LGBTQ identity is shaped by language. So what words will describe “queer” in the future?
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When William Leap was growing up in North Florida in the 1950s, the word “queer” was, as it was for so many kids at the time, a schoolyard taunt, an insult. Leap would go on to become a linguist and, in the 1990s, one of the key originators of the study of queer language, or “lavender linguistics.” But even as he watched activists in the ‘80s and ‘90s reclaim the word “queer”as they organized against the AIDS epidemic, and queer theorists using it in academia, the word still didn’t feel right to him, Leap said in an interview. He couldn’t shake his personal association with the word “queer,” a slur of his childhood.
It wasn’t until the mid-aughts, Leap said, that he first began to see the personal value of the word queer. “I really didn’t want to associate with the term, because it wasn’t a term that people I worked with used,” Leap said. “But [in the] mid-2000s my own thinking started to change and I saw a lot of reasons for thinking about the usefulness of the term. Particularly because it moves us beyond, as it’s supposed to, certain kinds of distinctions. And that becomes helpful.”
By that point, a new generation of young LGBTQ people were already growing up with the word “queer” as an identity category, and feeling comfortable using it about themselves. It’s gone from a subversive, radical identifier to a term so widely used and broadly applied that, in 2016, Vice published a story with the title, “Can Straight People Be Queer?”
And that’s just one single word in the LGBTQ lexicon — there are other identity terms that feel similarly, and perhaps even more suddenly, ubiquitous. A 2017 study by the advocacy group GLAAD found that millennials were more than twice as likely as baby boomers to identify as LGBTQ, but less likely than older LGBTQ generations to use the words “gay” or “lesbian” to describe themselves, leading the group to conclude that “millennials appear more likely to identify in terminology that falls outside those previously traditional binaries.”
That survey didn’t even include Generation Z, which is shaping up to be queerer and more gender diverse than millennials. A 2016 report from the J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group found that more than half of Gen Z-ers said they know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns such as “they” or “ze,” and less than half of the group said they identified as “exclusively heterosexual.”
Even beyond the terms used to describe sexuality or gender identity, young LGBTQ people trade slang on Twitter or Tumblr or hyperspecific subreddits. With queer language feeling like it’s changing and spreading faster than ever, jumping into the mainstream through viral memes and reality TV, what will queer language look like by the year 2030? When today’s teens are LGBTQ adults, will their language be totally unfamiliar to their LGBTQ forbearers?
How queer language spread then and now
The LGBTQ communities may be unique in their heterogeneity — queer people can be any race, class, gender or religion, and many come to their queer identities later in life. Still, among the vast and varied LGBTQ communities in the United States, there exists, if not quite a shared language, then a shared lexicon of words and phrases. But those words haven’t always been the same. Some have fallen out of use and others have emerged; some have even taken on new meanings.
For much of the 20th century, queer language spread person to person. In the 1940s, Leap said, the Second World War ushered in somewhat of a gay slang boom as soldiers met and mingled. They adapted the military habit of derisively addressing men as if they were women and used it playfully, calling each other, and themselves, “she” and “her,” or “bitch.”
They used the slang in their letters, Leap said, both to convey affection and meaning and to make it more difficult for unknowing straights to decode. In the 1950s, with the rising popularity of recreational travel, gay and lesbian slang spread again from person to person. Words and phrases also circulated through specialized gay and lesbian magazines of the era, but still, only as fast as the postal service could go.
But as the 20th century gave way to the 21st, the advent of the internet, and especially social media, suddenly allowed queer people to find each other and swap jokes from miles away, at lightening speed.
“Though certain expressions have been spread throughout the LGBT+ community by word of mouth forever, it appears as though the main culprits now are social media and TV,” queer linguist Darrin Miller, who has written about the intersection of queer language and the internet, said in an email interview in May. “Take ‘yaaass’ [and] ‘yaaass queen’ ... which originated from black [and ballroom] culture.” Miller said that the memes and videos online boosted “yaaass” to mass audiences, “and now it’s everywhere.”
More LGBTQ representation on television and in film has accelerated the dispersion of queer words and slang. Consider the example of the phrase “throwing shade.” At first it traveled the old-fashioned way, Miller said. “Throwing shade,” like so many other phrases in widespread use in the queer community, originated in the Southern black community, Miller pointed out, before making its way up to the New York City ball scene, where it was used by ballroom performers, primarily people of color. But it wasn’t until its frequent use on the drag-queen competition show Ru Paul’s Drag Race, which first premiered in 2009, that “throwing shade” was really flung into mainstream use, even earning itself a 2015 trend piece in the New York Times.
