Nine people who identify as LGBTQ+ talk about how they love, hate, and understand the word “queer.”
“Queer” is used by more people than ever before, and it means different things to each person. Nine LGBTQ+ people talk about what this controversial and freeing term means to them in their own words.
When I was 12 and helping my mom unload groceries from the car while sashaying around, I first heard the word “queer.” I said some sassy comment, some quip. She turned her head to look at me and told me, “Don’t be weird.” I still feel the pain of what she said.
How strange that just a few years later, a whole generation of people would use a word that used to mean so much hate and violence to tell us to arm ourselves. Today, the word “queer” is a way to make room for people who have been left out by the LGBTQ+ rights movement, by social norms and customs, and by outdated ideas of gender. Depending on who you ask, the word can mean a million different things. Many people still think of it as an insult. Many others are proud to have it.
“Queer” is not the first word of its type to be brought back into use. But “queer” seems to be able to stand for all of us, unlike the others. It’s a word with as many different meanings, feelings, and historical points of view as there are different kinds of LGBTQ+ people. To get a better idea of what “queer” means, we asked nine people who use the word what it means to them.
I thought of myself as bisexual when I was young. Even though I’m still fine with that term, it doesn’t fully describe my sexuality. “Queer” feels better to me because I’m really bisexual and interested in both men and women.
What does that mean? I find cisgender men attractive, but when I date them, I don’t feel like myself. For me, “bisexual” means I’m sexually attracted to all genders and gender expressions, but “homoromantic” means I only have romantic feelings for queer people. Since this is kind of hard to explain, I just say “queer.”
Steven “Z” Patton is a leader in his community and a public speaker.
Identity is personal, but it’s also how we market ourselves, so it’s often based on a lot of outside factors. For example, I would tell a partner that I am queer, trans, non-binary, and Mexican. But when I talk to someone with whom I don’t get along well, I’ll just say that I’m a “gay male.”
I’m 33. When I was young, the word “queer” was used as an insult. “Smear the queer” was a game that the kids in the neighborhood played. You’d toss a football back and forth, and whoever caught it was the “queer” that everyone had to tackle. So, yes, making fun of gay people was a regular part of childhood.
In middle school, kids would follow me home and call me names like “queer” and “fag.” I’ve been called these same names as an adult. So I can see why people who lived before me didn’t like the word.
Still, I know how empowering it is to take back words that have been used to hurt us, and I like the word “queer” because it has always had a sense of vagueness and not being easily defined. Even when it was used as a slur, the word was used to describe people who didn’t follow what society said they should do. It’s only right that the word now defies all the rules about love and self that the world has put on us.
Kristy Zoshak is a “queer witch.”
I am a queer woman who is 40 years old. I knew I liked both guys and girls when I was in middle school. Before I got married, I went out with a few women. The relationship was abusive, so I left and started dating a person who didn’t fit a traditional gender role.
At this point in my life and based on what I’ve been through, “queer” feels more open to me. I know that different people see it in different ways, but for me, it’s an all-encompassing term that speaks to me.
Daniel Reynolds, who is in charge of social media for The Advocate, (he/him)
“Queer” is a great catch-all word for a wide range of people with different sexual orientations and gender identities. It can also be used as a synonym for “not straight.” I like how inclusive the word is, but “gay” is better for me because it is more specific.
The word “gay” makes it clear that I am a man who likes other men. Also, my choice of “gay” shows how old I am. I’m 33 years old, and the word “queer” wasn’t often used when I came out. I think that comfort with the “queer” label goes in the opposite direction of age.
People from older generations don’t like the term at all. As the social media editor for The Advocate, I often see older gay men react negatively to the word “queer,” especially when it’s used in a headline. They only know the word as a slur. This is part of the history of the word, which was (and still is) a hurtful word that has been taken back.
Reclamation is powerful, but I can also see why people who have lived through some of the worst times of legal and social discrimination don’t feel comfortable celebrating with a slur that was sometimes used with physical violence. Some people get upset when it’s used, even in LGBTQ spaces.
Vonte Abrams is an artist who works in visual merchandising.
As a child, I didn’t hear the word “queer” used as a weapon as often as the word “faggot.” Because of this, I don’t have a strong emotional reaction to it.
For me, queerness is my sexual identity as someone who doesn’t like being put into two categories. It also includes my criticism of cisgender, heteronormative, and white privileges, as well as how these privileges interact with each other. LGBT+ labels tend to assume a binary origin, and their use coincides with a social movement that wants to assimilate and erases the existence of non-binary identities. Whether it’s done on purpose or not, using “queer” as a catch-all umbrella term shuts down that important fringe voice.
