To Be "Queer": A Brief Linguistic History

To Be "Queer": A Brief Linguistic History

What does it mean to reclaim a word?
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Merriam Webster defines the word "queer" as “worthless, counterfeit," "questionable, suspicious," differing in some odd way from what is usual or normal," or "often disparaging: homosexual, sometimes offensive.”

Is the word “queer” a slur then? If so, why does Western Washington University, and so many other schools, have queer resource centers? Why do so many people, myself included, use “queer” as part of their identity?

Like with so many other things, let's consider the history.

In the early 16th century came the first recorded usage of "queer" in English, which originated from the German “quer,” meaning oblique, perverse. The usage was primarily the same until the turn of the 19th century, the word meaning “odd,” “perverse,” and “outside the norm.” But even before "queer" meant “not straight,” it gained secondary definitions. In the 17th century, "queer" had the secondary meaning of “giddy or drunk.” The first time "queer" was used to refer to a gay person was in the 1840s, that we have record of. John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry, Scotland, wrote a letter to his son, Lord Alfred Douglas, blaming Archibald Primrose, “snob queers like Roseberry,” for his other son Francis’s death.

By 1914, "queer" appeared in L.A. society pages. By this time, “queer” was used both within the community and outside it -- within the community, such as by Gertrude Stein, but outside the community, it was used as a slur. By the 1970s, linguistics scholar Julia Penelope interviewed gays and lesbians for "American Speech," and all knew the term but thought it was used by straight people to shame and show disdain for gay people.

In the 1980s, during the AIDS crisis and epidemic, one group of militant gay people responded with the creation of a group called Queer Nation. They handed out leaflets called “Queers Read This” during a pride march in New York in 1990. They wrote:

“Ah, do we really have to use that word?...Every gay person has his or her own take on it. For some it means strange and eccentric and kind of mysterious. That's okay, we like that. But some gay girls and boys don't. They think they're more normal than strange. And for others ‘queer’ conjures up those awful memories of adolescent suffering. Queer. It's forcibly bittersweet and quaint at best --- weakening and painful at worst. Couldn't we just use ‘gay’ instead. Well, yes, ‘gay’ is great. It has its place. But when a lot of lesbians and gay men wake up in the morning we feel angry and disgusted, not gay. So we've chosen to call ourselves queer. Using ‘queer’ is a way of reminding us how we are perceived by the rest of the world.”

During the 1990s, in part because of the success of Queer Nation, “queer” started appearing in academia -- “New Queer Cinema” and “Queer Theory” are two examples. By the 2000s, pop-culture took note with “Queer as Folk” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”

Now, “queer” has, for some, become an umbrella term, not just uniting gay men and lesbians, but people across the sexuality and gender spectrums. Why do some words get reclaimed and not others? I don’t know the answer, and there are plenty of people who have devoted a lot more time than I have who don’t know either.

My theory about why "queer" was reclaimed successfully? There were plenty of gay slurs that could have been reclaimed. It was because there was a need for it. LGBT is not fully indicative of the diverse and wonderful community that so many people, myself included, belong to. LGBTQIA is better, but some people are still left out, and it alienates community and non-community members; alphabet soup is not a great rallying cry. Queer, though? It's short, sweet, and inclusive: Exactly the kind of word that the community needed in the past, and definitely needs now.

My favorite thing about “queer” is the irony; it's a word that is supposed to mean "strange," but now, it can give people a common ground, a community, and an identity that unites people rather than divide them.
Cover Image Credit: Outright Vermont

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An Open Letter To The Meadville Medical Center And Its ER Staff

When did kindness become a deserved thing in the healthcare field; and only if you're not on drugs?
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Yes, that cover picture is me, coming off a ventilator...at Magee Women's Hospital in Pittsburgh, a two-hour drive from my house, not at Meadville Medical Center.

This is very difficult to write. We live in a small town, and you are the only hospital for over twenty miles. In fact, I live so close to you, that I can see your rooftop from my back garden. I can walk to you in about ten minutes if it’s not overly humid out. The Life Flights pass over my house as they arrive at and leave your facility, and my young daughter and I pray for every one of them.

My daughter had to call an ambulance on May 30th, as I had a sharp and horrible pain overtake me so suddenly, that I thought my neighbor (who I threatened to report for dealing drugs) had shot me through the dining room window at first. There was no blood to be seen, but the pain was so severe, that combined with the cold sweats and dizziness, I was genuinely afraid I was about to die.

