A queer mix-up: one person's jibe is another's sense of identity
A Liveline debate over the use of 'queer' in a pantomime review highlighted the evolution of the word and its power to divide
What’s in a word? On a recent Liveline, TV3 presenter Alan Hughes recently voiced his dissatisfaction over the use of “queer” in an Irish Times review of a pantomime he produced and starred in. But it’s a word with a complex modern meaning.
Unlike more seemingly aggressive pejorative terms such as “faggot” and “dyke”, which have also evolved from other definitions, “queer” occupies a unique space in gay culture given that it’s a homonym. It can be used as a rather outdated word for strange, a gruff insult to a gay man, or, in the case of its use in a theatre review, a way of describing a certain aesthetic.
The evolution of the word is an interesting one. The word has been reclaimed to describe sexualities, lifestyles, genders, artistic practices or worldviews that are not heteronormative. In the 1990s, its reappropriation by elements of the LGBT community in the US has brought it to its current understanding as something that describes a type of “outsider”, and so the LGBT acronym sometimes has a Q tagged to the end.
It is also used as an umbrella term instead of “gay” when describing a community that is not just “gay” but also lesbian, transgender, bisexual and everything in-between, and hence it is used by the Irish Queer Archive, an organisation based in the National Library that collects LGBT material – everything from newspaper cuttings to event posters.
Alan Hughes was offended by the word, as were other callers to RTÉ Radio 1 that day. “It can be a generational thing, if people have gone through a time where the word was thrown at them,” says theatre-maker Phillip McMahon.
McMahon’s company, Thisispopbaby, established a festival of performance, theatre and talk called Queer Notions at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin’s Temple Bar. “I think the word has a fierce quality and is politicised. In the way I have used it, [it is about] people working through queer theory and a queer aesthetic.
“There were so many people involved with Queer Notions, straight and gay, so we created Queer Notions to be a platform for outsiders, and that made sense to us.”
The reclamation of the word can also be seen in television programmes such as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Queer as Folk. The Irish artist Will St Leger publishes an alternative LGBT magazine called Butcher Queers.
I often refer to alternative bands (Gossip, CocoRosie), social spaces (Seomra Spraoi), club nights that appeal to a polysexual alternative crowd, events (Alternative Miss Ireland), artists and actors (James Franco), film-makers (Gus Van Sant), festivals (Gaze Dublin International Film Festival), and so on as queer, regardless of their gender or sexuality. And it’s certainly not meant as an insult.