In this year's Best Of Broward-Palm Beach edition, New Times named gays as the Best Reason to Live in South Florida. That pick came with some interoffice controversy. Not over the pick itself, which earned no objections when theater critic Brandon K. Thorp first suggested it. But Thorp's initial idea was to say the award should go to queers.
What's the difference, you ask? New Times copyeditor Keith Hollar flagged the item, fearing that the word queers would be too offensive. It's not common for us to shy away from offensive language when it's deserved, but when you're naming someone the best reason to live someplace, it seems like you shouldn't also piss them off.
In the hopes of understanding more about this gays versus queers issue, I asked Hollar and Thorp -- who are both gay -- to explain. Our Q&A below.
In my unscientific estimation, it seems like younger folks will call themselves queer, while the older generation takes offense to the word. What gives?
Hollar: Well, older folks like me -- I'm 52 -- have probably had the term hurled at them a few times, and that tends to give the word a bit more lasting "sting." But as with blacks and the (re)appropriation of the n-word, many gays have reclaimed queer as a means of empowerment and also as a way to take it away from the bigots. I have no problem with that. My only problem with queer is contextual.
In a gay publication such as the Advocate, where I worked for about three years, queer is fine, because the (presumably gay) readers understand it in this context and presume the writer to be gay himself. But in a more general publication like ours, I prefer gay because that's the generally accepted term and because using queer might read to some as offensive and to others who might be inclined toward bigotry that it's OK to call people queers or other demeaning terms. It's very similar to the n-word and blacks: Within the group, the term is perfectly OK, at least among younger folks. But for someone not part of the group to call someone the n-word... not OK.
Thorp: I don't think that's true. The real dividing line here is between hippie types and the more mainstream gay population. That's probably been the case since the '70s. Mostly, the people who use the term "queer" nowadays -- at least among younger folks -- are lesbians, whereas the boys who use the term tend to be Ani diFranco fans. That's a gross generalization, but apt. You hear the word "queer" on a march a lot more often than on a Saturday stroll down Wilton Drive.
Obviously, gay originally meant happy and queer was, well, a bit weird. Seems like gay has a better definition, no?
Hollar: Yeah, gay's a little less derogatory from the get-go. Queer still carries at least overtones of negativity, at least for us old folks.
Thorp: "Gay" certainly has a happier ring, but "queer" is more accurate in the crudest demographic sense. We have higher suicide rates, ridonkulous amounts of substance abuse, all that not-quite-right stuff. It's not our fault, but it is decidedly queer. Of course, that's not why we use the word "queer." The term probably began as a bit of a euphemism -- "Oh, Wilde? Well, he was a bit queer now, wasn't he?" -- and got dragged into use by gays in precisely the same way "nigger" came to be used by black people. Obviously, "queer" is far less odious, but I think the term's evolution was much the same. The word "gay" has a very different story -- its adoption was to combat the perception, promulgated by the mental health establishment, that gay people were miserable neurotics.
People went batshit when the stars of Tropic Thunder threw around "retard" in one scene. You don't get the same treatment when famous people use gay and queer in a derogatory way. Big deal, or who gives a crap?
Hollar: For me, anyway, it's who gives a crap? I'm not easily offended by pop-culture treatments. I take them for what they are. There was, though, the uproar over Isaiah Washington's use of faggot. And that's precisely my point about context: If a term is used to denigrate someone else, as it was when he used it, I have a problem with that. On the other hand, when Tim Hardaway said "I hate gay people," it was just as hateful as if he'd used the not-so-P.C. words queers or faggots. Using the "acceptable" term didn't mitigate the intensity or stupidity of his comments.
Thorp: Who gives a crap? Don't get me wrong -- it sucks. But it's background noise. I find the use of those words as pejoratives offensive only when the speaker is somebody I care about (who also happens to be straight, natch). When some stranger speaks that way, the offense is so slight as to be unnoticeable. Anyway, this is all lightweight stuff. "Faggot" is the dangerous word -- one that I use freely among my friends, but which sends me into paroxysms of anger when used by even very friendly straight folks. I'm pretty sure my extreme reaction means the term isn't being used enough, or with good enough intentions -- it is a word that has yet to be de-venomed by inflation. But I understand why most people hold the opposite view. Yet it's a silly argument, because "faggot" is merely the most inflammatory of a group of very silly words, including "gay" and "queer," that are past their prime and ought to be retired. I'd like to take this moment to come out full-force in support of the word "homosexual." It's a good, functional word with no particular overtones, good or bad. It is simply another Latinate construction in a language full of them, scientific and perfectly descriptive, just like "heterosexual" and "bisexual." Doesn't that make more sense in 2009? To say "gay" is to arbitrarily stick a happy face on something that doesn't demand it; to say "queer" is to detourn some long-dead bigot's put-down. Both words were important; neither one has much resonance anymore.
Gay has clearly won out in the adjective war, as in gay bar or gay-owned business. What would a queer bar look like?
Hollar: Hmmm... maybe a bit more San Francisco, a bit less Wilton Manors.
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Thorp: Like a gay bar. Much the same way a lesbian bar still looks like a Lowe's no matter what you call it.
"We're queer, we're here..." is a pretty bitchin' chant, no?
Hollar: Indeed! And again... context! It works great in protests and parades. But maybe we should come up with a new one along the lines of "We're gay, OK, now what have you got to say?"
Thorp: Jesus, no. Chanting crowds are always scarier than they are elevating, no matter what they're saying. When a crowd begins to rhyme, it has officially ceased to think.