I can’t express in words how proud I was of my girl as she explained to the 911 operator what was the matter and where we lived. She was brave and helpful as they took a blood sample, handled what I later learned was a seizure, and kindly got me into the ambulance from my difficult entryway. She called her Auntie and calmly told her to meet me at the ER. And while memories of the horrible experience I had in your ER twenty years ago still haunted me, the care and attention the ambulance drivers showed me encouraged me that I would be okay.

If only.

There were so many people, and I was half delirious with pain and inexplicable symptoms. Thank God my sister in law, Sheri, was there to help me fight for my life. For the sake of our small town and six degrees of separation, I will call them Nurse A, B, C, and D, and Doctor H. Your staff literally, unapologetically bullied me within an inch of my life.

When I arrived, it was apparently Nurse A who triumphantly announced to everyone involved in my care that I was on drugs, case closed. Despite Sheri and I repeatedly telling them that I hadn’t taken any narcotics, and I won’t take anything stronger than Motrin 800, they persisted in asking what I took. At one point I heard Sheri saying, “She does everything naturally, you're wasting time.” No one cared.

When Nurse A informed me that they needed a urine test, I told her to straight cath me, as I couldn’t stand up. It was Nurse A who told Doctor H that I faked two seizures on the way from my house (I am still amazed by her mystical powers that she could surmise this), and insisted again that I was faking everything. With utter disgust Doctor H said, “She can stand, get her up.” At Sheri’s protest, Nurse A reiterated, “If she can move her legs she can stand.” My legs, which were almost involuntarily moving to find relief from the pain in my abdomen, gave out on me when she insisted I put myself on the bedside commode. I passed out again and urinated on her.

When I woke up to Sheri frantically calling my name, I was greeted by an absolutely disgusted Nurse A, who complained that she needed to go change her clothes, and rolled her eyes at my faking another seizure. She informed everyone who came in next that I was faking these symptoms, and four attempts to straight cath me failed. In that moment, I was sure I was going to die.

Everything after that came in blurry and fragmented vignettes, like an awful out of body experience. There were Nurses B through D or more, all repeatedly asking me what drugs I took. Everyone scowled and frowned, passing on the information that I was faking everything. There were four of these nurses when I woke up on the way to a scan, and all but one asking me what drugs I took, and telling me to stop faking as I hysterically screamed that I could not breathe when I lay flat. I was terrified, confused, out of my mind, and unable to breathe when I lay flat, and they reported that “she hyperventilated herself” in the scan lab.

All the while, Sheri valiantly insisted they would find no drugs in the blood work, and that I probably hadn’t been to a family doctor in years. I lay in your ER cubicle and reconciled myself to God, convinced that I was going to die and be labeled a drug addict.

At some point, something shifted, and suddenly I received the blanket I had asked for hours before. Apparently, my temperature had dropped so low, their fancy thermometers couldn’t read anything. I remember a young man trying to find a vein and saying, “Oh my God, I’ve never seen anything like this. I’m not trying again.” My head was elevated, and the panic of not being able to breathe alleviated somewhat.

Suddenly Doctor H was almost kind, and I heard him telling Sheri something about “a mass” and “blood in her abdomen” and how some other hospital was better equipped to help me. She told me she okay-ed it, and I recall telling her, “I trust you. Just get me out of here.”

In fact, knowing someone else would care for me gave me such peace, that I literally lay completely still as an older man inserted an IV line into my neck with no anesthesia.

We assume the blood work came back and the scan verified what we desperately tried to tell everyone from the beginning; I wasn’t on or seeking drugs. But there was no apology from Nurse A, her fellow nurses, or Doctor H. I may be corrected, but I spent five or six hours in your ER defending myself to the same people who should have been fighting for my life.

As I lay there, talking to Yeshuale, three people in what looked like tactical suits came alongside my bed. The first was a woman who looked like she was speaking into a walkie talkie. Behind her two men. I thought to myself “Oh, state cops. I guess I’m just going to die in prison.” I was so out of it, confused and weary of being asked what drugs I took, I believed your ER staff had called the police and they had come to take me away. All I could think of was what would become of my young daughter.

