The Q Word – A Personal Sociological Linguistic History
Let’s start by putting this all into correct context. I am old by internet standards. I was born in 1981. Ronald Regan was in his first term. The Space Shuttle had its first flight. Harvey Milk had only been assassinated two and a half years earlier. Most states still hand antisodomy laws on the books. AIDS was clinically observed for the first time in the US. It was referred to as “GRID”, gay-related immune deficiency. All anyone knew about it was that it was killing gay men and drug users.
Anyone under the age of thirty who is reading this, keep that all in mind.
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. I had lesbian aunts, and hippy parents. I knew what gay was and that there was nothing wrong with it. At the nice, liberal, elementary school I went to there were words you could not say. There were all the standard four letter words. There was also the N word, the S word, and the Q word. The Q word being queer. If you used these words in regular conversation you got sent to the vice principal’s office for a lecture about hurtful language and your parents got a phone call. If you used these words in anger you got sent to the vice principal’s office for a lecture about hurtful language and your parents got a phone call. If you used them referring to yourself you were sent to the vice principal’s office for a lecture about hurtful language and your parents got a phone call. You didn’t use the Q word, just like you didn’t use the N word. It was a Bad Word.
Let’s jump forward to 1995, the year I started high school. Twenty Years Ago. Ellen DeGeneres was still two years away from coming out. Will & Grace would not go to air for another three years and it would be considered controversial. It would be nine years before Gavin Newsome directed the county clerk of San Francisco to issue same sex marriage licenses. And while there were some treatments for HIV/AIDS is was still killing at an alarming rate.
A couple of friends at my high school decided they were going to make a stand and start a GSA (gay/straight alliance) with the help of one of the teachers. It wasn’t much of a stand because no one objected or cared but we did it and we were proud. The very first meeting we changed it to the GLBTA Alliance. Please note the lack of Q because the Q word is a Bad Word. We were proud of our extended acronym because at the time a lot of G and L groups were having serious debates as to if they should let in B and T. A wasn’t on the radar for most. Please remember, 1995.
Another quick jump to 1998. The class of 1999 showed up for the first day of senior year and looked over the incoming freshmen, class of 2003. The freshman I remember the most, who showed up for the first GLBTAA meeting with a bunch of his friends, had worn leather pants, a pink top, and a carried a glittery purple shoulder bag on his first day of high school . First Day Of High School People! And at the meeting some of his friends referred to themselves by the Q word. Somewhere between the class of 1999 and the class of 2003 the Q word had been reclaimed. I fully expected the vice principal to pop out of the floor and deliver a lecture on hurtful language. Our faculty adviser who was openly gay and in his mid-40s was appalled. He’d seen some shit go down in his life and could not understand why someone would refer to themselves by such a horrible word.
But what were we going to say to kids who were fourteen, out, proud, and totally comfortable with themselves, when we had seniors who were still in the closet? The language had changed without our permission or input and all we could do was squirm in discomfort.
Now, at time of printing, April 2015, the acronym is as far as I can tell LGBTQQIA+. It’s starting to look like a keyboard smash and I’m sure I’m missing at least two letters. Not only has the Q word been solidly reclaimed but the acronym above is often just referred to as the Queer community. As a someone who falls into the above acronym (no you may not have my sexual history) a little part of me still cringes listening to all those young whippersnappers throw around the Q word as if it has never been used in aggression. Honestly, the first time I saw the word Genderqueer I thought someone was trolling.
So where does this leave a writer? Especially one who has characters within the queer community? How much of my linguistic baggage do I carry into my modern work? I love the English language for its flexibility and ability to evolve with the times, but it does require authors to evolve along with it.
With my upcoming novels the youngest of the lead characters is thirty two and because the book takes place in 2011 (for reasons) he’s older than I am. The other lead is pushing forty and does use the word queer once in a fit of annoyance. He also uses the word heteronormative while having a rant as some guys he’s stuck playing golf with. With the ages of the characters I can side step the issue since it’s easy for my discomfort with the word to be their discomfort as well.
Then there is the Young Adult project. It’s a bit stalled but I have hopes for next year. The lead character is sixteen and there is a Greek chorus of LGBTQQIA+ high school students I need to write dialogue for. That’s going to mean the word queer just as a start. There are words that didn’t exist when I was in high school for communities and groups that had zero recognition.
Younger readers want younger characters to have a voice they recognize as their own. I have a feeling I’m going to be spending a lot of time on tumblr reading posts by kids who hadn’t been born in 1999 if I want to do that right. And I have no doubt that the language will keep evolving; that the acronym will continue to grow.
My kid is just figuring out how to talk. She’s convince the word ‘sit’ has as H in it, and stringing three words together is a neat trick. She will be a teenager one day though, and if I continue to write at some point I will probably have to shove some writing in front of her and ask if that’s still how kids talk. There will be eye rolling and whatever her generation’s version of lame is, and I will not be surprised if as some point she hisses at me and says ‘mom, that’s a Bad Word’.