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Don’t say the Q word…

PSA lead for LGBT+ members, Paul Court, publishes his latest blog to mark International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia:

"The observant amongst you may have noticed that my blogs usually coincide with a significant date. So you may be asking yourself why I’m putting pen to paper this week. Whilst it may be National Sandwich Week, that isn’t the reason I wrote this blog. Nor is it because it is 'Be Nice to Nettles Week' or National Donkey Week.

I am not particularly fond of either although I will make a commitment to being kinder to both should I come across them.

Rather today, 17th May, is International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. It is a date chosen to commemorate the decision to remove homosexuality from the International Classification of Diseases of the World Health Organisation with the aim to coordinate international events and to raise awareness of LGBT rights violations around the world.

As one of the most common types of H/T/B phobic abuse people experience comes in the form of words, whether shouted in the street or more commonly in those 280 characters of a social media post, I thought I would try to answer the question: “is it safe to use the Q word?”

You will likely be aware of the acronym LGBTQIA (often abbreviated to just LGBT+). Like when we learnt the phonetic alphabet, many of us will be able to say the first couple of letters but will most likely struggle when we get to the letter Q. Many might guess it stands for Queer but will be confused as to how this homophobic slur could find its way into the alphabet soup. A bit like the Pride flag that I discussed in my last blog, the word queer has an interesting history dating back to the 16th century where it was used to described something “strange, peculiar or not quite right” (I know what my friends who are reading this are thinking right now!) Fast forward 300 years and the definition moved towards describing sexual deviation and men in same-sex relationships. Finally, another 100 years later, after the Second World War and it was being commonly used as an offensive slur. But just as the pride flag story continues to develop, so does Queer’s story.

In an act of ‘reappropriation’, some within the LGBT community have picked up the verbal insults that have been thrown and used them to build a monument for the community to rally around and to own.

In doing so, it can no longer be used as an insult. And it isn’t alone in being the only homophobic term that has been taken back – you may have seen pride parades around the world being led by ‘Dykes on Bikes’.

Once an offensive term used against Lesbians, it is now proudly worn across their t-shirts. But it isn’t just the gay community re-appropriating these words – ‘suffragette’ having been used in 1906 by the Daily Mail to belittle women was reclaimed by the women who fought for the right to vote. There are many other examples. But whilst the term queer is now commonly and widely accepted word used as an umbrella term to describe all those within the LGBTQIA community, given its recent history it is unsurprising that many people still find the use of the word offensive. 

Many gay people will not identify as queer. It will almost certainly have been a word that has been used to attack them throughout their life. In preparing this blog, I asked a gay officer to review what I had written. He wrote back to me: “just hearing the Q word now makes me feel viscerally sick. I would have gladly watched the Q word wither, die and fall into obscurity. I am envious of those who freely (mis)use that word now without the suffering, the despair, the character-forming torture and self-loathing that goes with it”. 

And so, you’re probably left feeling like you’ve wasted your time reading a blog that has failed to answer a simple question – “is it safe to use the Q word?” Well, there just isn’t a simple yes or no – it all depends on the lens through which we view life. That said even if I haven’t provided a definitive answer, I hope that I have provided some food for thought. If the Police Service is to continue to become a safer and more inclusive workplace, then we should all have confidence to ask what may seem ‘dangerous’ questions – it was because an inquisitive Chief Inspector chose to ask me about the word Queer that I was prompted to use it as the theme of this blog. The reality is that in being curious about these things it will serve to enlighten us all. 

Finally, I will sign off with the words of the American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou who said, “People will forget what you said but people will never forget how you made them feel”. When our communications and interactions with each other come from a kind and compassionate place, it is much less about the word we use but rather the way we leave people feeling. On IDAHOBIT day, we may all do well to remember Maya’s words. 

Until next time, Paul.