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On the Word ‘Queer’

Few words carry as much power as the words we use to describe ourselves. Finding a label that fits your experiences lends a sense of completeness, of accomplishment; it allows you to join a community of others who describe themselves the same way. Many of these words, however, carry more meaning than just a definition.

The word “queer” and its use in the LGBTQ+ community have been a point of contention for much of our history. Today, though many agree that the efforts to publicize LGBTQ+ issues and the concurrent strive for equality has led to the reclamation of the word, it is still often seen – and used – as a slur. To understand this debate, and to informedly take a side, it is important to first understand its history.

The origins of the word “queer” have, to a degree, been lost to history. It may have come from a Scottish or German word meaning ‘oblique’ or ‘off-center’, but linguists are uncertain. In any case, by the early 1800s, it had garnered a strongly negative connotation in English – to queer meant to spoil or ruin a situation.

The first recorded use of “queer” as a homophobic slur was in 1894, by John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry, who blamed the death of his son Francis on Francis’s suspected love interest, Lord Rosebery. Queensberry, in a letter to another son, speculated that “snob queers like Rosebery” had corrupted his son and led to his demise.

During the 1900s, people both inside and outside of the community tended to use “queer” pejoratively, with the slur gaining popularity in the 1950s and later. In 1970, linguist Julia Penelope wrote for the journal American Speech that, in her interviews with gays and lesbians, they all felt that the term “was only used by heterosexuals to express their disdain for homosexuals”. As it is today, bullying of LGBTQ+ students was a massively pervasive issue, and many older members of the community today dislike the word “queer” because they most often heard it as a targeted attack on their identity. Some LGBTQ+ activists did embrace the term as a self-identifier: Gertrude Stein, in her 1903 coming-out story Q.E.D., referred to two female love interests as queer. Still, the term remained hateful in mainstream culture until the latter half of the century.

The reclamation of the term “queer” trailed after the rise of the mainstream gay rights movement. The term “queercore” emerged in the 80s, sparked by punk zine J.D.s. The publication was launched in 1985 to give a voice to the unruly, anti-establishment wing of the gay rights movement. As cofounder Bruce LaBruce explained,  “Gay assimilation was already starting back then, accelerated by the AIDS crisis, so the gay movement was already distancing and disassociating itself from its more unruly, extreme and anti-establishment elements – queers who did not fit into the gay white bourgeois patriarchy.” Queercore music gave voice to LGBTQ+ artists who were tired of societal disapproval, and allowed them to express their outrage through the time-honored outlet of punk music.

More radical efforts to reclaim “queer” began in the 1990s. Queer Nation, founded in 1990, is a New York-based LGBTQ+ activist organization. Founded by members of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) who were outraged about the escalation of violence against a community still grieving and suffering from the AIDS epidemic, Queer Nation strove to educate the public and protest for the promotion of gay rights. They popularized the chant “We’re here! We’re Queer! Get used to it!”, which became a rallying cry for the community. They also distributed leaflets with titles like “We’re here, we’re queer, and we’d like to say hello!” and “Queers read this – The Queer Nation Manifesto”, spreading information and safe-sex tips, as well as urging LGBTQ+ people to fight for their rights. Their manifesto actively pushed for use of the word “queer” to describe themselves: “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”.

Today, “queer” is often used as a catchall term for members of the LGBTQ+ community. For people whose sexuality or gender identity is uncertain or difficult to explain, “queer” is also valued as a concise way to explain how they identify. Still, the word’s history casts a shadow over its use today: on its website, PFLAG advises that, due to its history as a slur, the word “queer” “should only be used when self-identifying or quoting someone who self-identifies as queer”.

For many LGBTQ+ students, their FIRST team feels like a safe place to come out. The sense of camaraderie, of family, lets them comfortably be who they are and express their identity. Coming out is an extremely important event in the lives of many LGBTQ+ people, and finding a label that describes one’s identity carries just as much weight. On FIRST teams, surrounded by young people who have, for the most part, seen “queer” as a fairly mainstream identifier of sexuality, some may find solace in a label that cements their place in the LGBTQ+ community, but doesn’t hold them to strict standards or stereotypes, and accepts uncertainty or vagueness about the precise nature of their identity. Still, the word’s history cannot be ignored.  