As a Black, male-assigned, non-binary person who harshly criticizes the status quo, that voice is part of my queerness. I like the term “non-binary” because I am naturally androgynous. When I hit puberty, my body and emotions became a mix of male and female traits. I’ve learned over time that figuring out how to deal with society’s rules about how men and women should look will always be a unique challenge for me. “Queer” helps me deal with this problem.
Faati, tech scholar:
I believe in taking back control from words that are used to make us seem less human. I love being able to say “nigga” because it reminds me that all black people have a complicated relationship with being black. Joy comes from being black, but sadness comes from knowing how much your people have suffered because they are black. So, I like that slurs are being used again. But just like I wouldn’t call every black person a “nigga,” I wouldn’t call every LGBT person a “queer.” I would only use the term for people who call themselves queer.
Chris Donaghue is a sex therapist with a PhD and the author of the book Rebel Love.
“Queer” questions the idea that people are either gay or straight. Many people use the word to mean the same thing as “gay,” but I don’t think that’s right. “Queer” is about a lot more than just homonormative culture. It’s about non-normativity, creativity, and diversity.
Stereotypically, being gay comes with expectations about how men and women should act, politics, body standards, and sexual desires, and many people find these to be limiting. “Queer” lets us build a community with people who don’t agree with gay standards.
Queerness frees me because it shows me that living outside of toxic masculinity, femme-phobia, being a top or a bottom, or only dating cis men is healthy and important. I look at my work in psychology through the lens of queerness. I “queer” what psychology, culture, and the media have taught us about how to love, relate, express ourselves, and have sex.
Lear D. is a person who works in IT.
I’m happy for my gay male friends who are reclaiming the word “queer,” but I’m still not sure how I feel about the word being “reclaimed” (acquired? co-opted? expanded?) by younger people to mean whatever they want it to mean.
On the one hand, I’m glad that younger people won’t have to fight as hard for inclusion as I did. On the other hand, I feel like I’m watching young people steal history from those who fought and died for it and turn it into something that is sometimes both powerful and funny.
I’m a trans man. When I was younger, I called myself “bisexual,” but now I call myself a lot of different things, like transgender, transsexual, and more. I figured out what my gender identity was when I was 38. I started social transition in 2018, and I started medical transition in January of last year. I don’t think any sexual relationship I have can be anything but “queer” at this point.
In my book, I talked about how the word “queer” can mean three different things that are similar but not the same. I call this “conceptual inflation” of the term because it has more than one meaning. People use the word and think they know what it means, so they think everyone else does too.
First, there is the umbrella term “queer.” “Queer” is a better term than the alphabet soup of LGBTQQIIAAPSS+ because it includes any non-cisgender, non-heterosexual identity, relationship, behavior, or desire. I use “queer” in this way because I think it covers a wide range of ways that people are not cisgender or heterosexual.
But “queer” as an umbrella term does a lot of flattening, and this is what bothers some people, especially those who see “queer” as a kind of “identity-less non-definition” leftist political position. They don’t use the word “queer” to mean “every definition,” but rather “no definition.” Since everyone is different in what they want, how they act, and who they hang out with, shouldn’t their identity be unique to them? Some people use “queer” to mean this uniqueness.
I say this use is leftist because I’ve seen it linked to a kind of ultra-left political critique of power structures (which often appears, as I and others have pointed out, like a profound misreading of Foucault). This is the kind of queer you’ll see at a queer political event: someone with an identity politics that often says, paradoxically, that the truth about an issue can only come from someone with the right mix of marginalized identities to speak on that issue.
It’s strange because most of these queer leftists are white, and they use a “diversity by numbers” approach to their events and issues. Queernormativity is what I call this way of thinking. Like heteronormativity, they say that there is a “right” way to be gay and that everyone else is gay wrong.
The third group of people who use “queer” don’t think there is a “right” way to be queer. This is what makes them “queer,” because they don’t think there is a “right” way to do anything. This is “queer” in the sense of “queer sex radical,” which is a type of queerness that is based on not being respectable and focuses on fun and pleasure. A person like this might not identify as queer, but they don’t like the way things are usually done and are determined to live a different way of life that puts pleasure first in a world where violence is common.
The queer having bareback sex in the back room of a club might not like the word “queer” or think of what they are doing as political, but they are queer because they are going against what society says they should be doing.
As I already said, these words are similar. I call myself “queer” because I don’t want to be “respectable,” because I don’t fit into simple categories like “gay” or “man,” and because I’m somewhere under the umbrella of non-heterosexual, non-cisgender people. I would tell a stranger I’m a “gay man” because I think they wouldn’t know that I’m neither gay nor a man.
“Queer” means all of these. And some people don’t think it’s any of those things; they just think it’s an insult because we’re different. But I like that I am different.