Queer as Myth
By Skylor J. Andrews
According to Roland Barthes’ early work, there are two systems of signification—denotation and connotation. Denotation refers to the literal, dictionary definition of a word, while connotation the more associative meaning of a word. Barthes says that when connotations become naturalized that they help people understand the world around them they become myths. He does not mean myth in the traditional sense (conjuring images of Zeus and Thor), but in a theoretical sense. As Barthes sees it here, myths are cultural constructions that are no longer questioned, for they are seen as inherent or God-given. This can be dangerous, because certain worldviews can seem unchallengeable, or as Barthes puts it, “Myth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification and making contingency appear eternal” (Barker 91). Myth can be seen clearly as a fluctuating, culturally created process of naturalizing words into everyday language through the story of the word queer, which, after its murky origins, was for centuries considered a slur before becoming an umbrella term for the LGBT community.
The origin of the word queer has not found a widely accepted consensus. Did queer derive from “the Proto-Indo-European morpheme ‘*twerk,’ which means ‘to twist, turn, wind, or cut,’”? Perhaps it derives from a Middle Irish word “cúar”, meaning “bent” (Cara). Even the Oxford English Dictionary states, “Origin, Early 16th century: considered to be from German quer ‘oblique, perverse’, but the origin is doubtful.” The only through line of the various origins is the concept of queer meaning not straight, even centuries before contemporary concepts of sexuality existed.
Whatever its origins, queer definitively came into the English language in the 16th century, appearing first in Scotland as a term meaning “peculiar” or “strange”, which would go on to become the denotative meaning for centuries to come (Hall). The print debut of queer was in a transcription of an event that took place in the court of King James IV, known as The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie. The two men, Dumbar and Kennedie, were tasked with exchanging verbal barbs and insults for the entertainment of the king. It was here that the insult “Hey, here comes our own queer clerk!” introduced the word queer to the page (Johnson). Queer shared its print birthplace with another familiar word: shit (Cara). In areas of etymology, the latter’s debut in the same 16th century transcription completely overshadows the presence of queer, which perhaps may be explained by the rapid shift from one connotation to another.
The word queer shifted meaning, quickly becoming a slur, but not before becoming part of a popular Northern English saying. “There’s nowt so queer as folk”, which means that nothing is as strange as people’s behavior, is also of precisely unknown origin (Cambridge Dictionary). Some suggest that it may have cropped up alongside a variety of other English expressions popularized in the 17th and 18th centuries such as “queer bub” and “shove the queer”, none of which had particularly good connotations (Cara).
Unfortunately, it did not take long for queer to expand in meaning from “odd” to a slur against homosexual people, particularly gay men. The first public usage of queer as a derogatory term was by John Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, in 1894 (Hall). This man happened to be the father of Lord Alfred Douglas who was Oscar Wilde’s lover. The Marquess wrote toAlfred, suspicious about the untimely death of his other son, Francis. While secretary to Lord Rosebery, Francis has become part of a gay sex scandal. In his letter, The Marquess blamed Lord Rosebery for Francis’s death, complaining, of the “Queer Snobs like Rosebery.” This letter would later surface in a court case that became famous, in which Lord Rosebery prosecutedOscar Wilde on charges of sodomy, because Rosebery was being blackmailed by the Marquess with the threat of being outed (Cara).
These negative connotations of queer followed it into the 20th century, becoming the predominant way it was used. A few attempts were made to use the word in a positive sense. Gertrude Stein had a queer-identified character in her book QED in 1903. However, these attempts were drowned out by the use of queer as a slur or defamation against the homosexual community. In a1970 American Speech article, linguistics researcher Julia Penelope stated that through interviews with gays and lesbians it was clear that queer was a familiar derogatory word not used by the emerging gay community (Cara). At this point, queer was high on the list of slurs for gay people and would stay there until the 1980’s.