This pattern, incidentally, is not uncommon. Both Miller and Leap mentioned that a number of popular gay slang terms originated with people of color before entering wider use in the LGBTQ communities. “I would say there is a lot of adoption (or cultural appropriation) of Southern black expressions by particularly the ‘G’ portion of the queer community,” Miller said. Whether today’s queer youth will collectively reckon with that appropriation, and acknowledge their slang’s origins, remains to be seen.
But those changes to the way queer language spreads, ushered in by the internet and meme culture, are here to stay. The current generation of queer teenagers, who will be queer adults in 2030, can watch Drag Race at home, or can find likeminded young people in specialized online communities, another source for new terms.
“Take a look at how many subreddits there are that are dedicated to individual subgroups of the LGBT+ community,” Miller said. “I’ll tell you this much: There are at least two just for asexual individuals, and these are highly active communities. ... What this means for queer people is that we have a huge supportive cohort that we can come home to, a safe haven online where we can speak about anything we want without fear of repercussions. Expressions are spawned from this discourse, which is highly concentrated in a particular topic, and sometimes these expressions are carried out into the real world or crossed over into other online subcommunities.”
In an email interview in May, linguist Lex Konnelly, a Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto, brought up the example of “enby,” a word that formed from the gender descriptor “nonbinary” and traveled through internet communities on various social media platforms.
But, with some exceptions, the “new” words in use today are rarely as new as they seem. They may be older phrases that happened to “go viral,” or words that just went unnoticed by the hetero-world until more recently.
“A lot of these supposedly new identity terms have actually existed for some time: For example, ‘genderqueer,’ which many noncommunity members consider to have emerged within the last few years, has been in use since at least the late 1990s,” Konnelly said. “But words often don’t gain wider circulation outside of specific local communities and into the ‘mainstream’ until later, which can lead to the impression that they’re ‘brand new’ concepts or terms.” Of course, the identities those terms refer to have always existed, Konnelly pointed out — it’s just that we now have access to more nuanced language to describe them.
So what can we expect by 2030?
The dominance of the internet’s effect on queer language will likely only increase. Today’s queer teens “live on the internet and communicate through social media, so I think that we will continue to see memefied expressions entering various subsets of the queer community through social media, in conjunction with reality TV,” Miller said. Miller added that, while many of today’s queer slang terms will likely still be around by 2030, there will certainly be new ones that “may emerge through viral videos and memes.” And other “pre-existing expressions” might hit the big time through a viral video or meme.
But not every expression has staying power. “I’m going to shoot myself in the foot later by saying this, but ‘yaaass kween’ reminds me of ‘wazzaaaap’ from the old Budweiser commercials,” Miller said. “I use it, and my friends use it, [but] I don’t think it will last forever. The next generation is more dynamic. I think they will come up with something more clever to express support and admiration.”
Konnelly suggested that today’s queer teens are likely already more thoughtful about their language use, especially when it comes to gender diversity. “We recognize in sociolinguistics that younger people tend to be on the vanguard of linguistic changes, and part of this is because they’re at the forefront of cultural changes as well,” Konnelly said. For todays’ queer teenagers, that might manifest in more dextrous and varied pronoun use.
Younger people are more comfortable using “neopronouns,” or nonbinary pronouns like “ze,” than older generations, Konnelly said, in part because they’ve had the experience of growing up with the knowledge “that you can use the pronouns that feel right for you,” and may feel less inherent judgement.
Ose Arheghan, a queer, nonbinary 17-year-old who was named the 2017 GLSEN student advocate of the year, said that, for them, language is “of the utmost importance.”
“I think language is important because it gives people license to understand either the person that they are or the person that they’re trying to accept,” Arheghan said. “Not everybody knows what things mean, and so when we talk about queerness, that means a lot of different things to different people. It can mean queerness in terms of sexuality, it can mean queerness in terms of gender, it can mean queerness in terms of being other than cis-heteronormativity. And so, when it comes to language, the idea of using terms to pinpoint exactly what somebody identifies as, what somebody embodies as a person — it’s so important.”
