What Does ‘Queer’ Mean? Finding a Definition Is Challenging
The alphabet soup of LGBTQQIAAP*+ seems to add a new letter or symbol to the LGBT acronym every time another gender or sexual variation desires inclusion. So, to keep things simple, some folks forget the acronym altogether and just say “queer,” a reclaimed anti-gay slur that denotes anyone whose sexual or gender identity falls outside of mainstream cisgender heterosexuality.
But the word queer has caused much confusion and debate in terms of its meaning, who it refers to, whether a hateful slur should identify an entire community and the consequences of welcoming too many people into one movement.
As such, we’ve created this explainer to untangle and discuss the varying definitions of queer. You probably won’t agree with everything it says, but that’s the wonderful thing about the word “queer” — it’s so queer itself that it defies easy definition or categorization.
Where does the word “queer” come from?
The word has several origin stories. One etymology says that the word came from the Old High German word twerh meaning “oblique” (rooted from terkw– “to turn, twist or wind”). That then morphed into the German word “quer” and then “queer” in Scotland, a word meaning strange, peculiar or eccentric.
Another origin story says the word came from the Old and Middle Irish word cúar meaning crooked, awry, bowed or hollow, a description often applied to weapons, natural formations and human bodies twisted by physical disabilities.
In English, the word queer pops up in the 1500s as an adjective meaning strange or illegitimate. Around the 1800s, people began using queer to mean “odd,” but the earliest recorded use of queer as an anti-gay slur is said to have occurred in an 1894 letter that the Marquess of Queensbury wrote about Oscar Wilde. (At the time, Wilde was schtupping his son, Lord Alfred Douglas).
After that, people began using queer as a derogatory term against people with same-sex attractions, particularly effeminate or camp men, according to the book Queer: A Graphic History.
The book goes onto say that in the 1980s, some LGBT activists began to reclaim the word (the way some other communities did with words like “dyke,” “bitch,” “nigger” or “slut”). An early example of this reclamation occurred at the 1990 New York Pride march when the Queer Nation activist group distributed a flier that stated, “Queers Read This.”
What does “queer” mean?
Honestly, it depends on who you ask.
Dictionary.com defines queer as an adjective with several denotations: “strange or odd from a conventional viewpoint; unusually different; of a questionable nature or character; not feeling physically well; and mentally unbalanced or deranged.” The definitions are hardly flattering.
Only later in the word’s entry does it get defined as a noun meaning “a person who is gay or lesbian” or “a person whose sexual orientation or gender identity falls outside the heterosexual mainstream or the gender binary.”
Thus, some people think that all LGBT people are “queer” whereas others say that the word only refers to those whose non-heterosexual orientations or non-cisgender identities fall outside of the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender categories: This potentially includes omnisexuals, pansexuals, asexuals, agender and non-binary gendered people.
So are all LGBTQ people automatically “queer”?
Yet again, it depends on your definition of queer.
Some members of the communities above feel that queer doesn’t properly encapsulate their their unique orientations, identities, experiences and social challenges. As such, some prefer to use different words when referring to themselves and their community.
For other people, queerness refers not only to whether you fall outside the mainstream but whether you fall outside the protection of the mainstream.
For example, one might not consider a white, closeted, gay, cis, male, Christian Republican who is married to a woman and who opposes LGBTQ rights as “queer” because their identities and actions don’t place them outside of the mainstream or its protection.
This hypothetical Republican may be gay, but they aren’t queer because they’re conventionally and traditionally mainstream, and that provides them a large degree of social protection; especially when compared to, say, a black, bisexual, trans female, atheist anarchist who is in polyamorous group marriage and regularly protests for LGBTQ rights.
Viewed this way, queer isn’t a so much a noun as a verb.
Maybe “queer” is best understood as a verb
Returning to Dictionary.com, the verb form of queer gets defined as “to spoil; to ruin; to jeopardize; or to put (a person) in a hopeless or disadvantageous situation.”
However, many queer activists see queer as a verb meaning “to challenge or change the typically expected function of a common thing — as in, “We have queered the institution of marriage,”— or as a verb meaning “to live your truth openly, putting yourself out of the protection of ‘normalcy’ in order to be who you are.”
Thus, a closeted gay Christian Republican man who married a woman and opposes LGBTQ rights isn’t challenging anything: They like heterosexual matrimony, the social status quo, the conservative Christian church and anti-LGBTQ Republican party just the way it is.