Thank God, I was mistaken. The blonde woman wasn’t a police officer, but part of the helicopter team, on the phone with Magee in Pittsburgh so she could begin administering blood to me. Blood. Something your staff considered less important than accusing me of using and seeking some weird drugs. Behind her, a tall, blonde man smiled at me and explained that he was taking me in a helicopter and I would be fine. It was like hearing from an angel, and I remember saying, “Todah, Yeshuale!” repeatedly in my head and in a whisper. “Thank You, Jesus!”

Four blocks away, my daughter and the friend she was staying with waved as we flew over my house.

To my surprise, I woke up two days later, attached to a ventilator, one of my sister friends sitting beside my bed. I learned that I’d had two masses in my uterus, which tore itself open and bled into my abdomen. I’d lost four liters of blood and had a transfusion in the Life Flight. When they took the vent out, (my friend took the picture above) I made a joke about being a tough Jersey girl as I signed to the ICU nurse, but inside I was an emotional wreck. Still, as the days went on, I determined to treat everyone with kindness, and was treated the same way at every turn.

Kindness. The one thing I never received from your staff.

What was so special about me that your staff felt interrogating me about my apparent drug use was more important than helping me? My address? Because for some reason all the drug dealers in town seem to want to take over my block? So, we’re all on drugs, then? Do you realize that half my neighbors brag about going to your ER to get pain pills, and how easy it is? I never asked for anything but a Tylenol, and that was on the Life Flight. So, again I ask, what made me so unique?

And, I must say, it’s not even that your staff didn’t believe me. They were mean, hateful even. Rolling their eyes, talking about me like I wasn’t there, saying everything I did was a ruse to get drugs. When did it become okay to treat anyone like that? How was it alright for your nurse to walk in and determine that I was on drugs? How was it alright for her to set the tone of disbelief, unkindness, and abuse? How was it alright for the doctor to allow this and roll with it?

Yes, I said abuse. When someone is screaming that they can’t breathe and you tell them to stop faking, that is abuse. When you berate someone, and accuse them of something to the point where they believe they’re being taken to jail to die, that’s abuse. When you refuse to give someone a blanket, hold them down to the point where they’re bruised, that’s abuse. When you waste time to the point where an ambulance won’t get to the next hospital fast enough… that’s abuse. Your staff verbally, emotionally, and physically abused me.

Not only were they abusive, but they were comfortable with it. Your staff was comfortable with it, and didn’t care what it would cost me or my family. All but one nurse, who Sheri now tells me insisted that there was something wrong with me and took me for the scan. That nurse saved my life. People are comfortable with abuse because they get away with it. Abusers get smug, arrogant and even careless, because those they abuse say nothing. Your staff was smug, rude and uncaring to the point that they displayed a sick sort of disgust for me that was completely obvious. My sister in law later confirmed to me that it wasn’t all in my head.

At what point did this behavior become acceptable? Is it because you’re the only hospital for a 30-minute drive?

And, so what if I had been seeking drugs or high on some unknown concoction? Would that have made it okay for your staff to treat me thusly? Would Nurse A have been justified in declaring my altered state and treating me like garbage? Would Doctor H have been justified in how he treated me? When did nursing and healing give anyone that sort of power? When did people cease to be worthy of kindness, quality health care and gentleness based upon their drug use, or the address they live at?

When did you decide who deserves to be treated with dignity and respect and who does not? When did your medical staff earn that right to decide also?

If we’re completely honest, most of the people I know who abuse pills go to your ER at least once bimonthly to get refills. Your ER physicians pass out opioid scripts like candy and then mistreat the people they’re supplying? Thanks to you, I must hide the pain medication I loathe to take now, because someone will surely break in to my home and steal them if they know I have them. You, and other hospitals like you, are feeding addicts and creating innocent bystander victims like me, but that’s another conversation.

This is difficult to write, because you have your hooks in all over this town. This is difficult to write, because the trauma of that night is still fresh in my mind, and I often cry when I think about it. This is difficult to write, because the reality that I have had to now teach my child to ask any ambulance we ever need to call again to take us to Erie shouldn’t be necessary. This is difficult to write, but it needs to be said, especially since I’ve been finding out that I’m not the only person this has happened to.

