The Incantation for Queer

Last semester, the Queer Alliance I run was observed by a grad student. It sounds weird, but it wasn’t. She interviewed the kids and asked questions and brought them cookies and it was cool. The last question she asked me wasn’t fully formed. It had to do with the way I talk to the kids. I said something to a baby gaymo like “kid, that shirt is straight up dyke. It’s like the hella gayest shirt ever” (yes, this is the way I speak to them). And our friendly graduate student wanted to know why I so frequently use common pejoratives as compliments. And, more importantly, why the kids seem to enjoy it so thoroughly.

I do it for all the standard reasons. It’s a reclamation. It’s a method of inclusion. Our club is the only place the queermos are in the majority. Most of us had to wait to hit 21 (or 18, at least) to experience that feeling. It’s whatever.

But it’s more than that. Ultimately, I tell the kids they are looking super gay that day because the heteronormative remainder of the staff can’t. Have you seen my gay face? Can you imagine being 15 and having an adult at your high school with a face as gay as mine? Neither can I.

I’m old (apparently) so I don’t fully understand half of what the kids say and they don’t fully understand half of what I say. It’s a cute thing we do. But I know every possible incantation of the word gay. I can imbue it with power. I can give that power to a bunch of pint-sized queers.

Don’t we all deserve that magic?

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7 thoughts on “The Incantation for Queer

  1. Thanks, Ashley. Language reclamation is fascinating to me. “Queer,” for example, is a pejorative among older LGBTQ people–think probably 45 and up. When I was growing up, it was definitely used as a pejorative, but the more common derogatory terms directed at me were “dyke” and “faggot” and I got called those quite a bit by unfriendlies. At the same time, in my circle of LGBTQ friends, we used the terms to empower: Baby dyke. Baby fag. Dykes on Bikes. “Queer” wasn’t one that I heard really being reclaimed until the 90s (yeah, I’m dating myself nanner nanner), and I didn’t really start using it until years later, when I felt more comfortable with it.

    Having said that, I don’t use “queer” around LGBTQ people who are older than I am unless I hear them using it as an identifier first and seem comfortable with it.

    Language is historical; there are contexts for it, and I try to understand that context and how a community uses language.

    And dammit, my shirt is hella gay today, too. 😀

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    1. We do make a point in club to discuss the potential negatives of reclamation, but I also want them to use the most current terminology regardless of the subject matter. The cool thing is that we can decide as a group what the “right” terms are for us. Not the world at large, but this group of 40 teenagers who hate certain terms and strongly identify with others. Those discussions are where the real power is.

      And, champ, ALL your shirts are hella gay.

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  2. This is awesome. We had a college student come to our book club once and she preferred the term queer. Like Andi, I’m very interested in reclamation and it’s ability to empower and yet potentially offend at the same time, depending on the audience. Words are powerful.

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  3. Word reclamation is a fascinating area to study, especially when it comes to figuring out word choices for historical stories. I’m also interested in how we reassign words that were originally perjorative to different situations: ‘tart’ and ‘tarty’ are words I would use for attention-seeking cats, horses and men (especially certain brands of non-genderconforming individuals), but rarely to women, unless I knew them extremely well and could be sure they wouldn’t be offended.

    On the other hand, there are some words I really don’t like, regardless of situation, ‘taint’ for certain areas of anatomy (male or female) being a prime example.

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