Queer, Umbrella Terms, and Alternative Language
Can slurs be reclaimed?
There has long been contentious and problematic language surrounding the LGBTQIA+ community. Even the aforementioned acronym can be controversial, as our understanding of non-heterosexual, non-cis/non-binary, and generally non-normative identities expand and more letters are needed to encompass the whole spectrum. One word often used for such an umbrella term is “queer,” but this isn’t universally accepted, either.
In its early usage, “queer” meant strange, unusual, peculiar (Hall 2016; Perlman 2019), though it could also be used to describe someone who was giddy or drunk (Higgins 2016). It was used to indicate homosexuality by those inside and outside of the LGBTQIA+ community in the early 1900s, though it was generally seen as negative (Higgins 2016). It emerged as a slur in 1894 due to its use by John Douglas, the Ninth Marquess of Queensberry and father of one of Oscar Wilde’s lovers. Douglas described gay men as “Snob Queers” in a court case against Wilde that resulted in him being charged with sodomy (Hall 2016; Perlman 2019). Using queer as a slur became especially popular around the 1950s, which is likely why older generations tend to find the term more offensive than younger generations (Higgins 2016; Hall 2016).
In the 80s and 90s, however, the word “queer” found itself being reclaimed in the wake of the AIDS epidemic and the resultant protests (Hall 2016; Higgins 2016; Perlman 2019). More people began self-identifying as queer, and organizations were founded with the label queer boldly declared in their name, such as Queer Nation, which stated its use of the term “disarmed homophobes” (Perlman 2019). This era is where the well-known motto “We’re here, we’re queer, and we will not live in fear” was born (Hall 2016).
However, reclamation of slurs is never a smooth process, and as such, there are still a lot of people who believe the word should never be used, or only used for personal self-identification, and not as an umbrella term for the whole community (Hall 2016; Perlman 2019).
But, some argue, the “alphabet soup” approach of using an acronym for an umbrella term can be confusing, frustrating, and non-inclusive if letters get left out (Hall 2016; Higgins 2016). While queer is a simple one-word alternative to this, it’s still a very charged and sensitive word that not everyone is comfortable being described with, even if it’s as an umbrella term and not an individual label.
There are other options, though.
Some people have begun using GRSM (gender, romantic, and sexual minorities) as a much simpler, alternative acronym to the current alphabet soup situation. This label is considered more inclusive, because it explicitly acknowledges romantic identity, which can differ from sexual identity (Aishhha 2013). For example, someone could be asexual biromantic. One potential criticism of this acronym is that it doesn’t make space for intersex people. Personally, I would suggest a slight modification changing it to GRISM to a) add an “I” for intersex, and b) make the acronym more easily pronounceable. However, I haven’t seen this particular iteration being used.
Another option is the acronym MOGAI (Marginalized orientations, gender identities, and intersex). Under this umbrella, both romantic and sexual orientations are included under the broad label of “orientation,” all gender identities are included, and intersex people are included without additional letters needing to be added. The acronym is also easily pronounced (sebasty 2014).
All in all, language around this community is complicated, because of traumatizing history, ongoing oppression, and the expansiveness of these identity spectrums. There might never be any one right answer for how to describe the community. Whatever language you choose to use, make sure you’re doing your best to be thoughtful, respectful, and inclusive.
Aishhha. 2013. ‘GRSM.’ Urban Dictionary. Retrieved September 25, 2019 (https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=GRSM).
Hall, Jake. 2016. ‘Tracing the History of the Word “Queer”.’ Retrieved September 24, 2019 (https://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/32213/1/tracing-the-history-of-the-word-queer).
Higgins, Marissa. 2016. ‘Is the Word “Queer” Offensive? Here’s a Look at Its History in the LGBTQA+ Community.’ Retrieved September 24, 2019 (https://www.bustle.com/articles/139727-is-the-word-queer-offensive-heres-a-look-at-its-history-in-the-lgbtqa-community).
Perlman, Merrill. 2019. ‘How the Word “Queer” was Adopted by the LGBTQ Community.’ Retrieved September 24, 2019 (https://www.cjr.org/language_corner/queer.php).
sebasty. 2014. ‘MOGAI.’ Urban Dictionary. Retrieved September 25, 2019 (https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=MOGAI).