A queer mix-up: one person's jibe is another's sense of identity
Hughes made one particularly interesting point, questioning whether the majority of people would understand “queer” in the academic sense. He’s probably right. Despite the progress made in LGBT visibility, there remains a disconnect between straight and gay people in terms of vocabulary and the context of its use.
Specialised vocabulary is used by various groups as a bonding code and to describe terms unique to that group, from teenagers to gays, prisoners to politicians. We all have terminology unique to our social sector.
What this queer mix-up illustrates is not only the diversity within the LGBT community – that some gay men find a term divisive and others are fine with it – but also the disconnect between whether people external to a certain group are allowed to engage with those terms.
Perhaps a reluctance to engage with gay vocabulary is about an uncertainty of what contexts it is acceptable in. 50 Cent has “permission” to use the word “nigger” but a white rapper doesn’t.
The alternative club night Dive, which I co-run with Vickey Curtis, is aimed at gay and straight people, and we pitch it as a night for “queers, dykes, pool sharks and riot grrrls”.
But there is a difference between a gay woman referring to another as a dyke, or a gay man referring to another as a queen, and a drunk person hurling those same words across the street as an insult at someone at 3am.
One of the most popular new gay nights in Dublin takes place at Andrews Lane Theatre on Fridays and is called Fag. Faggot was once a bundle of sticks, then a derogatory term for an old woman, then fag as a subservient British public-school boy, and eventually an insult directed at gay men. Now it’s a club night in Dublin.
Dyke was shortened from bulldyker in 1920s America, perhaps meaning a masculine woman. It has been reclaimed by everyone from Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For comics and the Dykes on Bikes lesbian motorcycle clubs. The women’s night at Dublin Pride is now referred to as Dyke Night.
Abrasive, maybe, but the reclamation of such previously pejorative terms is a powerful step in diluting their power when used as insults.