Gayish: The controversy of the word ‘queer’

Author: Gayish

Gayish on GLUE: Two homosexuals, unpacking queer stereotypes one at a time.

The word “queer” has increasingly been reclaimed and used as a word to represent the LGBTQ+ community.


GLAAD’s media guide, for example, officially recommended using the “Q” in LGBTQ starting in 2016.

But this hasn’t come without criticism and resistance within the community itself.


Depending on the user, the Q in LGBTQ can stand for “questioning” – as in still exploring one’s sexuality – or “queer,” or sometimes both.


Queer is still a pretty controversial term for many people and, for some, can still feel instinctively rather jarring. For many, the term ‘queer’, much like f*g’, is steeped in its application as a derogatory term intended to belittle gay, lesbian bisexual and transgender folk. 

‘Cuz making that sign… must have taken all night’

Interestingly, the word ‘gay’ was once considered a slur too.  

“In the early 19th Century [gay] was used to refer to women who lived off immoral earnings,” says professor of Modern English Language Clive Upton.

Around the 1970s it was claimed by the homosexual community as a descriptive term for their sexual orientation, now its most popular meaning. By the 1980s it was finding its way into schools as a playground insult.


“Every generation grows up with a whole lexicon of homosexual insults, in my day it was ‘poofter’ or ‘bender’,” added slang lexicographer Tony Thorne. “They were used much more because they were considered more offensive than ‘gay’, which is more neutral.


In 2019, National Public Radio (NRP) received enough backlash about their use of the word queer that they published an article explaining their rationale. Asking the question, “As language shifts, terms take on new meanings. But when is it appropriate for media organizations to reflect those changes?”, as well as acknowledging some complaints they received. 

One of the listeners said: “I am a gay man and I did not spend my entire life being called queer as a slur for journalists to accept it as reclaimed. It isn’t.”


The term “queer” to represent LGBTQ+ people is not new. As many remember, the slogan “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it!” was popularized by the activist organization “Queer Nation” in the 1990s.

But “queer” was used even before then, back in the early 1900s.


As George Chauncey describes in his book “Gay New York,” terms like “fairy,” “trade,” and, yes, “queer” were used to describe men who had sex with men, with slightly different definitions than we have today:

  • “Fairies” were effeminate men, sometimes sex workers or drag queens.
  • “Trade” referred to men, often working-class, that might have sex with a fairy, but this didn’t define them as gay.
  • “Queers” were middle-class equivalents of fairies and defined by their attraction to men.
An advertisement for Francis Renault at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. (Photo: Courtesy BAM Hamm Archives)


The use of the term “queer” continued during the “Pansy Craze” of the 1920s and ‘30s in New York, where drag balls were not only visible but wildly popular, with Black LGBTQ performers like “pansies” (men dressed as women) and “bull-daggers” (women who dressed as men) leading the way.


Women dressed for a drag ball at Webster Ball. (Photo: Public Domain)


Newspaper articles covered these events with queer-forward headlines like:

  • “Queer Sex Busy Planning Drags”
  • “Queers Seek Succor! Fairies Cruise in Daisy Beds of Boston, Making City a Lavenderish Camp of Love”
  • “Fag Balls Exposed: 6,000 Crowd Huge Hall as Queer Men and Women Dance at 64th Annual Masquerade”
April 23, 1932 cutting via


In spite of its steep history, “queer” is “not a universally accepted term even within the LGBTQ+ community,” as the GLAAD media guide indicates.

The golden rule, as always, is to respect the way someone self-identifies.


Still, understanding LGBTQ+ history reminds us that the word “queer,” like queerness itself, is not a fad, and it’s here to stay.


For more on the word “queer,” including history, population studies and dissenting opinions on its use, listen to the “Queer” episode of Gayish, available on Apple PodcastsSpotify, or your favorite podcatcher. And, in celebration of Pride Month and our queer history, every episode of Gayish this month will incorporate the word “queer” and cover a distinctly queer topic.



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