When I was younger, my dad gave me one of the most valuable pieces of advice I’ve ever received. “Words are just words,” he said, “until you give them meaning.”

Though the word “queer” has a controversial history, its meaning today is, simply put, what you make of it. For some, it’s a word we use to describe our identities. For others, it’s a curse spat with hatred and ignorance. Personally, I believe that my queer brothers and sisters have spent decades fighting for our right to describe ourselves however we like, to truly embrace what makes us unique, to take our places in a community that understands not only our struggles, but also our joy, our passion, and our love. I am queer, and I’m proud to say it.  

But it’s up to you.

-Tess M.

Labels within the Aro/Ace Community – Joseph’s Experience

There’s lots of discussion surrounding the use of labels, especially in the aro and ace communities. This is my experience  and opinion on how they are best applied. I use the split attraction model, which divides attraction into sexual and romantic.

My first step on the road to realizing I’m aro/ace (aromantic/asexual) was accepting my asexuality, although I still thought I was heteroromantic. This immediately required an acceptance of the split attraction model that I still believe in. Later on, I started to reconsider my “crushes” and found that they had different circumstances than most people’s. This led me to look further into the various descriptors of romantic attraction. While I didn’t try each of these, the list includes things like fray-, akoi-, quoi-, demi-, and autochoris-. The list goes on and on.

Some might call these silly, splitting hairs, or an attempt to be a special snowflake. I ended up using aro/ace, a more accepted one. But I don’t think I would’ve gotten there as soon without looking into these labels. They helped me see that there’s more ways to experience attraction than whatever your friends feel or what the media shows you.

Labels in general are descriptions of an experience, not the other way around. Each person’s experiences are unique and likely aren’t shared exactly by anyone else. In my opinion this means labels are only useful to figure out what you are experiencing if they lead you to find resources. They are not rules on how you are supposed to feel. For example, I’ve tried dating since figuring out my current set of labels because I wanted to be close to someone, who happened to have a crush on me. It didn’t work out because of my orientation, but it was definitely worth the try, and I would have missed out on it if I had stuck to my labels. However, labels are very helpful to find a network. Sometimes you need support, advice, or just a person to talk to who understands what you mean. It’s a lot easier to say the closest approximation to what you feel rather than describing it every time.

When it comes to interactions, labels should only be used to self-describe. It’s good to understand yourself, but nobody else should try to dictate how you identify yourself. They only need to know how you feel about them. To the aforementioned person, I told her I’m aro/ace, but when we talked about our relationship, I never used a label. It’s important to be honest and leave nothing out when doing this, but it leads to better relationships than simply using someone else’s experiences to describe yourself.

Whatever labels you choose to use, remember that who you are is more important than what you are. You love who you love how you love, and how you describe that is entirely up to you.

– Joseph S.