Along with more fluency in pronouns and nonbinary gender identities, 2030 might bring a decline in gendered slang, like that trend among cis gay men to use gendered words like “girl” or “sis,” a variety of slang that Leap connected to World War II. But what about gendered “in-group identity terms” like “fag” and “dyke,” or words that refer to subcommunities within queer culture, like “bear,” “butch” or “twink.”
“They’re not really ‘slang’ in the way that ‘girl’ is, and so whether or not they stick around is more dependent on whether people identify with them,” Konnelly said. “In that sense, I don’t think that they’ll totally lose relevancy, though it does seem to me that words like ‘fag’ and ‘dyke’ (which have historically been used by gay men and lesbians, respectively) are losing ground to the un-gendered ‘queer.’”
Arheghan said the reason they identify as queer, “as opposed to bisexual or pansexual,” is because their attraction isn’t based on gender. “Almost all of our language to describe sexuality, it’s based on gender. So you’re attracted to somebody because they’re the same gender as you, or you’re attracted to somebody because they’re a different gender as you, or you’re attracted to people of multiple genders ... and so if your attraction isn’t based on gender then there isn’t language for that. And so that’s why I use the word queer.”
Even as the next generation of queer young people move away from gendered terms, we could see words like “butch” and “bear” stick around but lose their specifically gendered associations. Konnelly said that it’s possible the meanings of those words could shift, as has already begun to happen with the word “femme.” Historically, Konnelly said, “femme” referred to a lesbian with a conventionally feminine presentation.
“Now, femme is used as a descriptor of all kinds of genders to indicate connection to a queer femininity: for example, plenty of nonbinary folks identify as femme,” Konnelly said. “It’s possible something similar could happen for ‘butch.’ As the queer community continues to chip away at the façade of the gender binary, I think we’ll see more and more creative and playful combinations of terms that we have thought of as referring to one specific gender: Who says someone can’t be a femme bear, for example?”
But Arheghan said they do know some people in their generation who choose to use what have long been considered gendered terms to describe their identities. “I know tons of people who still identify as 100% gay or 100% lesbian,” Arheghan said. “For most people, queer is just an umbrella term for the LGBTQ community, and that’s the most common way I see ‘queer’ being used in my daily life.”
That’s not to say Arheghan hasn’t noticed a generational divide when it comes to certain words. Arheghan said that, in meeting older LGBTQ people through SAGE, a national organization for LGBTQ seniors, they’ve encountered older queer women who identity as dykes, and men who call themselves sissies or fags. “That’s another way of reclaiming slurs [but] in my high school, if somebody identified as a faggot, people would be shocked. People would be uncomfortable. I don’t know if those are terms that are going to stay. I know ... people still call themselves dykes, but it’s more like slang than it is an identification.”
Moving toward inclusion
So what else can we expect from the next generation of queer people? They might also do a better job than past generations of holding each other, and people outside of the community, accountable, Konnelly said. “The younger generations will probably continue to demand better from people inside and outside of the queer community, too — pushing harder for the recognition of gender diversity ... and just in general challenging the linguistic status quo and advocating for queer people’s linguistic self-determination in all its forms,” Konnelly said.
For Arheghan, who is headed to college in the fall, their hope for 2030 seemed to be that queer language would trend toward inclusion — a broader view of what androgyny can be, more acknowledgment of black queer communities that originated much of queer slang and also a wider understanding of the word trans.
“The way that we talk about the word ‘trans,’ I would really like to see that change in the next 12 years,” Arheghan said. “Right now, it’s really great that trans people are getting attention in the media ... but I think that now there’s the idea that, in order to identify as trans, you have to be either ‘male-to-female’ trans or ‘female-to-male’ trans. And that’s still really inundated with this idea of the gender binary.” Arheghan said they want to see the word “trans” come to colloquially include people who identify outside the gender binary, or as agender, genderqueer or genderfluid — without any extra explanation needed.
In all cultures, slang comes in and out of vogue, certain words shed and take on new connotations and entirely new terms spring up — and the shared lexicon that links LGBTQ people together is no different. But experts seem confident that whatever form the next generation’s queer language might take, they’ll likely shift the lexicon in ways we can’t yet predict. “We can only dream of the incredible, innovative things they’ll do,” Konnelly said.