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October 23, 2017


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Interpreting the word “queer” in ASL

October 23, 2017

Before we dive in, just a few notes about American Sign Language (ASL):

  • ASL is a full language, just like Spanish or English. It has its own grammar, syntax, vocabulary, etc.
  • Sign language is not universal. Just like spoken language, there are sign languages unique to individual countries and within those languages there are regional accents.
  • Signs, like spoken words, change over time. This is particularly true of LGBTQ signs—as our understanding of these identities develop, so do our signs.
  • Not all signs are iconic but the ones I am going to discuss are.

My ASL & Deaf studies classes helped me develop a strong foundation for learning ASL. However, introductory classes can only go so far in teaching real-world vocabulary. While my professors may believe that it is crucial to teach the sign for “onion” so I can feed myself, I find it more important to learn the sign for “gay” so that I can ask a random Deaf stranger wandering the streets “hey, I’m lost, where’s the gay parade?” I would choose a parade over onion rings any day.

The only place that I felt I could appropriately learn these terms was by socializing with my LGBTQ+ Deaf and signing peers. Throughout my immersion in the Deaf community, I feel like I have been collecting these signs and developing my own understanding of what they represent. Like English, the words and signs we use to identify and describe ourselves have power in themselves, to our audience, and to our culture. When we step back and take a moment to analyze these signs, we can develop a deeper understanding of how we relate to our identities and how our understanding of LGBTQ topics has evolved.

One such example of a highly variable and personal sign is “queer.” Here are a few examples of these variations to describe this identity:


Allo-8 on head back

Before “queer” was used as a common identity, it was understood as equivalent to “f*g.” This sign, much like the English word, parallels that experience. Though the meaning and impact of a reclaimed sign depend on the experience of the speaker, the listener, and their intentions, this sign undisputedly has power, no matter the usage. To me, this sign reflects on our history as a resilient community—we were derogatorily described using metonymical devices for the way that we were killed (i.e. as bundles of sticks). Instead of being passively hounded with hateful slang, we reclaimed what was once used to hurt us to instead instill us with pride.



Allo-8 on chin

This is one of my favorite signs for queer because of the audacity of the sign. One can see the resemblance between this sign and sign for “f*ck you”. The sign for “f*ck” is in the same initial location and outward movement, leading this sign to be a minimal pair. Because of this resemblance, this sign succinctly can be interpreted as an identity of “I’m not queer as in gay, but queer as in f*ck you!” To me, this sign offers another interpretation of the “queer” identity: it’s not about who you are.  It is about non-conformity to a cisgender-heterosexual society. This sign reminds us that to be queer is to be radical.


Hs:4 rainbow

This sign references the rainbow flag created by Gilbert Baker. Each finger looks like another stripe on the flag. To me, this sign is the safest when discussing queer politics as it captures the meaning of queer perfectly as each unique identity is represented within a singular sign. Simply put, each identity encapsulated by “queer,” whether the L, G, B, T, and the Q is. To me, this sign says we are here, we are who we say we are, and we are one.


#QUEER Lexicalized

This sign utilizes fingerspelling to represent the concept. Signed quickly, it becomes a lexicalized word that looks like Q-E-R. Because it is directly from English, it has no additional implications than what the word carries in itself. By and large, this sign is considered the most politically correct way to refer to a person who identifies as queer. It can be interpreted as “this sign refers to an individual who identifies as queer.”



Though these signs may vary in implication, I appreciate them because of the truth that they all speak to our queer community. We are resilient, radical, colorful, regular people. The diversity of our language parallels our endless interpretations of our community. There is not, nor can there ever be, a single word nor sign to describe us because despite our sameness of identity, it is our differences that sustain us.


This post was written by Point Scholar Oliver Stabbe.

Oliver is a double major in psychology and American Sign Language with a minor in brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester. Oliver is committed to researching and advocating for people of diverse intersectional identities. Read more about Oliver here.

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