Amid the AIDS epidemic and the punk music scene, there came a group of young gay folks who wanted to reclaim the word queer. The 1980’s saw queer used as a political tool and social badge of honor for those within the gay community. Political protests in the streets featured memorable slogans such as “We’re Here, We’re Queer, We Will Not Live in Fear”, a phrase that resurfaces every so often, even as recently as after the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016 (Hall). An organization called Queer Nation formed in 1990 in response to the rise in hate crimes againstgays in New York City. Using slogans such as “We’re Here…”, Queer Nation followed a radical agenda at the peak of the AIDS crisis to eradicate homophobia and increase positive visibility of gay individuals (Queer Nation). The use of queer instead of the more period-appropriate gay was an intentional move toward a greater understanding of sexuality and the concept of “not straight”. It was also an early move toward inclusivity of more identities outside the commonly known gay and lesbian labels, as bluntly highlighted in the now famous anonymously published leaflet “Queers Read This”:
Using ‘queer’ is a way of reminding us how we are perceived by the rest of the world.
It’s a way of telling ourselves we don’t have to be witty and charming people who keep our lives discreet and marginalised; we use queer as gay men loving lesbians and lesbians loving being queer. Queer, unlike GAY, doesn’t mean MALE. (quoted by Hall)
These days, the reclamation set in motion in the 1990’s is embraced by a good deal of the LGBTcommunity, particularly millennials. A Harris Poll conducted on GLAAD’s behalf found that20% of millennials identify as LGBTQ—a significant increase from 12% and 7% in Gen X’ersand Baby Boomers, respectively (GLAAD). Given that millennials were raised during the timewhen the naturalization of queer into mainstream language started, it makes sense they wouldtake on the label, seeing its practical and political purposes, increasingly unclouded by its
derogatory use. The inclusion of ‘Q’ in the continually expanding acronym is one indication of amove toward acceptance of queer as no longer a slur, but an identity label and even as anencompassing term for the community at large. Popularization of queer studies and queer theoryas academic fields has furthered that acceptance in recent years. However, not all LGBT folksare comfortable with this move, particularly those who were raised in the mid-20th century andgrew up with queer used as a derogatory term against them, similar to faggot or dyke. The pushback seems to be a dying cause, as more and more mainstream usage of queer continues to appear. For instance, Huffington Post once called their LGBT column “Gay Voices.” In 2016 they changed it to “Queer Voices”, stating that, “We believe it’s the most inclusive and empowering word to speak to and about the community” (Michelson).
Through the examination of queer, one can see how Barthes’ concept of myth applies to our own language. The denotation started as “strange”. Over a couple centuries, queer took on some connotative meanings, showing up in phrases and expressions regarding negative experiences. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the shift from “strange” to slur was so profound that it could be argued the denotative meaning had changed. This is especially fair to say when remembering that “strange” became the connotative meaning for a word most people in the mid-20th century would have instantly (and negatively) associated with homosexuality. Through the difficult process of word reclamation, late 20th century activists started a re-naturalization of queer to mean “not straight/heterosexual”. Today, queer is a common word that refers to the LGBT community or queer-identified individuals, and it has become synonymous with gayness in a pervasive manner. While some still argue about its use, the overwhelming trend of accepting queer as the label is likely to continue until it is fully integrated into our language with the new denotative meaning.
Barker, Chris, and Emma A. Jane. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. Sage Publications,
Cara. “More Than Words: Queer, Part 1 (The Early Years).” Autostraddle, 6 Aug. 2017.
Dunbar, William. “The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy.”
Hall, Jake. “Tracing the History of the Word ‘Queer’.” Dazed, 28 July 2016.
Johnson, Simon. “Rap Music Originated in Medieval Scottish Pubs, Claims American
Professor.” The Telegraph, 28 Dec. 2008.
Michelson, Noah. “Here’s Why HuffPost Gay Voices Just Changed Its Name To HuffPost Queer
Voices.” The Huffington Post, 3 Feb. 2016.
“New GLAAD Study Reveals Twenty Percent of Millennials Identify as LGBTQ.” GLAAD, 1
“Nowt so Queer as Folk.” There’s Nowt so Queer as Folk Definition in the Cambridge English
Dictionary, Cambridge Dictionary.
“Queer.” Oxford Dictionaries, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/queer.
QueerNationNY. “Queer Nation NY History.” Queer Nation NY.
Skylor J. Andrews is a recent graduate of Coe College in Cedar Rapids, IA, where he double majored in Communication Studies and Creative Writing. A queer, transgender poet, he writes about queerness, pop culture, new media, and American history and politics. Currently taking a gap year before graduate school, he enjoys spending free time with friends watching The X-Files, Adventure Time, and BoJack Horseman.