John Boyne: Stop calling me ‘queer’ – it’s derogatory and traumatising
If you’re gay or lesbian and choose to embrace the term, then good luck to you – but don’t force it on the rest of us.
One of my favourite novels is The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne,’ began the tweet. ‘(And it’s queer!)’ While I was pleased that the reader had enjoyed the book, the word ‘queer’ made me bristle. Had someone said that about one of my books 20 years ago, it would have seen it as an attack, and a nasty one at that, but today it has the opposite intent. Contributing a story to an anthology in 2020, I felt uneasy when I learned it was to be called Queer Love but made no protest. It was edited by a gay man, after all, and I was just one contributor in a book that featured only LGBT writers, so I didn’t feel it was my place to object. But I mean no offence to the editor, a hugely talented writer, when I say I felt uncomfortable with the title.
The word queer is being disputed. Last month, The Guardian published a letter by a 66-year-old gay man, Karl Lockwood, asking people to stop using it, pointing out that only 1% of those who claimed anything other than heterosexuality used this word to describe themselves. ‘I suspect that many, like me, consider the term to be insulting and derogatory,’ he wrote. ‘It would seem a small minority of activists has encouraged the media to use the word without considering its offensiveness to many people.’
Naturally, this provoked much reaction. One Twitter commentator said that the word ‘queer’ had been ‘reclaimed’ by the LGBT+ community, as if that community operates on a hive mentality with a decision made by a Queen before being accepted unconditionally by her drones.
In a letter of reply, Emma Joliffe, a lesbian, suggested that Lockwood should ‘accept that the word, and the world, has moved on.’ Acknowledging that a sexagenarian man had come of age at a more difficult time, she nevertheless implied that since he is relatively old, and she is relatively young, his opinion matters less than hers. She may not have intended to be so ageist but that’s how it came across as she casually disregarded the fact that the freedoms many of us – including her – now enjoy, were won by the advocacy of those who came before.
I’m thinking of activists like Fred Sargeant, David Norris, and Allison Bailey. Writers like Edmund White and Graham Linehan. Sportspeople like Martina Navratilova. (One can only wonder whether Ms Joliffe will feel quite so supercilious, 20 years hence, when she too is considered irrelevant, feels unseen, and her opinions are dismissed by a generation as yet unborn.)
Pink News, a website aimed at LGBT+ people whose approach to dissent is only slightly to the left of Vladimir Putin’s, wrote that the letter was greeted with ‘almost unanimous criticism by queer people’, ignoring the blindingly obvious fact that anyone who uses that word to describe themselves would, by their very nature, disagree.
So is ‘queer’ derogatory or not? The gender debate has proved that no community, gay or straight, subscribes to homogenous opinions. Some believe that transwomen are women; some do not. Some feel comfortable with their homosexuality from early on; some struggle with it throughout their lives. Some would lay down their lives for Kylie; some have no interest. (Although, naturally, the latter are to be shunned.) I have many gay and lesbian friends, but there are plenty that I would prefer not to be in a room with. Just as there are many straight people with whom I would never engage.
My first recognition of the word ‘queer’ came at an early age. Having suffered some sexual abuse as a teenager, and erroneously connected that to my growing realisation that I was gay, I found it a brutal reaction to my own trauma. I was occasionally called a queer in school, but I don’t blame my schoolmates for that. Like me, they were just children, developing their own moral compass and figuring out their own sexual identity. But there’s something about the syllable that sounds so venomous on the tongue.
When I started going to gay clubs in Dublin, I remember the anxiety I felt upon leaving, particularly if I was not going home alone. Stepping on to George’s Street could result in, at best, a tirade of mockery by passing straight men and, at worst, violence. Queer and faggot were the two most popular terms employed. I felt hated, threatened, and frightened.
So perhaps readers will understand how, in 2023, the fact that the word has drifted back into the mainstream troubles me. To those who claim that it has been ‘reclaimed’, I would say no, that it has been co-opted. I’m aware of many heterosexual people, in heterosexual relationships, who have never been in anything but heterosexual relationships, and who would no more sleep with someone of the same sex than they would zipline over a river filled with hungry crocodiles, but who nevertheless describe themselves as queer. This seems performative, an attempt to make the person seem more interesting than they actually are. The notion of just being straight is so anathema to many people today that they, for whom their ‘truth’ is so important, employ a descriptor that is fundamentally a lie. They are not ‘queer’; they are simply normal people, which pains them, for they mistakenly believe that normal people cannot be interesting. And, if Sally Rooney – another Irish novelist – has proven anything, it’s that they can.
For my part, I don’t care what anyone calls me. I live my life privately, publish my books publicly, receive praise and criticism for both, but have long since reached a point where my self-esteem is neither augmented nor diminished by the kind or hateful words of strangers. However, I do not and will never consider myself queer. If you’re gay or lesbian and choose to embrace the term, then good luck to you. But don’t force it on those of us for whom it recalls the traumas of our youth. More importantly, however, if you are a heterosexual, then please stop using it altogether. As straight people, you do not get to reclaim anything about the LGBT+ experience, any more than white people get to reclaim a word that has historically been used to demean people of colour. It is simply not your right.
In Melbourne recently, I had a conversation with a writer friend where we discussed how glad we were to have been born gay. Granted, neither of us have any hang-ups about our sexuality, we’ve embraced it, written about it, and felt fulfilled by the relationships we’ve had within it. But it made me wonder why so many – mostly heterosexual – people today are loathe to be true to who they are? Perhaps we live in a time when young adults have to admit to their friends and family that, while they’ve kept this bottled up inside for a long time, they simply cannot deny it any longer: they’re straight. Young people, trust me on this: if you’re a heterosexual, your family and friends will accept you. They love you for who you are and just want you to be happy. And if that means, for a young man, that he exclusively dates women, and, for a young woman, that she exclusively dates men, then so be it.
It’s fate, you’re straight, get used to it.
John Boyne is the author of 21 books, including The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and The Heart’s Invisible Furies. In 2022, he was voted Author of the Year at the Irish Book Awards.
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