I remember when we were young, a game of Smear the Queer could break out on the playground at any time.
One moment you were playing a friendly game of catch, and suddenly someone would throw the ball at you and scream out, “Smear the Queer,” which immediately made you the target of a tackling mob.
You’d run as hard as your pride would take you, until you were either smothered or managed to toss the ball off onto some other sucker who was feeling a brief sense of invincibility.
It was a game of boyhood bravery with no winners and no losers, where the sides were simple to see, and you could easily choose which to stand on, to either get or get gotten.
But it was mostly just stupidity and boys being boys, something that we thought might separate us momentarily as men.
The rules of Smear the Queer were simple: one person was it, either by chance if the ball was tossed to them or by choice if they grabbed the ball from another or off the ground, and everybody else tried to tackle them to get the ball.
However, not once when I heard that primal call to action shouted out, “Smear the Queer,” did I look around for a homosexual to harass, nor can I even remember understanding the true nature of the name of our game.
It could be argued that the word queer is not being used in the derogatory sense in this instance, that it is simply used to signify the person who is “it”, who represents the unusual or different person in the less sinister sense of the word, the person who is suspect, and therefore, outside of the mob.
And it could also be argued that smear is not meant to indicate an attack on the character of someone or a slanderous defamation of their good name, but rather to cover and smudge a person as some friendly tackling will do.
But then why use the more vicious term Smear the Queer and not some more appropriate name with the same meaning like Smother the Other, and where did the name of this game develop?
I don’t have the answers to these questions, but like many terms that have been used over the years in American society, the name of this children’s game is likely rooted in hatred and bigotry, not from the children who play the game, but passed along by adults and somehow coined into the name of a playground pastime.
There are many examples of these terms in our lexicon, including “Indian Giver” (one who gives something only to take it back with obvious negative implications against Native Americans), and “Yellow” (a coward or traitor with suspect origins in the early American hatred of asian immigrants).
These terms get used at first in hatred, but then get adapted over generations until they end up being accepted terms that are used in everyday English by children that don’t know any better, who are taught by ignorant adults.
Of course, we hope that one day these children mature and realize that words have meaning, and that they will decide to no longer use them for communication, but culturally ingrained hatred isn’t good for our development as a community.
I’m reminded that this game still exists by my cousin, whose two boys were recently playing Smear the Queer with their team after a football practice, as the coach had literally told her.
When she told the other parents who were waiting for their kids that they were just playing a quick game of “Smear the Queer,” her words were met with outrage at the use of such vulgar language.
Funny enough though, none of them stopped the game until the boys were good and tired, and they really didn’t object to their boys either being tackled by a mob or joining a mob to tackle a single child, but just thought it was an inappropriate name for a game.
Even so, I can’t imagine too many parents explained the meaning of the name Smear the Queer to their children on the way home, but it’s probably better that they allow their children to live in innocence a little longer.
God forbid one of them might think they were actually being attacked for who they are and feel that they were no longer just part of the group playing the game.