That Q Word

I love the letter Q–I love its loopy tail and its jaunty way of sitting on a line. I like the way it gets all lowercase and pretends to be a G that swings the other way. I like the sound it makes when it snuggles up to a U: Kwuh. It’s so cute.

So I suppose it’s not too strange that I also love words that start with Q and some that have a Q along for the ride, like inquiry and quarry and quip. You know what Q word I like in spite of the problem it presents? Queer.

Leaving the rest aside for a moment, it’s such a lovely word, rolling off the tongue: “Kwheer.” It sounds like space kittens mewing. And it rhymes with “beer,” which is a nifty thing. But it’s a problem child in editorial land.

I’ve snuck Queer or Queerness into five of my soon-to-be-seven novels, but not in the obvious way. I’ve never used it in print to refer to homosexuals or the state of being homosexual and I’ve never used it as pejorative or insult. I know it’s a controversial word and every time I’ve used it, a copyeditor has questioned me on it. “Are you sure you want to use this word?”

Yes, I do. Part of the reason I like to use it in it’s old glory is because it’s so ambiguous and scary now. I’ve always felt that part of the reason “queer” became a pejorative was the implication of something that is not only strange or eccentric (yes, that’s the original meaning,) but slightly disturbing (this is strictly my interpretation, since I can’t find a reference for it, but I’m sure I saw it once…). In my mind “queerness” implies something whose strangeness gives the observer a sense of disquiet and that’s why people chose to fling it at others. They were not only saying “you’re weird and you’re not like me,” but also admitting “and that freaks me out.”

I can understand why the GLBT community has worked hard to rehabilitate and own this word since it says as much about the people who’d use it as a weapon as it does about the people who embrace it. “Yes,” it says, “strangeness discomfits you.” It preys on the mind and whispers of things some people don’t like to face. It turns, subtly, against the people who use it to hurt others, it makes the strangeness their own fault and questions them about what they fear and why.

I like the way Queer carries that luggage. I like the way it sneaks in the back of people’s brains and makes them just that tiny bit uncomfortable or unsure–or even amused–when it is used like it used to be, to say “strange” or “unwell.” I like the way it unsettles people and makes them think about what I might be saying when I write that the a place possess an “uncanny queerness.” The area is plainly not homosexual or transgendered, but it is unsettlingly strange and it preys in circular loops on the fear of the observer. You really have to respect a word that clever and sneaky.

And it certainly puts an interesting spin on Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening”….
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year…

Just what is the horse really thinking? And what is Frost saying when he projects that idea into the horse’s head? Are you feeling a bit… queer now…?

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About Kat Richardson

Writer, editor, eccentric pain in the tail, bestselling author of the Greywalker novels.
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6 Responses to That Q Word

  1. Great piece, and insightful. I’ve always been fond of “queer” as well. I had a history professor who used it constantly, but he lived in such a separate world who knows if he even realized how the usage had changed. I always took it to mean something that just didn’t sit quite right, but I never really stopped to consider the connotation of discomfort behind it. After this post, I actually love the word even more.

  2. sharonstogner says:

    great post! and you are right there are some situations where queer is the most apt description, but most won’t use it because of the controversy…

  3. jackie says:

    I’ve always loved the way you use it in your books – so great to see how intentional that is!

  4. Rae says:

    Q is much underrated and under-used except, of course, by you. I have always liked the word quaint and I have always liked Quinton!

  5. Chris Tice says:

    I am surprised that copy-editors are so worried about the least derrogatory word for the GLBT community especially when not even used in that context. Do they also shy away from colors like black and white? I would think tagging them as an acronym would be more offensive.

  6. I think they feel the need to double check, just in case I’m unaware of the flak that the word can bring down. But being cautious is part of their job, so I can’t say I’m unhappy with it, I just find it amusing.

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