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Slow Views

I don’t want to be called “queer” – much less a year celebrating the word

Friday 27 August 2021

Those calling for 2022 to be the “Year of Queer” are profoundly insensitive to the term’s past use as a homophobic slur, and its association with brutal violence

Sometimes – quite often, recently – being gay isn’t as fun as it used to be. If I had a coming out moment, it was somewhere in the Nineties. Yes, it was illegal if you were under a certain age or in certain jobs; yes, we had to put up with outdated stereotypes in media and forced outings by the tabloids who still equated homosexuality with salacious perversion; and yes, the legacy from the AIDS crisis loomed large over the community. We couldn’t get married (I’m not fussed about that, but I get that it’s important to some people), and we didn’t have the Equality Act (which is, of course, a very good thing).

But right now, and I know I’m not alone in thinking this… it’s less fun being gay. 

There are lots of reasons why – but for now I’m not talking about the loss of gay spaces and the demise of the gay scene. Nor am I talking about the ongoing arguments around gender, Pride flags or the recent spike in homophobic attacks – although all of these are subjects worthy of calm and sensible discussion, ideally far away from social media, where everyone has their anger setting dialled up to “furious and spiteful”. 

The latest addition to this list was a recent announcement by Christopher Joell-Deshield, Executive Director of London Pride: not only was this year’s event to be cancelled due to Covid safety concerns, but the organisers were going to lobby the government to make 2022 a “Year of Queer”. 

Quite how a meticulously planned event complete with security, marshalls, a fixed route and a competent organising committee poses more of a threat than the thousands of football fans who invaded and trashed the capital’s streets during the Euros – and especially on the night of the final – is a discussion for another time; save to say that I can’t recall ever seeing a rectally administered firework on Old Compton Street. Cancellations I can live with. But a “Year of Queer” is something I, along with thousands of other gay men and women, can do without. 

The tweet accompanying the announcement reads: “Tomorrow we start planning the return to the streets of London in 2022 with our most inclusive and queerest event yet ready to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first pride in the UK… As we can continue demanding queer visibility unity and equality, we ask that the UK government declare 2022 as a Year of Queer.” 

I get that it has a nice rhyme. But the use of the word “queer” isn’t cool. It’s a term I find offensive and I don’t want it applied to me. 

We live in strange times where “gay” has been replaced pretty arbitrarily by other labels in the name of inclusivity – specifically, “queer” and “LGBT” (and I’ll tackle the unhelpful conflation of gender with sexual orientation if I’m ever let loose on another Slow View). 

Those of a certain vintage might remember the protest slogan from the Nineties: “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” It never really sat well with me even then – but I understood it for what it was: an attempt to reclaim an abusive slur and turn it into an expression of power. 

I can’t have been alone in that feeling: although the word enjoyed a period of popularity in the specific context of protest, “queer” definitely fell out of favour quickly. In my years at Boyz magazine (“the UK’s leading gay scene weekly”), I can’t recall seeing it often in our copy – apart from when the long-lost-but-never-forgotten club night Queer Nation took place. 

It always seemed to enjoy a wider currency in the US. But on this side of the Atlantic, for a significant number of gay men and women, “queer” is a word associated with precisely the thing Pride is meant to stand against: homophobia. And before anyone writes in, yes, I know the acclaimed television writer, Russell T. Davies, loves the word. He talks of queer characters and queer culture, he wrote Channel 4’s acclaimed series, Queer as Folk – but he’s never actually been elected Head Gay, and like the rest of us, he’s not always right.

I understand that for some – perhaps the younger generation in particular – it is appealing to celebrate “otherness” with the label “queer”. There are quite a few people who reckon that “queer” is just a term that straight people use to make themselves more interesting: that it’s nothing more than dressing up and affectation. That’s a touch extreme for me, but I can see why some draw that conclusion when a celebrity comes out as “queer” – and the news is greeted with dutiful applause (and, perhaps more importantly, a flurry of attention). 

Do we actually need to remind young straight people that it’s okay to be straight? Gay, bi and straight people can all be equally annoying, or boring. 

More specifically: there are, regrettably, all too many men and women who have good reason to associate the word “queer” with physical attack. You don’t hear the term “queer-bashing” much these days, but it really was a thing once – horribly so – and many people still carry physical and psychological scars that still burn when that word is lazily used today.

There are many more, myself included, who were fortunate enough to escape the actual blunt force trauma of so-called “queer-bashing”, but remember very clearly how our friends, family and peers suffered from its bloody consequences. Typing the article, I find my brain stalls slightly whenever the word comes up. In respect to which: it is ironic that many of the people who are now so keen on its use are enthusiastic about trigger warnings in other contexts.

So thanks, but no thanks, Pride London. I, and many others don’t want a “Year of Queer”. I understand that it’s not exclusively a gay protest or celebration anymore – and that’s fine. The gay community (whatever that is now), has a history of welcoming others into its space. 

But this only works if we all listen to each other, and the struggles of the past are not treated as irrelevant by the self-appointed innovators of social justice language. Being called “queer” might work for you; but don’t force the label on the rest of us. 

A wise and witty colleague of mine remarked: “A Year of Queer? I’d rather have a Day of Gay”. She was right.

Photograph David Gray/Reuters/Alamy