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'Queer' evolution: how changes in a word's connotation hint at changes in society

November 3, 2003

CHICAGO — Something queer is happening to the word "queer." Originally a synonym for "odd" or "unusual," the word evolved into an anti-gay insult in the last century, only to be reclaimed by defiant gay and lesbian activists who chanted: "We're here, we're queer, get used to it."

Now "queer" is sneaking into the mainstream - and taking on a hipster edge as a way to describe any sexual orientation beyond straight.

Jay Edwards, a 28-year-old gay man from Houston, has noticed it.

"Hey Jay," a straight co-worker recently said. "Have you met the new guy? He's really cute and queer, too. Just your type!" It's the kind of exchange that still makes many - gay or straight -wince. That's because, in the 1920s and '30s the word "queer" became synonymous with "pansy," "sissy" and even "pervert," says Gregory Ward, a Northwestern University linguist who teaches a course on language and sexuality.

Now, Ward says, the increasing use of "queer" - as in the prime-time TV show titles Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Queer as Folk - is changing the word's image.

"It's really losing the hurtful and quasi-violent nature it had," Ward says.

Trish McDermott, vice president of "romance" at the Match.com online dating service, says she's seeing the word appear more often in personal ads.

The title of one current ad: "Nice Guy for the Queer Guy." Meanwhile, a recent review in the Chicago Tribune's Metromix entertainment guide defined the crowd in a new upscale bar as "model-types and young clubbers amid dressy Trixies, middle-aged Gold Coast cigar-chompers and queer-eyed straight guys" (the latter term referring to straight men who've spiffed themselves up).

And while some in the gay community began using the word in the last decade or two as an umbrella term for "gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered," today's young people say that "queer" encompasses even more.

"I love it because, in one word, you can refer to the alphabet soup of gay, lesbian, bisexual, questioning, 'heteroflexible,' 'omnisexual,' 'pansexual' and all of the other shades of difference in that fluid, changing arena of human sexuality," says 27-year-old Stacy Harbaugh. She's the program coordinator for the Indiana Youth Group, a drop-in center in Indianapolis for youth who may place themselves into any of those categories.

"I find myself attracted to boy-like girls and girl-like boys," Harbaugh adds. "If 'lesbian' or 'bi' doesn't seem to fit, 'queer' certainly does."

Heteroflexible? Pansexual? The growing list of terms can be downright boggling.

James Cross, a 26-year-old Chicagoan, personally likes the term "metrosexual," meant to describe straight men like him who are into designer clothes, love art and fashion and even enjoy shopping (much like "queer-eyed straight guys").

He's also noticed the word "queer" being bandied about more often, especially at the public relations firm where he works. But he says women are "definitely more comfortable" with it.

"I hate to admit it, but I certainly wear masks with the term.

When I'm at work and talking with women, I'm down with it," he says. "But when I'm out on the rugby pitch or drinking beer with my 'bros,' I'm just one of the guys."

Indeed, use of a word that carries so much baggage can cause confusion.

Andy Rohr, a 26-year-old gay man living in Boston, noted that when a straight co-worker told him she liked the show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. "She whispered the word 'queer,"' he says.

Dan Cordella says he, too, is perplexed about what he "can and can't say."

"An entire generation of suburban youth was taught to practically walk on eggshells with their wording around those that, one, chose an alternative lifestyle and, two, were of a different ethnic background," says Cordella, a 26-year-old straight man who lives in New York.

Ward, the Northwestern linguist, says that people are wise to use "queer" carefully because it is still "very context-sensitive." "It really matters who says it and why they're saying it," he says.

Edwards, from Houston, says he likes when straight people are comfortable using it.

"If they can say the word with as much casualness and confidence as my gay friends, it lets me know that they are comfortable with who I am," he says.

Rohr, from Boston, is less sure about its use in everyday conversation but says it works with the Queer Eye title because its use is "archaic and unexpected."

"The bottom line is, I think the term has lost its political potency, if it ever had any, and has just become campy," he says.

And a spokesman for one conservative Christian group that monitors the media says he's "glad that 'queer' might be losing its edge in terms of being an insult."

"It's not a particular word we're concerned with," says Ed Vitagliano, of the American Family Association in Tupelo, Mississippi. "It's that the media and the entertainment industries are such powerful transmitters of values for only one side of this controversial issue."

Others, especially those with strong memories of the word as an insult, still find its use hurtful. "I believe this word continues to marginalize us," says Robin Tyler, a California-based activist and lesbian who's in her 60s.

That lingering negativity was apparent last month, for instance, when a Senate committee questioned federal appellate nominee Claude Allen about his use of the word "queer" when he was a press aide to Sen. Jesse Helms. Allen said he didn't intend it as a slur against gay people.

But incidents like those are proof that "queer" will be slow to shed its negative connotation, says researcher Caitlyn Ryan.

"It will take a long time to transition into common use in middle America," says Ryan, a clinical social worker at San Francisco State University who is conducting a long-term survey of gay, lesbian and bisexual youth and their families.

She has found that use of the word "queer" is most common among college students and young adults in their 20s - but says that, even in the most gay-friendly parts of California, it is rarely used by gay men and lesbians older than 40, or among people who aren't white.

She also notes that it took years for mainstream newspapers to use the word "gay" in place of "homosexual," a term many people now see as cold and clinical.

But some young people don't seem too worried if the rest of America is slow to embrace the word.

"I can still walk down the street and have boys lean out the windows of pickup trucks yelling 'Dyke!' or 'Queer!"' says Harbaugh from Indianapolis. "But instead of being frightened, I simply say, 'Thanks!"' –Sapa-AP

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