Few words carry as much power as the words we use to describe ourselves. Finding a label that fits your experiences lends a sense of completeness, of accomplishment; it allows you to join a community of others who describe themselves the same way. Many of these words, however, carry more meaning than just a definition.
The word “queer” and its use in the LGBTQ+ community have been a point of contention for much of our history. Today, though many agree that the efforts to publicize LGBTQ+ issues and the concurrent strive for equality has led to the reclamation of the word, it is still often seen – and used – as a slur. To understand this debate, and to informedly take a side, it is important to first understand its history.
The origins of the word “queer” have, to a degree, been lost to history. It may have come from a Scottish or German word meaning ‘oblique’ or ‘off-center’, but linguists are uncertain. In any case, by the early 1800s, it had garnered a strongly negative connotation in English – to queer meant to spoil or ruin a situation.
The first recorded use of “queer” as a homophobic slur was in 1894, by John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry, who blamed the death of his son Francis on Francis’s suspected love interest, Lord Rosebery. Queensberry, in a letter to another son, speculated that “snob queers like Rosebery” had corrupted his son and led to his demise.
During the 1900s, people both inside and outside of the community tended to use “queer” pejoratively, with the slur gaining popularity in the 1950s and later. In 1970, linguist Julia Penelope wrote for the journal American Speech that, in her interviews with gays and lesbians, they all felt that the term “was only used by heterosexuals to express their disdain for homosexuals”. As it is today, bullying of LGBTQ+ students was a massively pervasive issue, and many older members of the community today dislike the word “queer” because they most often heard it as a targeted attack on their identity. Some LGBTQ+ activists did embrace the term as a self-identifier: Gertrude Stein, in her 1903 coming-out story Q.E.D., referred to two female love interests as queer. Still, the term remained hateful in mainstream culture until the latter half of the century.
The reclamation of the term “queer” trailed after the rise of the mainstream gay rights movement. The term “queercore” emerged in the 80s, sparked by punk zine J.D.s. The publication was launched in 1985 to give a voice to the unruly, anti-establishment wing of the gay rights movement. As cofounder Bruce LaBruce explained, “Gay assimilation was already starting back then, accelerated by the AIDS crisis, so the gay movement was already distancing and disassociating itself from its more unruly, extreme and anti-establishment elements – queers who did not fit into the gay white bourgeois patriarchy.” Queercore music gave voice to LGBTQ+ artists who were tired of societal disapproval, and allowed them to express their outrage through the time-honored outlet of punk music.
More radical efforts to reclaim “queer” began in the 1990s. Queer Nation, founded in 1990, is a New York-based LGBTQ+ activist organization. Founded by members of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) who were outraged about the escalation of violence against a community still grieving and suffering from the AIDS epidemic, Queer Nation strove to educate the public and protest for the promotion of gay rights. They popularized the chant “We’re here! We’re Queer! Get used to it!”, which became a rallying cry for the community. They also distributed leaflets with titles like “We’re here, we’re queer, and we’d like to say hello!” and “Queers read this – The Queer Nation Manifesto”, spreading information and safe-sex tips, as well as urging LGBTQ+ people to fight for their rights. Their manifesto actively pushed for use of the word “queer” to describe themselves: “Well, yes, ‘gay’ is great. It has its place. But when a lot of lesbians and gay men wake up in the morning we feel angry and disgusted, not gay. So we’ve chosen to call ourselves queer”.
Today, “queer” is often used as a catchall term for members of the LGBTQ+ community. For people whose sexuality or gender identity is uncertain or difficult to explain, “queer” is also valued as a concise way to explain how they identify. Still, the word’s history casts a shadow over its use today: on its website, PFLAG advises that, due to its history as a slur, the word “queer” “should only be used when self-identifying or quoting someone who self-identifies as queer”.
For many LGBTQ+ students, their FIRST team feels like a safe place to come out. The sense of camaraderie, of family, lets them comfortably be who they are and express their identity. Coming out is an extremely important event in the lives of many LGBTQ+ people, and finding a label that describes one’s identity carries just as much weight. On FIRST teams, surrounded by young people who have, for the most part, seen “queer” as a fairly mainstream identifier of sexuality, some may find solace in a label that cements their place in the LGBTQ+ community, but doesn’t hold them to strict standards or stereotypes, and accepts uncertainty or vagueness about the precise nature of their identity. Still, the word’s history cannot be ignored.
When I was younger, my dad gave me one of the most valuable pieces of advice I’ve ever received. “Words are just words,” he said, “until you give them meaning.”
Though the word “queer” has a controversial history, its meaning today is, simply put, what you make of it. For some, it’s a word we use to describe our identities. For others, it’s a curse spat with hatred and ignorance. Personally, I believe that my queer brothers and sisters have spent decades fighting for our right to describe ourselves however we like, to truly embrace what makes us unique, to take our places in a community that understands not only our struggles, but also our joy, our passion, and our love. I am queer, and I’m proud to say it.
But it’s up to you.
Not so long ago, and for the first time, I watched the classic documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, about the first openly gay individual in California elected to public office.
