The queerness of words and the word queer
In our latest article, we were very excited to announce the launching of a brand-new educational blog series on queerness and its political and intellectual history. The overall goal of this series is to explore together with the readers, friends, and customers of Ecce Homo the historical, cultural, and financial conditions that gave birth to queer activism and politics some 30 to 40 years ago in the USA in a comprehensive yet plain way. As we self-identify as a queer body-positive, non-binary, and slow-fashion underwear brand, we get a lot of the following questions: what does queer mean to you as an apparel company? Why not call yourself gay or lesbian or trans? Or even better, why not LGBTIQA+? We have set out on this journey in our previous post by tracking down the etymology and the linguistic history of the word ‘queer’ itself, especially in juxtaposition with the more familiar term ‘gay’, how its meaning has changed throughout the decades, and the way it was used (or not) as a site of identification by queer persons. In this current post, we cannot imagine a better introduction to the constellation of meanings of the word queer than delving into the queerness of language itself.
Let’s start with a few clarifying remarks on language itself in general. We, queers, unfortunately, have first-hand knowledge of both the complexity and the power of words. From being subjected to verbal abuse in which words are instruments of injury to crafting our unique words or even whole slang languages in which speaking seems to be an act of creation, self-protection, solace, or even resistance, queers have always been super-conscious of the magic of words. Language is more than words forming sentences in order to communicate one’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Why? First of all, words are living organisms constantly changing in a dynamic and unpredictable way. Sometimes, they bear more than one meaning, and it is our job to figure out the particular meaning evoked by our interlocutor depending on the particular speaker or the specific situation in which a word is used. Other times, it is this rich polysemy that some words enjoy, among them the term ‘queer’ itself, that make them enjoyable or useful since their ambivalence renders them perfect candidates for jokes and puns or for being strategically used to undermine the authority of language itself and the person who capitalizes on this authority to ‘speak the truth’.
Secondly, we use the language as much as the language uses us. On the one hand, we are well aware of the implicit pact the speakers of a language have made to assign certain meanings to certain words. In fact, every time we speak, we count on this collective contract and this is this silent agreement that has already been made even before we come to life that makes us able to communicate an abstract idea, describe an existent thing, influence the people around us, lie, etc. In this context, we use words to make things happen, to bring things into existence out of the thin air, what we call the performative capacity of language. Two illustrative examples here could be the injurious term ‘faggot’ which is used to stigmatize a queer person, but also the word ‘non-binary’ which is a term we created to heal the wound of the trauma of queerphobia. On the other hand, language is much more than the words and the syntactic and grammatical rules we learn at school. A language holds within itself a whole world, a unique worldview, a certain way of thinking, feeling, and experiencing the world. To put it in another way, language is inevitably a culturally situated and historically specific symbolic system with the help of which we make sense of ourselves, the others around us, and the reality itself. From this follows that there is no point zero before language nor a place outside or above language. We are the prisoners of language, and we can only be free and creative within its premises.
Thirdly, language is far from transparent despite our best efforts to stabilize meticulously and laboriously the meaning of each word as a way to control the world. Not only changes the meaning of a word as time passes by, but this meaning is in no way straight. Yup, language is queer! That’s exactly where I am getting at! This does not simply mean that a word has many meanings all at once, as we mentioned above, but rather a word carries with it a constellation of meanings that are not explicitly stated, not intended, ones that one cannot find in its dictionary entry. These connotations literally make a single tiny word an ecosystem of meanings, cultural beliefs, and ideological assumptions. Take for instance the word 'faggot'. When one hears the word 'faggot', one can somehow hear inside one’s head the words abnormal, unworthy, immoral, effeminate, sick, etc. But let’s be clear: while a word resonates endlessly through society, at the same time it can be a very personal thing. Just bring in mind the image of a person who has never fitted into the rigid binary of gender whispering the word ‘non-binary’ in front of their mirror. At this moment, this word feels like being invented for themselves alone. This way words are as much public as personal. And sometimes, when we let our guards down, a Freudian slip reminds us that our words say more than we intend to, that our words make our unconscious feelings and thoughts manifest in unexpected or even embarrassing ways.
So, if language is queer, then it is also true that queer itself is like language in the sense that it shares all the above-mentioned characteristics of speech and words. Queer, just like words, is elastic and malleable, rigid like wood, and fluid like water, it denotes things but the things it denotes are slippery. Some things stick to the word queer, but queer tends to undo any permanent or strict attachments to these things. Queer says more than it intends and at the same time less than we need it to say. It fails as a noun, a verb, and an adjective, but it is also surprisingly resilient. It feels like moving sand in whose semantic indeterminacy sometimes we feel lost or even like drowning, but the next moment it feels sharp like a clean-cut crystal-clear diamond that makes us feel empowered. Queer is just like any other word, but so different than most the words since it condensates the essence of the language itself. And it is this particular attribute of the word ‘queer’ that makes it such a spacious, flexible, and potent term around which an academic theory, an art movement, and a politics has been born, mobilized, and spread around the globe.
Paradoxically, its political power lies in its indefinability and the awkwardness or uneasiness one feels when one speaks the words ‘I am queer’. Regarding it, indefinability, queer as an adjective is notoriously hard to pin down. Is it synonymous with gay? Is it still a slur or not? If it is not a slur anymore, has the process of its strategic reappropriation by the queer community been completed? Is it a new fancy term of the younger generation or a thing of the past that has been popularized only recently in some countries? Perhaps it is too American, right? Or, can it be translated? If no one really seems to be able to define queer and stabilize its fleeting meanings, how come so many people use it to identify themselves? What makes someone queer? Has the meaning of queer itself changed over the last years since its entry into the popular discourse? And why do some people so readily and wholeheartedly embrace it, while others are still skeptical or even critical of it?
Stay tuned as we are going to tackle all these questions in the following articles of this blog series!