You need to address these issues. You need to stop handing out scripts like promotional coupons, and perhaps you won’t have nurses and doctors assuming everyone’s on drugs or seeking them. You need to discourage the abusive and toxic behavior of your staff, and hold them accountable when patients complain. Let me put this into perspective for you: I’m pretty sure Nurse A is the same age as my oldest daughter, and my child would eat mud before she treated anyone like that. Why? Because my kids were never allowed to behave that way in the first place, but to stay on topic, she grew up with consequences, and as an adult still recognizes their severity.

As the events of that night become clearer to me, and I continue my peaceful, miraculous recovery at home, I am determined not to hold on to bitterness about what happened to me at your ER. I am determined to make the most of the second chance at life I’ve been given, and leave your abusive staff in the past. I’ll probably pass some of them in the super market, or sit behind them in church, our town is so small. And while you and your toxic staff will cease to haunt my future, I will surely haunt yours. Nurse A, Doctor H, and Nurses B through whatever… will never forget the night the woman with the blue hair nearly died because they were too busy wrongly judging to actually care.

I am determined to walk out the rest of my life in kindness, the very discussion I had in a blackout with God while your nurse accused me of faking a seizure. I will pray, hoping with all hope that kindness will once again be requisite for employment in your ER and every area of your corporation. Believe me, it’s possible and good for profits. The entire time I spent in Pittsburgh at Magee I never encountered a single unkind staff member from the surgeons to the housekeepers.

I know you can do it.

Cover Image Credit: Heidi Owens

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Netflix's 'Special' Is A Groundbreaking Series About A Gay Man With Cerebral Palsy

Based off his memoir "I'm Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves" Ryan O'Connell reimagines his journey in this witty 15-minute comedy.

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Ryan O'Connell is a gay man with cerebral palsy, and he's here to showcase his story in a must-see eight episode series. O'Connell navigates his world behind sexuality and disability in a coming-of-age twentysomething comedy, that's extremely important in today's society. When it comes to the topic of representation, O'Connell exceeds expectations as he shines a light on internalized ableism, being a fish out of water in his own community, and even the topic of gay sex. This series has a significant amount of charm, it's almost like a rated-R Disney show with its quirky music, fast-paced story and it's a success in making everyone's heart melt.

"Special" is about Ryan Hayes (Ryan O'Connell) a charismatic and shy gay man with mild cerebral palsy who's "28 and hasn't done a goddamn thing." Therefore, he takes the initiative of becoming an unpaid intern at an online magazine titled "Eggwoke" and begins his journey in soul-searching for his identity. His boss Olivia (Marla Mindelle), a chaotic Anna Wintour-type, expresses that most articles going viral right now are confessional ones. This allows Ryan to have his moment, as he writes an anecdote about getting hit by a car and inflates it from a minor injury to a traumatic piece, which allows him to use it as a cover story for his limp and to keep his condition a secret from his peers.

Ryan befriends one of his peers, a South-Asian American woman named Kim (Punam Patel) whose professional niche involves body positivity, the empowerment of being a person of color and a curvy girl. Her constant confidence helps paint her as the motivating friend that helps Ryan get more comfortable with himself. They share a moment at Olivia's pool party in a room when Ryan refuses to take off his clothes and she coerces him into taking off his clothes and appreciating his body. Kim might be a bit of a push towards Ryan, but she's only leading him in the right direction.

"Special" is extremely self-aware, especially within the first scenes of the first episode which explain what mild cerebral palsy is and in response a child screams in fear and runs away, leaving Ryan confused but humored. There even is a complex relationship between Ryan and his mother, Karen (Jessica Hecht). Karen's an overprotective mother who only wants the best for her child, but when she's at that point of finally letting him be free she's put into a place of loneliness. The show tackles a very specific mother/son relationship, as Ryan tries not to rely on his mother for help all the time, Karen does not mind any hassle regarding her son... especially with his condition. The two butt heads at multiple occasions, but their love for one another prevails.

"Special" has eight episodes that you can watch on Netflix right now, it's binge-worthy especially with each episode being around 15 minutes and it's also an eye-opener. This show helps strive for self-revelation and self-evaluation, it's a reflective process on identity and what categories we put ourselves in. Ryan O'Connell has made such a marvelous show, with a charming cast, multiple important messages, and a motive to help normalize disabilities and homosexuality to the public through a unique and specific perspective. It's a personal experience that everyone should watch, learn and love from.

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