Harvey was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on November 8, 1977. On November 27, 1978, at San Francisco City Hall, along with George Moscone, the Mayor of San Francisco, Harvey Milk was assassinated. The killer, Dan White, a former colleague of Harvey’s on the Board of Supervisors who had resigned his post just weeks before, was tried for capital murder. This could have earned him the death penalty. Instead, he was found guilty of manslaughter and served 5 years of a 7-year sentence before being paroled. Approximately 1 year and 10 months after his parole, Dan White committed suicide.
What struck me about this film was not just the incredible story and the apparent injustice in the sentencing of Dan White, but the representation of what our culture was like at the time. California Proposition 6, also known as ‘The Briggs Initiative’ after its sponsor, John Briggs, was on the ballot in the November 1978 election. The language of the proposition, though convoluted, would have essentially prohibited the hiring of, and required the firing of, public school teachers for “public homosexual conduct”, a term defined so broadly that I think it would be hard for any homosexual, or even any what today might be called heterosexual ally, to not fall under the law’s purview.
Here’s the thing, for me: this proposition, clearly discriminatory and unjust by today’s standards, nearly passed. In September of 1978, only two months before voting, polling showed it ahead. It was only through the extraordinary and determined efforts of Harvey Milk and a broad coalition of others opposed to the proposition, including then-Governor of California Ronald Regan, that it went down in defeat, with 58% voting against.
I’ll admit that at least until I watched this extraordinary documentary, I was nearly wholly ignorant of the history of the LGBTQ+ movement. When I realized events such as this happened in my lifetime – I was 13 when the assassinations occurred – my eyes were opened just a bit more.
If you haven’t seen The Times of Harvey Milk, even if you already know the story, I believe it’s worth a watch, and worth sharing your thoughts over. It’s powerful filmmaking in the service of an important part of history, history not just for the LGBTQ+ community, but for all.
The United States government has had a tormentalous history regarding LGBTQ+ people over the past sixty-five years. From persecution to protection, legislation affecting LGBTQ+ people has changed drastically, from banning homosexuals in the government to protecting them.
On April 27, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450. Stating “any criminal, infamous, dishonest, immoral, or notoriously disgraceful conduct, habitual use of intoxicants to excess, drug addiction, or sexual perversion,” it was broadly interpreted and used to effectively ban gays and lesbians from the federal workforce. It wasn’t until the 1990’s when this order was lifted fully. The U.S. Civil Service Commission re-allowed gays and lesbians in federal civil service in 1975, while in 1977, the state department lifted a ban on gays in the Foreign Service. President Bill Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy allowed lesbians and gays a place once more in the military in 1995.
Bella Abzug introduced a bill to Add Sexual Orientation to Federal Civil Rights Law on January 14, 1975. It was the first federal lesbian and gay rights bill in the federal government, and intended to apply the Civil Rights Act of 1965 to protect sexual orientation. It never reached the house floor.
Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, signed into law November 30, 1993 by Bill Clinton, prohibited the military from discriminating against closeted homosexual or bisexual service members. However, openly homosexual or bisexual people were banned completely from military service reasoning that “would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability.” Members who spoke about homosexual relations could be rapidly discharged.
In November 1995, the Hate Crimes Sentencing Enhancement Act is added and enacted as an amendment to the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Passed by the 103rd Congress, it allowed harsher penalties for hate crimes, especially those based on disability, gender, and sexual orientation and which occurred on federal property.
The Defense of Marriage Act, signed November 21, 1996, defined marriage as between a man and a woman in regards to federal law. It allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages officiated in other states or countries, and effectively banned same-sex partnerships from receiving federal marriage benefits awarded to heterosexual couples. Section 3 specified non-recognition of same-sex marriages in federal government, immigration, bankruptcy, joint tax returns, social security survivors’ benefits, certain federal protections, financial aid eligibility, and ethics laws.
President Obama’s administration brought forth the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act on October 28, 2009, which expanded a 1969 federal hate crime law to include gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability based motivation. It removed requirements such as victims having involvement in federal activities such as voting, and allowed federal authorities to pursue hate crimes investigations that localities had abandoned. Furthermore, it provided funding to help state and local agencies investigate hate crimes, and required the FBI to track gender and gender identity based hate crime statistics.
In December 2010, the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act which banned openly gay, bisexual, and lesbian members from service. It went into effect on September 20, 2011 after an extended period of preparation, as Pentagon and military leaders were reluctant to lift the ban while in the midst of war. The Pentagon also trained over 1.9 million of the 2.2 million military members on proper conduct around their fellow gay, bisexual, and lesbian servicepeople. Additionally, the military began to look into giving same-sex couples limited health, housing, and legal benefits.
The Military Equal Opportunity Policy was updated to include gay and lesbian servicemembers on July 9, 2015, as revealed by Defense Secretary Ash Carter. It “ensures that the department, like the rest of the federal government, treats sexual-orientation-based discrimination the same way it treats discrimination based on race, religion, color, sex, age and national origin.”
On June 30, 2016, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that the Pentagon had lifted the ban on transgender service members. Estimations range from affecting about 0.1% of the 2 million member military, or about 2000 service members to over 12000 members. Full implementation is expected by July 1, 2017.
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About LGBTQ+ of FIRST
LGBTQ+ of FIRST is an organization dedicated to raising awareness and acceptance of LGBTQ+ participants in FIRST Robotics. LGBTQ+ of FIRST was started to spread visibility of the LGBTQ+ community within FIRST and help teams become safe spaces for their members.