Eight LGBTQ-related Issues School Curriculums Should Cover

  1. The Difference between Gender and Biological Sex
    • This is a simple difference that, unfortunately, most people aren’t taught. Gender and biological sex are not the same thing. As stated on reachout.com and scienceabc.com, “The difference between sex and gender is that sex is a biological concept based on biological characteristics, whereas gender deals with personal, societal and cultural perceptions of sexuality.” When people think that gender and biological sex are synonyms, it leads them to question why people identify as transgender or nonbinary. When people identify the way they do, it is because that is what makes them most comfortable as a human being, not how they were born. It is a small thing that can really change one’s perspective on why people identify one way or another.
  2. LGBTQ+ Elements of Sex Education
    • Most schools don’t teach students about the different kinds of intercourse that can occur within relationships or how to be safe during those encounters. Most of the time, it is emphasized that abstinence is the only safe method to prevent pregnancy or STIs, while other effective methods are skimmed over. This leads young people to be ignorant of  how two people of the same gender have sex or how people in non-traditional relationships (one person being non-binary, trans, or in a polyamorous relationship, or even if both people are asexual) can even be in a relationship together. This lack of information then leads to misinformation and bad relationship practices later on in life. It also puts LGBTQ+ youth and their partners at higher risk for pregnancy and STIs.
  3. The Existence of Intersex People
    • During biology in public schools, more often than not, it is taught that men have penises and XY chromosomes, while girls have vaginas, and XX chromosomes. The problem is that this is not 100% true. Out of all pregnancies, “1 in 1500” to “1 in 2000” of babies are considered intersex (isna.org). These intersex people could have a different combination of chromosomes or genitalia than what is considered normal. Due to erasure within this community, intersex identities are often overlooked. This alienates people who are intersex and leads the general population and even part of the LGBTQ+ to be blind to the intersex community.
  4. The Existence of Nonbinary Gender Identities
    • Most kids are raised to believe that you can only be a boy or girl, when in reality, possible identities are widely varied. In addition to male or female, many individuals identify as nonbinary, genderqueer, agender, androgyne, bigender, pangender, etc. If a child feels that they don’t fit into the gender binary, they should be aware of the different identities that they are able to choose from. This would alleviate the stress of feeling the need to fit into either a male or female identity in order to be accepted by society.
  5. The Spectrum of Human Sexuality  
    • Similar to gender, schools should teach students that it is okay not to be heterosexual. There are many different ways to identify, if you care to put a label on yourself at all. However, because kids are raised to alienate people who are atypical, children choose to stay in the closet as to not stand out from the crowd. Stopbullying.gov shows that, “34% of lesbian, gay and bisexual students were bullied on school property, 28% of lesbian, gay and bisexual students were electronically bullied, and 13% of lesbian, gay and bisexual students did not go to school because of safety concerns,” (Stopbullying.gov). Exposing children to diverse perspectives and identities from an early age would decrease the amount of harassment LGBTQ+ people face because people would grow up knowing that it is completely fine to identify differently from one another. Additionally, introducing students to the range of identities that exist and the characteristics that make each unique would lead to less erasure of certain identities and help students figure out how they identify for themselves.
  6. How to Support LGBTQ+ People
    • Schools should have some way of teaching their student body how to support LGBTQ+ students. Some of the most important ways to support LGBTQ+ people is to use their preferred pronouns, avoid derogatory names or words, see them for their personality instead of their gender or sexual orientation, and overall be a kind and understanding person. You won’t know everything related to being LGBTQ+, but you must be willing to learn and grow from your mistakes.
  7. Why Micro-Aggressions are Hurtful
    • We have all heard people say things like, “That’s gay”, and “No homo” some time in their lifetime. Not only is it harmful to the person who it’s directed at, but it is also harmful to society because it creates this notion that not being straight is a bad thing. This makes it much more difficult for LGBTQ+ people to come out of the closet as it reinforces the idea that being LGBTQ+ is inherently bad and something to be ashamed of. If schools suggested that their students to use a different vocabulary, it would suggest a nicer and more accepting environment for everybody.
  8. The History of the Stonewall Riots
    • Considered the starting point of the fight for LGBTQ+ rights in the United States, the Stonewall Riots are very important in the history of America and other Western countries. Because of how curriculum varies from district to district, various historic events are left out. However, it shouldn’t be up to any district to determine whether or not students are to be taught about an important moment in history, especially the history of LGBTQ+ rights. Civil rights movements are an important part of United States history as they played a major role in shaping society to the form it takes today, and it would be beneficial if this material was taught across the country so that people aren’t left in dark on why fighting for LGBTQ+ rights is important.

 

