The definition of ‘queer’ is quite complicated. However, for people like me who are immersed in Gender Studies, have queer friends, and live in Brighton, it’s easy to forget that! After hearing some poor attempts from people trying to succinctly explain ‘queer’ to people unsure of the term, I thought I’d have a go myself.
I think the most basic explanation is that ‘queer’ means ‘traditional labels for sexuality (or gender) don’t fit me.’ As far as I can see, there are 4 main uses of the term ‘queer,’ some of which overlap:
- As a term of abuse – ‘Queer’ was originally a slur directed at gay people. This used to be more common a few decades ago; now, the LGBT community has reclaimed the term, and many use it to refer to themselves. However, some people still throw the term around as an insult. It’s all about context!
- As an umbrella term for LGBT – Sometimes people will use ‘queer’ as a shorthand for all sexualities that aren’t ‘straight’ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, asexual…it’s useful to have a shorthand!)
- As a term for sexual orientation that doesn’t fit traditional labels – Some people feel that ‘gay’, ‘lesbian,’ ‘bisexual,’ or any other term doesn’t quite fit them. We have quite strong cultural ideas about what these labels mean, and some people feel those categories don’t reflect the complicated nature of their sexualities. So, if someone says their orientation is ‘queer,’ it means they’re not heterosexual,* but their orientation also isn’t ‘gay,’ ‘bisexual,’ or ‘lesbian.’
- As a term for gender identity that doesn’t fit traditional labels – If someone identifies as ‘genderqueer,’ rather than ‘male,’ ‘female,’ or anything else, it means they don’t feel those labels fit them. They might see male/female as too strict a binary, categories which have a lot of cultural associations that just don’t work for them. So, they’re genderqueer. Simple!
If you’ve never met anyone who identifies this way, it might be difficult to understand. But part of the point of the term ‘queer’ is to challenge the categories we have created for ourselves; in many ways it is a byword for subverting traditional labels and binaries, and challenging the idea of ‘normal.’
*Some people argue that people who are basically heterosexual can indeed identify as ‘queer.’ For example, if you subvert our strong cultural associations with straight sexuality – by having same-sex fantasies, engaging in anal penetration as a straight man, or by being straight but not having relationships at all, for some examples – then you could argue you are ‘queer.’ However, other people say that this is an example of straight people appropriating a word or idea which has nothing much to do with them.
What do you think the term ‘queer’ means? Is there anything else I’ve missed?