow or specific to accurately apply to many individuals.
Not so the word “queer.” No matter what your orientation (other than straight), no matter how muddled your self-definition might be because you’re not quite exactly this or that in how you perceive your own reality, the word “queer” covers it. And it covers not only orientation in regards to how you relate to other genders, but how you define (or refuse to define) your own gender. It’s a good, multi-purpose word that includes, rather than excludes, and I like it.