Queer Signs And What They Tell Us

The only place that I felt I could appropriately learn these terms was by socializing with my LGBTQ Deaf and signing peers.
10/31/2017 01:07 pm ET Updated Oct 31, 2017
Oliver Stabbe

My American Sign Language (ASL)* and Deaf studies classes created a strong foundation for learning ASL. Classes can only go so far in teaching real-world vocabulary, however. While my professors may believe that it is crucial to teach the sign for “onion” so I can feed myself, I find it more important learn the sign for “gay” so that I can ask a random Deaf stranger wandering the streets “hey, I’m lost, where’s the gay parade?” I would choose a parade over onion rings any day. The only place that I felt I could appropriately learn these terms was by socializing with my LGBTQ Deaf and signing peers.

While my professors may believe that it is crucial to teach the sign for “onion” so I can feed myself, I find it more important learn the sign for “gay.”

Throughout my immersion in the Deaf community, I feel like I have been collecting these signs and developing my own personal understanding of what they represent. Like English, the words and signs we use to identify and describe ourselves have power for ourselves, our audience, and our culture. As our words and signs change, they embody shifting individual and social representations of LGBTQ identities. When we step back and take a moment to analyze these signs, we can develop a deeper understanding of how our understanding of LGBTQ identities and discourse have evolved. One such example of a highly variable sign is “queer.” Here are a few examples of variations to describe this identity.

Open-8 on dominant side of head, backwards movement
Oliver Stabbe
Open-8 on dominant side of head, backwards movement

Before “queer” was used as a common identity, it was understood as equivalent to “fag.” This sign, much like the English word, parallels that experience. Though the meaning and impact of a reclaimed sign depend on the experience of the signer, the listener, and their intentions, this sign has undisputed power regardless of usage. To me, this sign reflects our history as a resilient community —we were derogatorily described using words for the way that we were killed (i.e. as bundles of sticks). Instead of being passively hounded with hateful slang, queer people reclaimed what was once used to hurt us to instead instill us with pride.

 open-8 on chin, outwards movement
Oliver Stabbe
open-8 on chin, outwards movement

This is one of my favorite signs for queer because of the audacity of the sign. One can see the resemblance between this sign and sign for “f*ck you.” The sign for “f*ck you” is in the same location and outward movement, leading this sign to be a minimal pair.** Because of this resemblance, this sign succinctly can be interpreted as an identity of “I’m not queer as in gay, but queer as in f*ck you!” To me, this sign offers another interpretation of the “queer” identity: it’s not about who you are. It is about non-conformity to a cisgender and heterosexual society. This sign tells us that to be queer is to be radical.

4 handshape in neutral placement, movement arcs from non dominant side to non-dominant side
Oliver Stabbe
4 handshape in neutral placement, movement arcs from non dominant side to non-dominant side

This sign references the rainbow flag popularized by Gilbert Baker. Each finger looks like the stripes on the original LGBTQ flag symbolizing sex, life, healing, sunlight, nature, magic/art, serenity, and spirit. To me, this sign is the least controversial sign to engage in identity discourse as it succinctly references a number of positive attributes of our community. Simply put, all identities encapsulated by “queer” are valid and nothing to be ashamed of.

fingerspell: Q-U-E-E-R
Oliver Stabbe
fingerspell: Q-U-E-E-R

This sign utilizes fingerspelling to represent the concept. Because it is directly from English, it has no additional implications than what the word carries in itself. By and large, this is considered to be the most neutral way to refer to a person who identifies as queer. It can be interpreted as “this sign refers to an individual who identifies as queer.” Even by using fingerspelling, our increasing usage of this word normalizes queer identities.

Though these signs may vary in implication, I appreciate them because of the truth that they all speak to our queer community. We are resilient, radical, colorful, everyday people. The diversity of our language parallels our endless interpretations of our community. There is not, nor can there ever be, a single word nor sign to describe us; despite the commonalities of our experiences, it is our different ways of seeing queerness that sustain us.

*A few notes about American Sign Language (ASL) for non signers:

  • ASL is a full language, just like Spanish or English. It has its own grammar, syntax, vocabulary, etc.
  • Sign language is not universal. Just like spoken language, there are sign languages unique to individual countries and within those languages there are regional accents just as spoken language would use “soda” or “pop” to describe the same concept.
  • Not all signs are iconic or pictorial representations of concepts, but the first three signs discussed in this article are.

**Minimal pair: Minimal pairs are two words or signs in a particular language that differ in only one element such as location, handshape, or movement. An example of an English minimal pair is “cat” and “hat.”

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