I don’t want to be called queer. I know as well as anyone else the sting that queer delivers when used as a homophobic slur.
Here at Lesbian and Gay News, queer has been given a good kicking – and it’s a bugbear over at the LGB Alliance too. I respect the anger that many LGB people feel about the word – especially when it is used to describe us without our consent, recruiting us to a divisive politics we do not support.
Mainstream organisations and political figures now use queer freely. English Heritage’s approach is typical; ‘we know that for some it has negative associations, but the Oxford English Dictionary reports that from the late 1980s, ‘queer’ started to be reclaimed as a neutral or positive term. It is now used to capture the complexity and fluidity of sexuality and gender, with the intention of including all experiences and identities rather than defining and limiting them. It is in that spirit of inclusivity that we use the term…’.
Well, English Heritage, you can claim to be using it in whatever spirit you want, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is a word which many find offensive and alienating. Don’t presume to teach us what you think we should think about it.
This applies to every mainstream, non-gay or lesbian organisation using or considering using the word queer: I know terminology is a nightmare and a single, neutral word which could be applied to everyone would be really useful for you, but queer is not that word.
That out of the way, I am here to stick up for queer.
One of the things I dislike most about today’s Stonewalled queer politics is how ignorant it tends to be of gay and lesbian cultural history and how eager it is to overwrite the past with its version of identity politics.
The original reclamation of queer cannot be separated from the AIDS crisis – the period from the early 1980s to the late 1990s before effective antiretrovirals, when the virus was a death sentence. To understand why queer was reclaimed we have to imagine something of what it was like for the people trapped within that nightmare, whose lives were shaped and often brutally shortened by it.
The original reclamation of queer cannot be separated from the AIDS crisis – the period from the early 1980s to the late 1990s before effective antiretrovirals, when the virus was a death sentence.
We are just over a year and a half into the Covid-19 pandemic and a huge amount has happened. The first vaccine was approved for use in the UK just over one year after the first cases were reported in China. Covid-19 has been treated as an emergency – yes, we could argue about all the government’s failures and missteps, but overwhelmingly, and worldwide, Covid-19 has been treated as an urgent situation.
Now imagine the opposite.
In March 1981 reports emerge of a rare kind of pneumonia killing young gay men in Los Angeles and New York. The New York Native, then the city’s main gay publication, reports this in May. In June the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publishes its first warning. In July, The New York Times prints a report on page 20: ‘RARE CANCER SEEN IN 41 HOMOSEXUALS’. It would take almost two more years and six hundred deaths for The Times to put AIDS on its front page.
Although my focus here is AIDS’ defining impact upon the gay community, this is only one part of the story of AIDS. The first cases were a mixture of white gay men, mostly young, alongside gay and straight Black men, and several Black children.
The mainstream media and the government were indifferent, but within the gay community itself awareness was stirring. In Autumn 1981, writer Larry Kramer hosted a meeting of eighty men in his apartment out of which, the next year, the AIDS service provider Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) was born.
Kramer was famously passionate and confrontational, so much so that GMHC ousted him in 1983. Two years later, Kramer’s play The Normal Heart spilled the beans about what happened, laying bare a tension which often exists in activist organisations between those who want to work quietly behind the scenes and those who want to make a public stink. In 1987, Kramer founded ACT UP – more radical and noisy than the careful, consensual GMHC.
This divide between the well-behaved gays and the trouble-causers played out through the 1980s and into the 90s, and not just in the USA; Stonewall and Peter Tatchell’s Outrage! mirrored this dynamic in the UK.
But by 1991 there were still no effective drugs, and politicians and the mainstream media still didn’t seem to care about dying gays. In the UK, we also had Section 28.
How can those of us who were not there (including me) possibly imagine what this felt like? I was 21 in 1991, closeted and ignorant. I discovered the story of AIDS much later, when I was diagnosed HIV+ aged 32. So I claim no first-hand experience of the AIDS crisis. I was alive, but I was not there. But I have tried to imagine myself there, and wondered what I would have done – whether I would have had the courage to be part of something like ACT UP. I don’t know.
To get a sense of those times, of the frustration and fear, listen to Larry Kramer exploding into anger at a 1991 meeting – his famous ‘plague’ speech.
This is the background to the re-emergence of queer.
Queer was reclaimed by a section of the gay community who were compelled to respond both to a homophobic society and what they saw as the apathy of the rest of the gay community.
It was the founding of Queer Nation in March 1990 which pushed queer into the limelight. A younger and more confrontational offshoot of Kramer’s ACT UP, Queer Nation burned brightly and was all over in less than two years. One of their earliest and typically controversial acts was the distribution at New York Pride of a leaflet titled QUEERS READ THIS. Here’s how it begins:
How can I tell you. How can I convince you, brother, sister that your life is in danger: That everyday you wake up alive, relatively happy, and a functioning human being, you are committing a rebellious act. You as an alive and functioning queer are a revolutionary. There is nothing on this planet that validates, protects or encourages your existence. It is a miracle you are standing here reading these words. You should by all rights be dead. Don’t be fooled, straight people own the world and the only reason you have been spared is you’re smart, lucky or a fighter.
Queer was reclaimed by a section of the gay community who were compelled to respond both to a homophobic society and what they saw as the apathy of the rest of the gay community. Similar leaflets were distributed in London. The reclaimers of queer took a risk in trying to shock a much larger group into taking the always-intertwined combination of AIDS and homophobia deadly seriously. Queer was decidedly ours and no-one else’s, a vital shot of ‘fuck you’ adrenalin into the bloodstream of polite, assimilationist, ‘please-may-we’ activism.
Above all, queer was a response to an emergency.
What does any of this have to do with today?
Today’s use of queer enrages me not because it is a continuation of the 1990’s reclamation (it isn’t) but because it sucks the anger and the sex out of 1990s queer, erasing the history – the people – from which that reclamation emerged. Today’s use of queer dishonours the struggles of those who fought AIDS and indifference in the 80s and 90s.
I hope that while we oppose today’s use of queer, we can also acknowledge why it was reclaimed and who did the reclaiming. No matter how much the the contemporary use of queer angers us, let’s not blame the past for the errors of today.
If you hate queer with every atom of your body and wish it had never been reclaimed at all, please at least try to empathise with the people who felt it was what they needed to survive. Give them the benefit of the doubt and perhaps take a moment to reflect on what they achieved, what they endured, and what they lost.
Jonny Best is a writer, arts producer, musician, and researcher. He is also the former Artistic Director of Queer Up North International Festival.