The Crossroads of FIRST and LGBT – Tom’s Testimony

So, first, an introduction.  My name’s Tom – I’m an FRC alum of team 487, the Robo Spartans out of Erdenheim, PA.  The team hasn’t existed in that form in many years.  I’m Bi, and use he/him pronouns.  I currently mentor FTC team 9618, the CyberSpartans out of the same town.  I’m 31, and started as a FIRST student in 2000.  I’ve served in many roles – Volunteer Coordinator, Referee, Judge, and most recently I’ve had the honor of serving as one of the Masters of Ceremony at the St. Louis World Championship for FIRST Tech Challenge. This is my weird, fabulous story of the crossroads of FIRST and LGBT. When I was in high school, I came out to one person, and one person only.  I was so scared of myself, of who I’d be, that it wasn’t until after college that I truly accepted my sexuality.  In a somewhat cliche passage, I was in a community theater production of RENT, where I came out to my friends.  It would still be another few years until I came out to my parents, at the ripe age of 28.  I count myself lucky – I live in a very welcoming community, with great parents.  But what trapped me most, was myself.  The only resolve to that was therapy, and time. One of the things that has kept me involved with FIRST so long is the people, the community.  I have long felt that you can truly be yourself at a competition – your weird, quirky, unique self.  The self you want to be, but are otherwise afraid to embrace outside the sanctity of a Robotics event.  We embrace safety as part of our culture.  Who is to say that the safety stops at mechanical tools and protective eyewear? Many fraternal societies operate on the principle of having a sacred, shared space where everyone is safe to reveal their secrets.  Our shared space just has a shorter perimeter.
Why do I feel so passionate about this movement? For one, anything that gives students an opportunity to take a leadership position is fantastic.  That’s the whole point of this program – learn skills that you can apply to ANYTHING.  Secondly, I have seen far too many people think that they are alone, that nobody in this world can feel the way they do, that there is no place for them past high school.  I hope that I can serve as a role model to someone – even just one person, to say that you don’t have to be perfect.  You don’t have to get everything right, or even fully know who you are or what you want to be when you grow up.  As long as you’re kind to others, celebrate their strengths, and help them through their weaknesses, then this world we share will be a better place.  And it’s okay to be open about who you are in our community.  I am – and in most of the things I do in FIRST, it doesn’t matter one but.  Which is the greatest feeling in the world.
-Tom

Questioning – Joseph’s Experience

I didn’t really consider the idea that I wasn’t straight until 8th grade. By then, I had already had two “crushes.” How a crush feels is never explained to anyone because supposedly everybody feels one by the end of middle school. That makes it pretty easy to misconstrue. I just knew that I had a really good friend, who was a girl, and I really enjoyed being around her. Sounded spot-on.

One night my sister, cousins and I were playing truth or dare. A lot of the truth topics were about crushes and stuff, and my two (male) cousins started talking about what it feels like when they see a hot girl. I said that I had no such experience. They seemed to think I was some sort of a saint, but my sister asked if that meant I was asexual. I laughed about it but looked it up that night. A lot of the stuff was pretty relatable. There were loads of stories about people who had experiences like me but didn’t hear about asexuality until they were much older. I’m lucky I figured that part out so early.

Of course then I thought that would be the end of it – I’m ace, but I had crushes on girls. Heteroromantic. Easy. But then I started digging into the ace community on tumblr. They had all sorts of other labels for every type of attraction. I thought a bit about a few of them, but didn’t really consider them too seriously until much later. Still the idea that I wasn’t a “completely straight ace” lingered.

Fast forward to the beginning of my sophomore year of high school. I had identified as a heteroromantic asexual for about a year and a half, and told around five close friends. I had had three “crushes,” all on girls. Then I started thinking about my friendship with another guy. How I felt about him was stronger than how I felt about any of those three girls. For a moment I wondered if I was attracted to men, but I asked myself what I actually would want in a relationship. The list included things like sharing cool stuff in life, being able to rely on them, having fun with them, and being able to be chill with them. That sounded an awful lot like friendship. I summed up my ideal relationship as “forever roommates” and realized that applied to several of my friends. None of them were what crushes were supposed to be.

I looked up “what does it feel like to be aromantic” and found a list of ~50 things. I personally related to over 40 of them, and one of them used the wording “forever roommates.” It couldn’t have been a more perfect fit. Looking back, it seems pretty obvious, but that’s compulsory straightness for you.

The year since then has included no crushes (now that I understand them) but one attempt to date. While it was fun, it showed me that even someone who is perfect for me isn’t going to change the fact of who I am. I understand that sexuality can be fluid, but for the moment I’m proud to be an aro/ace.

– Joseph S.

LGBTQ+ of FIRST Student Survey

Check out our LGBTQ+ of FIRST Student Survey!

We are looking for LGBTQ+ students participating in FIRST to fill out a quick survey to help us better understand our community. We just want to know more about your experience in STEM and in FIRST. The survey is completely anonymous and is a huge help. Please share it with any other members of the LGBTQ+ and FIRST communities!

