Words can be as heavy as a rock or as gentle as a flower. They play a major role in all our lives. One of the worst words used against gays used to be "queer." Its not-hidden message ranged from contempt to rejection. Sometimes it announced "enemy." So I find it refreshing to discover that it's now being used in an accepting, even healing way. A HuffPost reader sent me this message:
Ever since graduation many years ago, my girlfriends and I make time one evening a month to escape our husbands and kids for a girls' night out. Last week, deep into conversation about all the travails of modern life, one of us proposed a toast to ourselves: Here's to our lifelong, queer, crazy friendship.
I was simultaneously surprised, delighted, and appreciative. It had nothing to do with sex. It was about our mutual perspective and attitude. And "queer" seemed the perfect word. Do you agree?
Yes, I do. Here it is apparently descriptive, not pejorative. At around the same time, I also came across the same word, "queer," in a strictly gay context that completely turned around its old, negative meaning as a condemnatory expression. The word "queer" appeared in an article in the fall 2012 issue of the magazine of the Union Theological Seminary in New York. Here is what it said:
We are grieved by the ways religion has been misused to support violence, greed, and exploitation of poor and working middle class people, people of color, immigrants, women, people with disabilities and queer people. We offer a listening ear and a ministry of prayer, presence and support to all people engaged in the difficult task of crying out against injustice and living out their deepest commitments.
Here "queer" as a word carrying old luggage, a formerly condemnatory expression, is used naturally and positively in a religious orientation. I find my reader's message fascinating as a forthright example of changed attitudes and ways of thinking. In fact, I shared the letter with several people who fit into categories of "heterosexual," "lesbian," and "gay." They were also therapists, social workers, writers, and clergy. I asked for their reactions. Said one:
Words have always cut close to the quick. "Negro" carried a huge amount of luggage. So did "immigrant." So did "chick" or "broad" as synonyms for "female." Another negative was something ethnic, along the lines of "wop" or "chink" or "jap." Anything that denied someone else authenticity as a human being, period. Anything deliberately used to conjure up old inequalities of class or status or perceived inequality.
Someone else picked up the theme of conjuring outmoded but still absolutely lethal stereotypes. She said:
To do this is to deny that something bad in the past isn't in the past at all. In fact, it can dangerously give an outmoded stereotype altogether fresh currency. It announces that really no change has taken place at all. This can cruelly perpetuate ancient myths that have always been used to keep some people in a continuum of human slavery.
One of these days the word "gay" may yield its present meaning to an accepted new term. We may be confronted with an altogether new word to describe "youth." "Senior" may give way to a presently unknown word. A vitally important question is this: Will such a widely used new word be intentionally positive or negative? Will it be a mélange of mixed messages or adjere to objectivity?
It seems important to pay attention to who utters what words that ostensibly describe other people, and why. I was intrigued when I recently reread Irene Mayer Selznick's memoir A Private View, published in 1983. She casually used the word "gay," but it had no connection whatsoever to today's prevalent usage. It was a description of a buoyant kind of chic that she found in powerful and elite circles of Manhattan at that time. It wasn't about "gay" as we now know it. Instead, it defined a certain cultural energy. Of course, it was understood that homosexuals belonged in part to this energy and contributed to it. Still, the meaning of "gay" as Ms. Selznick uses it isn't at all what "gay" means now.
I like "here's to our lifelong, queer, crazy friendship." The word "queer" rings true. It's clearly about change. And God knows it's inclusive.