Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

Queer: when one person’s jibe is another’s sense of identity

I wrote this article about the word ‘queer’ in the paper today. 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 …

Wed, Jan 23, 2013, 11:07


I wrote this article about the word ‘queer’ in the paper today.

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 It can be used as a rather outdated word for strange, a gruff insult to a gay man, or, in the case of its use in a theatre review, a way of describing a certain aesthetic.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.”

Alternative takes

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.

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.