Yesterday I reported on Fortnum & Mason’s use of queen in an advert in support of Gay Pride: “Proud to be the queens’ grocer”, with the plural possessive of the common noun queen, rather than the singular possessive of the proper noun Queen. Not everyone is entirely comfortable with this use of queen, seeing it as an offensive and demeaning slur. But the import of words, even slurs and other problematic vocabulary, depends crucially on context — on who’s using them, in what circumstances, for what purposes. Given that, you can read F&M’s queens’ as affectionate, in fact celebratory.

For the purposes of this posting, put aside the snowclonelet composite X queen (drama queen etc.), which deserves its own treatment, and consider queen on its own. Its most common usage in the domain of sexuality is as an anti-gay slur. Glosses from dictionaries from two different families (Merriam-Webster, Oxford):

[Merriam-Webster Online] often disparaging :  a male homosexual; especially :  an effeminate one

[New Oxford American Dictionary 2] informal   a male homosexual, typically one regarded as ostentatiously effeminate.

The history is complex, but a significant thread in it is the very common sense development in which a word referring to a woman (especially a “loose woman”) is extended to disparaging use for a gay man (especially an effeminate or promiscuous one). That gives us the slurs above, and it makes non-sexual uses of queen in a gay context risible or perilous, as in this New Yorker cartoon by William Haefeli (published 11/15/99), with a gay male couple trying out a queen size mattress:

But that isn’t the end of it. Some out gay men reject the slur in queen and rise above it proudly (and with some humor) by using the label of themselves. The formula big old / ol’ queen (parallel to big old / ol’ fag, with similar use) lends itself to this in-your-face use. Some of these men are noticeably effeminate, but many are not.

So we get John Barrowman —

John Scot Barrowman, MBE (born 11 March 1967) is a Scottish-American actor, singer, dancer, presenter and writer who holds both British and American citizenship. (Wikipedia link)

(who has played a drag queen but also many masculine characters, and whose presentation of self is as an out gay man, though not an effeminate one) referring to himself as a queen: from the Broadway.com site on 10/21/09, by Matt Wolf:

La Cage Star John Barrowman Dishes on Being a ‘Big Old Queen’… Onstage and Off!

That was my first actual introduction to Jerry [Herman, the composer], but honey, I’m a big old queen from musical theater, so of course I knew his work.

Discussion of Barrowman on this blog here, along with three pictures of him (#1 shirtless, #3 shirtless and wet, #4 kissing his husband). Barrowman is vocally out, and a staunch supporter of gay causes.

You can do a lot of things with slurs.

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