Queering is interpreting a text so that it contains Gay-related content that is not obvious at face value. In LGBTQ folklife, queering is often done to texts for humorous reasons and with no regard for accurate representation. Queering is an academic exercise designed to reveal valid Gay-related content is called a queer reading.
History: Homophobic Code-Breaking, Encoded Homophobia
The practice of queering has its roots in the use of coded discourse in Gay and Gay-related communities before Stonewall (1969). Discourse on homosexuality in the public sphere was likewise coded for reasons of propriety. Much of the history of Gay-related communities in the West, from the rise of Christianity in Rome to Stonewall, is encapsulated in coded messages. This is due to a pervasive reluctance of homophobic people to talk about homosexuality, which they considered too obscene to be discussed openly, and the prudence of homosexual people who were well aware that same-sex erotic-romantic behaviors could get them arrested, beaten, and killed. In response to that prudence, homophobic discourse was generated to describe the signs and codes used by homosexual people who hid in the midst of the general pubic.
But not all homophobic discourse was meant to reveal actual homosexuals. Accusations were often done as insults, a tactic that pre-dates Christianity. Enemies accused each other’s male population of homosexuality and effeminacy as means of discrediting the masculinity of the other side. Same-sex erotic behavior was seen as foreign, which ancient Hebrews said about the people of Sodom (resulting in the label sodomite, usually in reference to male homosexuals), ancient Romans said about Greeks, ancient Greeks said about Persians, Medieval Christians said about Muslims, Medieval French said about Bulgarians (Bulgre or “Bulgarian,” which then became bugger in English), twentieth-century Americans said about the French, Serbians said about Western Europeans and Americans, and leaders of African countries such as Zimbabwe said about their former European colonizers.
Word Games, Dress Codes, and Queer Behavior
The tendency to ascribe codes to homosexual people (and actual coded language homosexual people would themselves use, such as Oscar Wilde’s green carnation) led to word games that would frame another person as homosexual. Some examples are mid- to late twentieth century American wordplay concerning Green Thursdays (anyone wearing green on a Thursday was queer), women wearing pants were lesbians, or the association of a man’s red tie or white socks with fags or fairies (men sexually attracted to men). Other supposed clues for fairies were based upon speech performance and body movement that marked a man as effeminate, such as speaking with a lisp, walking with a swish (increased side-to-side hip movement), and having a limp wrist.
Speech codes designed to trick an unwitting person into revealing same-sex attraction in Jamaica during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries include the following words: two (as in number two, feces, which is related to anal sex), fish, and back (as in the rear of a person, related to the buttocks and once again connected to anal sex). An American version that was popular among teens in the 1960s was pal (an abbreviation of Private Ass Licker).
Obsession with coded homosexuality has led LGBTQ activists to do some coding of their own. College groups have sponsored special encoded events, such as publicly declaring that anyone who wore blue jeans on a certain day was Gay, to illustrate the paranoia associated with Gay identity. During the first weekend in June, the highly successful “Gay Disney” gathering in Disney World, Orlando, Florida has popularized the red shirt as a sign that an attendee is Gay. These folkways can be seen means by which the community queers itself. By situating what was formerly innocuous dress in a queered frame, Gay folk generate an embodied text to be decoded, distributed, and enacted, even if the distribution is done by non-Gay people so that they may consciously avoid conforming to the Gay code.
During the late twentieth century, some homophobic Evangelical Christian leaders claimed that certain cartoon characters were homosexual, such as Tinky Winky of the children’s show Teletubbies and Sponge Bob Square Pants from the show of the same name. Reaction to the supposed revelations was mostly humorous, and those Evangelical leaders were perceived as fanatically obsessed with homosexuality. It also led to humorous queering of other cartoons, such as male puppets Bert and Ernie on Sesame Street by non-homophobic people.
History: Queer Coding Before Stonewall
Although “queering” was coined in the late twentieth century, there is evidence that the act of queering texts pre-dates Stonewall by centuries. One example comes from the nineteenth-century diary of Anne Lister, who visited the Ladies of Llangollen, two Irish women who fled to Wales and set up a home together. Contrary to popular depictions of the Ladies as comical eccentric spinsters and the epitome of nonsexual platonic friendship, Lister (who was dealing with her own homoerotic feelings) wrote, “I cannot help thinking that surely it was not platonic. Heaven forgive me, but I look within myself and doubt. I feel the infirmity of our nature and hesitate to pronounce such attachments uncemented by something more tender that friendship.”
A common Gay precursor to queering dealt with verbal performance in mid-twentieth century movies. Certain movie scenes and dialogues found in films such as Casa Blanca, The Wizard of Oz, Dracula’s Daughter, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and Valley of the Dolls were claimed by the Gay community, sometimes with little regard as to whether there was any purposefully-coded queer text.
The same would be done with music. In the 1960s, Camp Records released an album of torch songs (romantic lyrics dealing with infatuation and dedication) sung by men with regards to other men called Mad About the Boy, named after a song by openly-Gay playwright Noel Coward. In the late 1970s, a disco song by Sister Sledge entitled “We Are Family” was likewise claimed by the Gay community as an LGBTQ anthem.
Queering After Stonewall
The relative success of Gay Liberation inspired a movement to review popular culture, ethnographies, and literature for evidence of Gay-related themes, even if there was no direct evidence of Gay communities. Historical icons such as Biblical David and Jonathan, Sappho, Plato, Shakespeare, Juana Inés de la Cruz, the aforementioned Ladies of Llangollen, Alexander Wood, Oscar Wilde, Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Fernando Pessoa, Frida Kahlo, Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Julian Eltinge, Mishima Yukio, Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith were queered, leading to heated debates as to whether queering them was actually based in fact, or whether late twentieth-century criteria for Gay-related identities should be applied to those who may not have recognized such identities for themselves.
When an historical person is queered, their biography is framed so that quotes, stories, and behaviors reveal Gay-related content. The queering of a recognized text such as a biography, novel, or play is called a queer reading, and is a refinement of queering in that it specifically addresses how the written word can be legitimately framed as Gay-related, such as the novel, A Separate Peace. One iconic example of queering is The Celluloid Closet by Vito Russo in which Russo examines the history of film in the USA and comments on Gay-related content that was encoded in script and performance by actors who hid their own same-sex orientation. Other areas that have fallen under the scrutiny of intense queer reading have been myth, legend, and fairytale.
Slash refers to “slashing”: to add a homoerotic-romantic relationship in a story that does not have overtly pairings of that type. Slashers write fanfiction, create fan art, and have whole fandom communities about their favorite novels, TV shows, movies, comics, etc. Those communities are primarily populated by girls writing yaoi (Japanese boy love) or yuri (girl love), in addition to mpreg (male pregnancy). A popular example is Capt. Kirk and Mr. Spock from Star Trek. One slasher motto is “slash the world,” that is, no topic is un-slashable.
Although slashing predates the internet, online slash communities exist in many languages all over the world. There are many subcategories to slash and yaoi besides mpreg such as hurt and comfort, dark, and fetish. Consumers (who are often creaters themselves) set parameters for their content searches according to likes and dislikes. Slashers also have favorite ships (relationships) or pairings, as well as preferences for who is on top and who is bottom (seme/uke in yaoi).
Arrizón, Alicia. Queering Mestizaje: Transculturation and Performance. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 2006.
Brett, Philip, Elizabeth Wood, and Gary Thomas. Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Hawthorne, Mark D. Making It Ours: Queering the Canon. New Orleans: University Press of the South, 1998.
Russo, Vito. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. New York: Harper and Rowe, 1981.
Somerville, Siobhan B. Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture. Durham: Duke University, 2000.