The question of whether or not the term “queer” is derogatory has a complex answer, partly because the definition of the word is so malleable. Some people find the usage of this word to describe anyone extremely offensive, and they have very legitimate reasons for feeling this way. Others have chosen to reclaim “queer,” using it as a self-identification, and they support its use in a positive way. Ultimately, the decision to use or avoid the use of this word depends on you, but you may want to think carefully about how and when you use it.
Before delving into the murky waters surrounding the usage of this word, it may help to know how it is used. In a literal sense, “queer” means “unusual.” In the late 19th century, the term came to be used to describe members of the gay community, and it was used in a very derogatory way. However, in the 1980s, some members of the gay community decided to reclaim “queer,” much as other minority groups have reclaimed words that have historically been used in a derogatory way. At this point, the meanings of the word began to diverge, as did the venues in which its usage was appropriate.
”Queer” can be used to talk about someone within the homosexual community, but it is also used as a more general umbrella term to describe people with other sexual practices, such as asexuals, along with transgendered people, practitioners of BDSM, and other people who engage in activities outside the social norm. In this sense, “queer” could be considered an antonym to heteronormativity, a word which is sometimes used to discuss traditional heterosexual relationships. The use of this word as a convenient shorthand to describe people with non-heteronormative practices is very common, because other words to describe this large and varied community are very clunky.
Some people feel that the term is only appropriately used by people who identify as queer. For example, a gay man who identifies as queer could refer to himself and others this way, but a heterosexual man could not, even if he considered himself to be gay-friendly. Others feel that the use of the term is also appropriate among people who identify as “queer allies,” meaning that although they do not personally identify as queer, they support this community.
Like many words with a charged history, the appropriateness of this word depends on the context and the intent of the speaker. When people use “queer” as an insult, it is indeed derogatory and offensive, even when it is used to insult people who would normally happily self-identify with the word. However, increasing examples of positive usage of this word can be found; several popular television shows, for example, use “queer” in their titles, and campus associations for people who identify as gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered/asexual/etc. often use the term in their names to be as all-inclusive as possible.
If you decide not to use this term because you find it personally offensive, no one is going to fault you for it. In fact, people who self-identify as queer would much rather see people refraining from use of the word out of uncertainty than see people using it as an insult. However, you might want to be prepared to see people using it as a positive term, and some people may specifically request that you refer to them this way.
As always, being aware of the language you and others use is never a bad thing. By being unafraid to speak up when you hear someone using a term in a way you find offensive, you may be able to spark a conversation which could be mutually educational. In addition to thinking about how words like “queer” and “gay” are used around you, you might also want to think about ablelist words like “lame” or “retarded,” or sexist terms such as “slut.”