In the late 1800’s there really weren’t any words to describe us except perhaps as sodomites, which reduced everything about us down to being defined solely by one sexual act. But we are far more complicated than that.
By the mid-twentieth century gay men were referred to by society as homosexuals, but often referred to themselves as homophiles. The Greek root word “homo” means one and the same or like (the root word “hetero” means different), so putting “homo” with “sexual” also defined us strictly in sexual terms. Many in the community preferred the word homophile as it combined the root for same with the root word “phile”, which comes from the Greek for “to love”, so homophile would essentially mean “loving the same”. The difference was significant in that homophile defined us as lovers of the same sex, not solely as same-sex lovers. I am not only sexually attracted to other men. I am emotionally, physically, intellectually, spiritually, and in other ways attracted to men. When I was a young boy, before I even knew about sex, I had physical and emotional attractions to other boys. I am not just gay in terms of sex, but in the essence of who I am as a person. Homophile more clearly suggests that than homosexual. In addition, homosexual was a word put on us by the majority community and was the word used to define us when psychologists used to think of us as psychologically damaged simply for being who we were.
Not long after the homosexual/homophile debate the gay community pushed for acceptance of the term gay to describe us. There are issues with this, though, as gay generally refers to men and using it in a broad sense for all queer people minimizes women, bi and trans folks, and others. I recall reading a long time ago that the word, which originally simply meant happy and carefree, was used as a secret code word back in the 1920s and 1930s as a way for gay men to identify themselves to each other. Whatever the origin it gradually came into common usage and by the 1970s and 1980s was clearly the term of choice for gay men, if not for lesbians.
By the late 1980s the rights movement had advanced far enough that we had the strength as a community to reclaim at least a couple hostile words. Some gay men began using the term “faggot” and many others started using the word “queer”. Both were epithets often hurled at gay men by homophobic straight folks. “Queer” for the most part meant “different”, which we are, but when used against us was generally spoken with venom. Of the two “faggot” was the harsher word. Derived from the word “fagot”, a bundle of sticks used as kindling to start a fire, the word became an appellation for gay people as a result of gays either being burned at the stake or in another story being used as kindling in the burning of witches. As much as society hated and feared witches gays were considered worse. Like the African-American community reclaiming the “N” word we felt that using the “F” word and queer to define ourselves was a way to defuse the words, to make them our own, and to take the negative power away from them. We found that if we could use those words proudly to define ourselves then the words would no longer have the same power to abuse us.
The problem was that many in the gay community were very uncomfortable using the word “faggot” in particular and the older the gay person the more hesitant they were about the use of the word “queer”, because it was also such a hurtful word in their younger days. Credit for the more general acceptance of queer could go in large part to a radical group called Queer Nation, that staged protests and other actions to push for rights and acceptance in the 1990s. The younger generation particularly took to the word because of appreciation for Queer Nation, the idea that being queer, or different, was actually okay, and the idea that it could be used as a blanket term for the community and was all-inclusive.
Somewhere along the line the phrase “sexual orientation” came into usage. However, it really has the same problem as the word “homosexual”. It defines us as sexually oriented, but doesn’t take into account emotional and other preferences. It really is not a good word to define someone in the fullness of their being.
What started as lesbian and gay, then changed to lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB), then lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT, and in some places GLBT), continued to add letters over the years. The most recent variation on it is LGBTQIA, which stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning, intersex, and asexual and/or ally. It is now much easier to include all of the letters under the umbrella term “queer”. There are still those who don’t like it, but for the most part it has become an accepted term.
Maybe queer won’t last. Maybe someone at some point will come up with a word that we originate ourselves that we can all agree defines us perfectly. It’s not clear at this time what that word might be, but these things do tend to change over time. In the meantime, queer works pretty well.