Queer: The word’s meaning has evolved since the 19th century

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An activist holds a sign that says, “We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re filled with existential fear.” Photo by Shutterstock.

With Pride Month going on, people are more frequently using the word “queer,” which went through an evolution. 

“Queer” was more of a connotation in the 19th century, insinuating someone’s sexual “deviance,” explains Karen Tongson, professor of gender and sexuality Studies at USC. 

In the 1980s, Josie Cotton wrote the song “Johnny Are You Queer?” It ended up drawing backlash from the religious right. 

“Televangelists went crazy over the song. They thought I was actually a man trying to convert people to homosexuality. And then the Catholic Church banned me — I was banned in Amsterdam. And then yeah, on the East Coast, there was a reaction to it as homophobic,” Cotton recalls. 

Tongson points out, “Not long after “Johnny, Are You Queer?” — there were reclamations of the word in the broader culture, in part as an activist response to the AIDS crisis, where ‘queer’ was taken up by groups like Queer Nation to assert a lack of shame around the identity of being L, G, B or T. … And finally, in the 2000s, you have a word that had a really intense and confrontational political meaning — become domesticated on TV through shows like ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.’ … The word starts to lose some of its bite, and it becomes an umbrella term that people are using and referring to … the LGBTQ+ community.”

She shares that she’s part of Generation X and came out in the early 1990s. “I did have painful memories of the word or the accusation or the way it would come out of some people's mouths. And then I remember the moment … it became something that I proudly claimed. ‘We’re queer, we're here, get used to it’ — as the Queer Nation rallying cry declares.”

Then Queer Studies became an academic field, and queer student groups formed on campuses, she notes. 

Cotton says this conversation triggers memories for her too. “I didn't have a lot of people around me saying ‘queer’ in a derogatory way. What word that they used in Texas was ‘fag,’ which seemed to be much more full of hatred than the actual ‘queer’ word.”

Ultimately, Tongson suggests, she’s happy there’s a higher awareness around language. “I'm glad that people are aware that words are meaningful and can do things, and that people check in with each other about it.”



  • Josie Cotton - musician
  • Karen Tongson - author of “Normporn: Queer Viewers And The TV That Soothes Us,” professor of gender and sexuality, English, and American studies at USC