“Queer” will mean different things to different people. We’ll start with one definition, which comes from 2016 Washington Post article: “queer can be used as a blanket term. It often represents anyone who’s not cisgender and/or straight.”
So “queer” refers to anyone who is LGBTQ+?
For some people, the terms “queer” and “LGBTQ+” comprise the same grouping of people, which is to say people who are not cisgender and not straight.
A USA TODAY article from 2015 included quotes from Cleo Anderson, who said, “Queer is anything that exists outside of the dominant narrative… Queer means that you are one of those letters (LGBT), but you could be all of those letters and not knowing is OK.”
So “queer” refers to anyone who is LGBTQ+ but doesn’t know which letter or letters they are?
For some people, yes. According to the GLAAD Media Reference Guide, queer is:
An adjective used by some people, particularly younger people, whose sexual orientation is not exclusively heterosexual (e.g. queer person, queer woman). Typically, for those who identify as queer, the terms lesbian, gay, and bisexual are perceived to be too limiting and/or fraught with cultural connotations they feel don’t apply to them. Some people may use queer, or more commonly genderqueer, to describe their gender identity and/or gender expression.
So, it can refer to sexual orientation, but it can also refer to gender identity? And gender expression?
It can, yes. Some might use it as a a way to describe their orientation, others might use it as a way to describe their gender identity, and others might use it as shorthand umbrella term to mean “not straight and/or not cisgender.” And others might use it to mean any and all of those things.
It seems like this word can mean anything and everything, eh?
Yes, and that can be both a feature and a flaw. In a 2017 VICE article, Javier Nunez Cespedes was quoted as saying:
Part of the beauty of “queer” is that it doesn’t have a real definition and that it’s open-ended, but that also can be a major drawback to it. By not having a concrete definition, people can use it any way they want, and it can and definitely has been co-opted. Also “queer” doesn’t really say anything about someone’s sexuality. When someone tells me they identify as either gay, lesbian, or bisexual, I have a better idea of who they date. To me, “queer” has always had radical anti-oppression trans-inclusive meaning behind it, but it’s clearly not the definition everyone uses.
Actress and singer Lea Delaria told Pride Source that adopting the term “queer” could stop some infighting among the LGBTQ+ community:
This is the biggest issue we have in the queer community to date and will continue to be the biggest issue until we learn to accept our differences, and that’s the issue. And part of me believes that this inclusivity of calling us the LGBTQQTY-whatever-LMNOP tends to stress our differences. And that’s why I refuse to do it. I say queer. Queer is everybody.
I thought “queer” was offensive, like a slur.
It was, and to some folks, it still carries that sting and stigma. The Oxford English Dictionary explains:
The word queer was first used to mean ‘homosexual’ in the late 19th century; when used by heterosexual people, it was originally an aggressively derogatory term. By the late 1980s, however, some gay people began to deliberately use the word queer in place of gay or homosexual, in an attempt, by using the word positively, to deprive it of its negative power. Queer also came to have broader connotations, relating not only to homosexuality but to any sexual orientation or gender identity not corresponding to heterosexual norms. The neutral use of queer is now well established and widely used, especially as an adjective or noun modifier, and exists alongside the derogatory usage.
But there are people who still consider it offensive?
In 2013, ABC News reported that John Kichi filed a complaint with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office because Kichi saw the term “queer” on a job application for a position at Colorado College. To Kichi, a white man, this was as egregious as using the “N was “like if they put down for race: ‘white,’ ‘Latino,’ ‘black’ and then the ‘N’ word… Every one of my gay friends is appalled by this. This is something I had never seen before.”
And in March 2018, Newsweek wrote that Twitter came under fire for suspending the account of a user who referred to “queer writers.” The use was neutral, but apparently the word “queer” triggered a response in Twitter’s code and it was flagged.
So how do I know when to use it?
The safest bet for “queer,” like many terms dealing with gender identity and/or sexual orientation, is to only use it to refer to people who would use it to refer to themselves. But a growing number of people are referring to themselves as queer. Even then, some folks will still find it offensive, even if you’re using it to describe someone who wants you to use “queer.” In the aforementioned ABC News story, Kichi said, “The current generation of 20-somethings may be kicking the word around and having fun with it, but it’s not a gender… I didn’t fight the fight to get as far as we are today.”
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