Pros and Cons of Being Open With Your Sexuality

The notion of “coming out” is one that can be intimidating to a lot of people. Formally telling the people in your life about your sexuality seems a daunting task. This, among other reasons, is why I personally choose to be extremely open about my sexuality, with people in my regular life and on my robotics team. I openly discuss/mention my sexuality with people in my life and on my team, but I don’t make a point of specifically coming out. I am unapologetically bisexual.

 

But it wasn’t always that way. In order to live this way, being able to feel comfortable and secure is absolutely essential. When everyone around you knows that you’re bi (or any other orientation/identity), you will face some judgement and questions. You cannot let those things put doubt in your mind, you know who you are better than anyone else does. Reaching this point of stability in your identity can take a long time. For me it took several months, but for some people it could take years. That is okay. Once you reach this point, you may make the choice to be extremely open with your identity, or you may wish to be more private or reserved. The decision of how open to be with your sexuality/identity is entirely yours. But I’d like to share some pros and cons of being as open as I am and how they affected my decision to be who I am so publicly.

 

Pros

 

  • Less confusion

 

      • This is not to say that everyone will understand your identity, but there will be significantly less confusion as to how you identify. Everyone on my team may not understand bisexuality or what it means to me, but they do understand that I am bisexual and open to discuss the topic with anyone.

 

  • Sense of freedom

 

      • For me, coming out to people always created this type of weight on my chest, and for every person I came out to individually, only a small amount of this weight was lifted. Nowadays, I rarely feel this weight at all. There isn’t a weight on my chest because I don’t pressure myself to formally come out to every single person on my team. I don’t have to watch what I say to avoid outing myself

 

  • Spotting toxic people

 

    • Perhaps the biggest advantage to me of my openness, is the ability to identify people who are not going to be supportive of me. I’ve learned from personal experience that nothing is worse than coming out to a long-time friend to have them treat you poorly or start to distance themselves from you. One way I’ve been able to avoid this sort of drama and heartbreak is by being open and upfront about my sexuality. It gives others the chance to never become my friend if my sexuality makes them so uncomfortable. For me, this works, it might not work for everyone. Personally, if someone doesn’t want to be my friend because they know I’m bi, then so be it – I will be better off without those people in my life.

Cons

 

  • Others will out you

 

      • For me, this wasn’t a very big issue, but part of making this decision meant that, yes, people would know I was bi, sometimes without me ever mentioning it to them. However, this was still something I had to consider. When you don’t treat your sexuality as a secret, others won’t treat it as such either. You have to be okay with this because ultimately, it is going to happen in some capacity.

 

  • Keeping it from specific people

 

      • When you become incredibly open with your sexuality, you learn not to think twice about mentioning it, referencing it, and making jokes about it. This can be tough to switch off for certain people/atmospheres. For example, I’m extremely open on my team and  with other friends, but as of right now, I haven’t come out to my parents as bisexual. Oftentimes I have to catch myself when I’m around my family, to keep me from outing myself to them with a lousy pun. The other concern, much like with the previous con, is that someone will accidentally out me to my parents. For me, this wouldn’t be a dangerous situation, but an awkward one. Being even slightly selective with your openness (around family or a certain selection of people) can be difficult when everyone else in your life knows both about your sexuality and how open you are with it

 

  • General Bigotry

 

    • As I’m sure you could guess, when you choose not to hide your sexuality, you also put a target on your back for discrimination. Unfortunately, even though we have made great progress towards acceptance, bigotry still exists and can be very prevalent in some areas. You may experience discrimination or mistreatment in varying degrees if you decide to be very public with your sexuality. This may or may not be something you think you can handle. It can take a toll on some people more than it might for others.

How I Made My Decision

    Here I listed a few of the major pros and cons I considered when I decided I wanted to be extremely open. These can differ from person to person and their impact and importance can vary as well.Deciding whether you want to be more reserved or extremely open with your sexuality/identity is entirely up to you. You have to be comfortable in your own skin and be sure of who you are. You also have to evaluate the safety of being open about your sexuality in your current situation. It also has to be something you want, it simply isn’t for anyone. But for me, it has worked out very well and made me quite happy. Hopefully you find what’s comfortable for you and it makes you happy.

-Hailee 1747