The "Q" in LGBTQ+
Is it ok to call someone queer? That depends. Queer is a term that is deeply offensive to some in the LGBTQ+ community while being openly embraced by others. To understand these contradictory meanings, we need to know something about the history and different uses of the term “queer.”
A quick recap
The use of the term queer can be traced to the 16th century when it was used to mean strange, odd, or peculiar. For instance, a person whose behavior was deemed to be “not quite right” might have been described as queer. As a quick look at a dictionary will confirm, this original meaning for the term queer still exists.
In the late 19th century, a second meaning for the term queer emerged; it began to have the connotation of sexual difference and gender non-conformity. Men who were perceived as flamboyant, and who were suspected of engaging in sex with other men, were deemed queer. Some within the gay community also favored queer as an alternative to another contemporary term--“fairy”—which had clear connotations of effeminate behavior. (Perlman 2019)
In the 20th century, “queer” was increasingly used as an insult or slur to single out persons with unconventional gender expression and non-heterosexual identities, typically boys and men who were perceived to be gay. Many in the LGBTQ+ community—especially older generations—have painful memories of being called queer, along with other epithets, from a young age. (Perlman 2019)
Reclaiming a hateful slur
Beginning in the 1980s, some members of the LGBTQ+ community began to reclaim the term queer; they self-identified as queer, using the term in a neutral or positive way. In part, this was an effort to strip away the power of a deeply homophobic slur. But it also emerged out of political divisions within the LGBTQ+ community. Those who self-identified as queer argued that others within the LGBTQ+ community were too focused on assimilation and conformity to social norms, like the quest for legalized same-sex marriage. They embraced “queer” as symbolic of a more radical politics, and to signal their rejection of the status quo both in the gay rights movement and society at large. (Hanhardt n.d.)
Embraced for its inclusivity
In recent years, queer has come to be used as an umbrella term for members of the LGBTQ+ community. Rather than an ever-growing acronym, the term “queer” is appealing to some because it can be inclusive of the entire community. Others find it to be an appropriate term to describe their more fluid or non-binary identities. Young people in particular are self-identifying as queer. According to a recent study by the Williams Institute of UCLA, 76% of LGBTQ+ persons identifying as queer are between the ages of 18 and 25. (Williams Institute 2020)
Different meanings for different people
In short, the term "queer" has a checkered past and still strikes very different chords for different people, including in the LGBTQ+ community. Author Alexander Cheves puts it this way: “It’s a word charged with as many meanings, emotions, and historical perspectives as there are strands of LGBTQ+ identity (Cheves 2019).”
Even as many LGBTQ+ people—particularly youth—embrace “queer” as a source of pride and political identity, others in the LGBTQ+ community have a strong aversion to the term due to painful associations or because they don’t care for the term’s connotation of radical politics. Some also see “queer” as a trendy fad or academic jargon, due to the term’s popularity among scholars. (Rocheleau, 2019)
Use with care
So, is it ok to describe someone as queer? The term is still disliked by some people in the LGBTQ+ community and its use by straight people can be considered offensive. For that reason, “queer” should only be used to refer to people who self-identify as queer, or by someone who identifies as queer.
The different meanings of “queer” make it a particularly sensitive term. But it has a lot in common with other terminology relating to gender and sexual identity, in the sense that our language is always changing, and words can mean different things to different people. That’s why it’s always important to pay attention to individual identities and the terms they use to describe themselves.
In their own words--voices from the community
Keep reading to explore voices of LGBTQ+ individuals as they explain what the word "queer" means to them.
For Vonte Abrams, identifying as queer helps them navigate the world as a non-binary person deeply suspicious of the status quo,
“My queerness encompasses that voice, my voice, as a Black, male-assigned, non-binary individual who harshly critiques the status quo. I embrace “non-binary” because I am naturally androgynous — puberty gave me a physical and emotional blend of masculine and feminine traits. I’ve learned over time that navigating societal rules of binary presentation is always going to be a unique challenge for me. ‘Queer’ helps me face that challenge (Cheves 2019)."
Kristy Zoshak explains that she likes “queer” for its inclusiveness:
“At this stage in my life, given the experiences I’ve had, ‘queer’ feels more inclusive to me. I know different people have different perspectives, but for me, it represents an inclusive umbrella term that speaks to me (Cheves 2019).”
Steven “Z” Patton, who understands why the word makes some people bristle, nevertheless embraces queer for its sense of freedom and empowerment
“In middle school, kids followed me home calling me ‘queer’ . . . and more. As an adult, I’ve been harassed with the same slurs. So I understand why generations before me balk at the word. That said, I know how empowering it feels to reclaim words that have been used to harm us, and I appreciate “queer” specifically because it has always carried a sense of undefined abstractness. Even as a slur, the word described those who exist outside of what society mandates, so it’s fitting that the term now defies all restrictions of love and self that the world has placed on us. (Cheves 2019).”
About the author--Kathleen Clark is Chief Learning Officer of Identiversity Inc. She lives with her family in Charlotte, NC and writes widely on topics relating to diversity, equity and inclusion.
Cheves, Alexander. (2019, June 4). 9 LGBTQ+ people explain how they love, hate, and understand the word 'Queer'. them. https://www.them.us/story/what-does-queer-mean
Goldberg, S. K., Rothblum, E.D., Russell, S.T., & Meyer, I.H. (2020, January 20). Exploring the Q in LGBTQ. Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law. https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/publications/exploring-q-in-lgbtq/
Hanhardt, Christine B. (n.d.). Queer history. The American Historian. https://www.oah.org/tah/issues/2019/may/queer-history/
Perlman, Merrill. (2019, January 22). How the word 'queer' was adopted by the LGBTQ community. Columbia Journalism Review. https://www.cjr.org/language_corner/queer.php