Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The queerest of the queer

Queer is one of my favouritest words in the English language - favouritest being another word I like, although that's not strictly speaking English. As I was growing up, I heard queer used to mean several different things:

(1a) adjective: odd, amusing, eccentric; "John looked terribly queer in his new wig and nobody could take him seriously."
There is also the Lancashire/ Yorkshire expression "There's none as queer as folk." (meaning there aren't anybody who is as strange as what people is, so to speak).

(1b) adjective: odd, sinister. "Shortly after his wife disappeared, Mr Smith was seen digging his garden in the middle of the night. There was something queer about the whole thing."

(2) adjective: unwell. "Jenny was sent home from school with a poorly tummy; the poor kid did look ever so queer."

(3) adjective: impoverished. "Sally said she was queer this week so I leant her a fiver."
sometimes used as down Queer Street. "Since the factory closed, the whole family has been living down Queer Street."

(4) verb: to spoil or pervert something. "I'm afraid my experiment with coriander has queered the entire soup." There is also the expression to queer someone's pitch, to sabotage one's plans, as in "Harriet didn't really want the job, but when she found out I wanted it more than anything, she decided to apply just to queer my pitch."

(5) adjective: homosexual or else not heterosexual. "He doesn't like football, so he must be queer."

These uses undoubtedly vary from region to region; I know my Yorkshire and Suffolk grandparents use the word quite differently. Incidentally, at least the first three of these queers are used in the Hitchcock classic The Lady has Vanished, my favourite being when the lady in question is described as "A queer old bird" (in the sense of 1a). I myself aspire to such a description should I live long enough.

In most of its descriptive uses it is rather vague and non-committal, not even as strong as peculiar. This subtlety and its ambiguity has always made it a rather funny word. On The Fast Show, Paul Whitehouse's Arthur Atkinson, a parody of Arthur Askey, had two inexplicably funny phrases (pretty much all he said); "Where's my washboard?" and "How queer!"

And perhaps because of all this, queer represents probably the most successful reclamation of a term of abuse by a disadvantaged group. Of course, it probably never had quite the spike of the N word, cripple and others, it is a soft word and has become the most inclusive way to describe that group of people who are not straight. After all, without the cultural baggage, bisexual (for example) is no more pertinent than prefers blondes or monogamous.*

[And while I am on words bisexual is a rubbish term. What's this "bi" malarkey? The defining experience of being this way is that one's sexual wiring fails to categorise the population into two opposites with nothing in between. Some people have tried to overcome this with the awful pansexual (which sounds like you fancy everyone) and the even worse omnisexual (which sounds like you fancy everything). Never mind.]

There is, of course, the dyslexic's nightmare which is... I'm sorry, but even now I'm thinking BLT, even though I know it should have a G in it somewhere. But what is the significant thing that makes us a group? Not that we deviate in this way or that, but what we deviate from and the political and social implications of that.

I'm not altogether comfortable with using this label to describe myself because I have the good fortune of having a heterosexual life-partnership, but then perhaps it is those with the most privilege who have the most responsibility to show solidarity (I'm not sure - my concern is that I might not be entitled to the word, not that I would be ashamed of it).

However, I think I could probably be described as queer in a few others senses and I make it my habit to use the word in every sense and at every opportunity. Which may seem a little queer, but that's the way I am.

* Sly Civilian has written some great stuff on this subject.

On a completely unrelated subject, Maddy puts everything into perspective with the excellent telling of her very scary Christmas in Russian Roullette. This was such a great post it needed to be mentioned here.


Sage said...

I've always hated the word bi-sexual too. Actually, I dislike all the categories. They're too boxy and clear-cut, and don't allow for change and variation over time. A woman could consider herself totally heterosexual, but there's that one clip in a movie with Angelina Jolie that wakes her up a bit. Hmmm...

Why define ourselves so selectively unnecessarily? To what purpose? I do call myself "whatever-sexual" in class as a means to out myself for the sake of students on the border, but other than that, unless I'm interested in going home with you, who needs to know.

The Goldfish said...

I do think it is sometimes useful to find appropriate labels - bisexuality wasn't something I understood growing up and felt I had to be one thing or the other. Indeed, just recently a friend said of someone they knew who had moved from a relationship with a man onto one with a woman, "He can't make up his mind."

Rather like gender, society wants us to be one thing or the other; you're either masculine or feminine, you're either straight or gay.

Not that I would for a moment suggest bisexual people have it hard at all, but there is a difficulty with understanding. I like all those euphemisms,"Venetian Tendencies" etc. (No idea what Venice has got to do with anything).

Those who do have it hardest are undoubtedly transpeople, who defy both forms of categorisation and as a result get a lot of fear and abuse from those who wish human nature was more orderly.

Anonymous said...

I love this word, also. Thank you.

"Pansexual" means you only do it with boys who are half-goat.

Anonymous said...

BLT is a Bacon-Lettuce & Tomato sandwich, toast with a wee bit of mayo (or whatever), crisp bacon, a few lettuce leaves, and a slice of tomato (home-grown). Fab, if you like bacon.

Which, I've gone off beef & pork the past few years, and bread doesn't agree with me, but the idea (if not the reality) of a BLT still sounds tasty; it's really a nice combo of flavours and textures.


Lady Bracknell said...

Ah, yes - the BLTs. No, you're not the only one.

When no-one who might be offended is listening - and purely for our own extremely childish amusement, you understand - the Boy Marmite, Boogaloo Dude and I are wont to refer to the various union equality advisory committees as:-

The cripples

The darkies


The wimmin


The bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches.

Yes, we're all going to hell. I know.

marmiteboy said...

Lady B is right, and we will no doubt be drummed out of the union, flogged and then burnt at the stake for our audacity for not taking things seriously. Or stabbed with knives by the ASBO's for not treatin' them 'wiv respecked' :-)

The Goldfish said...

I am scandalised! But who are the ASBOs? You surely don't mean that group of your colleagues who have actually had an ASBO served against them?

Lady Bracknell said...

Er, no.

No, it's the young members. The ones under 24. They have their own equality advisory committee.

We haven't met any of them yet. They may be absolutely charming. It may be that not one of them has an ASBO.

Although, if the rumours of the shenanigans they got up to in the hotel where their residential introductory event was held are true...

fluttertongue said...

I rather like 'pansexual', though it does have overtones of finding oneself in a compromising position with a kitchen implement.

Nothing quite describes nausea so well as 'queerness' of the stomach.

the fruitfemme said...

I quite like you & your queer ways. Totally agree with the whole "bisexual" thing. . . It also acts like there are only two choices?

cripchick said...

ditto to what fruitfemme said :)

i wrote a similar post here (not to link my own posts or anything):

RaeJillian said...

i am pretty sure that in your statement "perhaps it is those with the most privilege who have the most responsibility to show solidarity (I'm not sure - my concern is that I might not be entitled to the word, not that I would be ashamed of it)." you said one of the most beautiful things i have ever heard and i fell in love with you just a little bit. thank you.

Anonymous said...

An explanation of the euphemism "Venetian tendencies":

The British novelist Daphne du Maurier, secretive and uneasy about her sexuality, described sexual feelings evasively, using code words and euphemisms, "the L word" being but one example. An attractive person she termed "a menace", foreplay was "spinning", to have sex was "to wax. Sex with men was code-named "Cairo" while sex with women was "Venice". In one of letters she admitted that she preferred "Venice" to "Cairo".Therefore, instead of being a lesbian, a term she despised, she had "Venetian tendencies".

The defence rests