Maybe “queer” refers to a counter-cultural political identity
Those who use the activist verb form of queer would say that the intersecting identities of a black transgender activist make her far more queer than a closeted Christian Republican man because “living her truth” places her far outside of the protection of the norm. That is, her overlapping identities make her very existence and actions a challenge to the status quo, leaving her unprotected and vulnerable to intersecting social oppressions.
Black people, trans people and queer activists have all faced greater police harassment and institutional discrimination than white Christian Republicans. So even if a cisgender, male Republican is gay, their sexual identity alone does not necessarily make them queer because (especially as gayness becomes more mainstream) their overlapping identities afford them many other social, cultural and institutional protections that don’t extended to other marginalized LGBTQ people; especially when you factor in circumstances like poverty, age and physical ability.
Viewed this way, queer can be seen as a political identity, rather than just a word referring to sexual orientation and gender identity.
But while this political definition of queer can provide a useful way for understanding intersecting social challenges, it potentially begins “the oppression Olympics,” a competition to see who is the most marginalized queer.
If queerness gets measured solely by how far out of the political and cultural mainstream your other identities are, then being different becomes a form of social capital that can be used to rank others, grant certain privileges and silence those who are deemed “less queer.”
Can straight people be “queer”?
Here’s where things get even stickier.
If you define queers as “people whose sexual orientation or gender identity falls outside the heterosexual mainstream or the gender binary” (or outside the protection of that mainstream), then one could consider a straight cisgender BDSM practitioner as queer since their sexual behavior falls outside of the cisgender heterosexual mainstream and its protection.
Slate.com writer Jillian Keenan makes a case for such inclusion in her article “Is Kink a Sexual Orientation?”:
“Both LGBTQ and kinky people have been irrationally and unfairly accused of preying on children. We’ve both been told to keep our romantic lives private and to not ‘shove things in people’s faces.’ We’ve both been told that our expressions of love, which feel so natural and necessary to us, are damaged, broken, unholy, or less valuable than vanilla, heterosexual, cisgender love. Kinky people, like LGBTQ people (although with less frequency), have also been fired, physically attacked, arrested, or had parenting rights revoked because of our orientations. (One study found that roughly 30% of BDSM practitioners reported violence, harassment or job discrimination because of their sexualities.) Both communities have been told our sexual identities are mental illness.”
Is kinky the same thing as queer?
Some queer people, like Huffington Post Queer Voices editor Noah Michaelson, think that if a person’s sexual practices are sincere, intrinsic and a deep part of how they live and experience life, and if the word “queer” means something to them in terms of politics, identity and community, then cis-het kinksters can be queer.
However, gay activist and sex columnist Dan Savage argues that kink isn’t the same as sexual orientation or gender identity because it’s an external practice rater than an internal identity.
“While some kinksters identify strongly with their kinks and are open about their sexual interests, being into baby bonnets or bondage isn’t about who you love, it’s about how you love,” Savage said.
When it comes to asexuals, some queer thinkers are similarly divided on whether all asexuals count as queer. Yes, asexuality stands outside of the sexual mainstream, but if an asexual person is only romantically attracted to members of the opposite sex, then some would argue that they’re still predominantly heterosexual and have less in common with LGBT people than a homo-romantic asexual.
The danger of creating too strict a definition for “queer”
The argument of whether straight cisgender people should count as queer has two main sides.
One the one hand: Although queer as a community identity arose from LGBT and HIV/AIDS activism in the ’80s and ’90s, words and communities change (or else they become fossils). Welcoming kinky straight people into the queer community could help build a community amongst sexual minorities and create a stronger social coalition of people who share the social goal of sexual liberation for everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
On the other hand: cisgender heterosexual kinksters don’t experience anywhere near the same levels of state-sanctioned violence or institutional discrimination as LGBTQ people. And since queer is literally a reclaimed anti-LGBTQ slur (and not an insult regularly lobbed at straight kinksters), some queers disapprove of straight kinksters trying re-claim and self-apply this slur. (One commenter compared it to a white person trying to reclaim a non-white ethnic slur and apply it to themselves.)
Some worry that if straight people qualify as queer, they’ll use the label to lay claim to LGBTQ spaces and experiences, claiming solidarity while merely taking up space and centering their own desires. The queer movement, they say, should be focused on fighting for those who sexual orientations and gender identities deprive them access to the most basic institutional protections and services.
If the word becomes too inclusive, it risks erasing the real-world identities and histories of the queer liberationist struggle. Or put more simply, if everyone can be queer, then the word becomes meaningless.
Featured image by Bannach via iStock