Is Queer an Offensive Slur?

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Netflix series Queer Eye is an example of how the word has been reclaimed by the LGBT community. Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

Queer: a derogatory term used to attack gay people or an empowering, catch-all word fully reclaimed by the LGBTQ community? That's the question that Twitter was faced with recently after a user accused the platform of suspending her account for tweeting the term.

"Twitter thinks queer is a slur, which means basically everyone I know is going to be locked out at some point," wrote Twitter user @theb00kwitch, Pink News reported. Her account was suspended after she posted a message about a fellow Twitter user supporting "queer writers."

The company said that the tweet had violated its rules against hateful conduct, which suggests its software had detected "queer" and believed it had been used in an insulting manner.

A spokesperson for Twitter told Newsweek the company doesn't comment on individual accounts for privacy and security reasons.

Whatever the reason for suspending the account, the incident raises interesting questions about whether "queer" continues to be an offensive word, and how bots that pick up slurs should be programed to take into account the nuances of language.

The Oxford English Dictionary has identified uses of "queer" to mean strange as early as the 1500s, although back then it did not relate to a person's gender or sexuality, explains Jessica Stern, the executive director of LGBT advocacy group Outright International.

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"During the period between the 1890s and 1920s, the term began to be used scornfully to describe gay or effeminate men, lesbian or manly women, and probably transgender people who didn't neatly conform to expectations about who a woman or man should be," says Stern.

"Since the 1980s, many LGBT people have reclaimed the word to remove the negative connotations that were used to dehumanize us. Today, we use 'queer' to unite LGBT and transgender people under an umbrella broad enough to cover diverse experiences. 'Queer' is a term of defiance, a way of proudly conveying in a single word that we know our history, and we are not ashamed."

"'Queer' has become a beautiful, inclusive term that refers to diverse genders and sexualities, identity, way of life, and scholarship."

Most recently, the term made the title of the popular Netflix makeover show Queer Eye, a reboot of the groundbreaking 2000s series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, suggesting activists have successfully rid the word of its hateful connotations.

However, as a spokesperson from LGBT rights charity Stonewall suggests, loaded terms like "queer" still have the power to hurt. "Recently it's been reclaimed by young LGBT people in particular, who don't necessarily identify with traditional categories of gender identity and sexual orientation. But for some members of the LGBT community, the word queer remains a loaded and offensive term."