What does it mean to be Queer? Definition and history explained

Photo credit: Flashpop
Photo credit: Flashpop

Over the last few decades, the word 'queer' has been reclaimed as an expression of empowerment by a large part of the LGBTQ+ community. For people who exist outside the gender or sexual norm, it can represent an orientation, a community, a form of activism – and often, all three.

Unlike labels such as 'lesbian' or 'non-binary', which focus on a single aspect of someone's identity – sexuality or gender, respectively – the term 'queer' encompasses both. However, since the term means different things to different people, its definition transcends any meaning that is pinned to it.

We spoke to Dr Kate Tomas, a spiritual empowerment mentor for women and non-binary people, Philip Baldwin, an LGBTQ rights activist, and Liz Edman, leading LGBTQ+ theologian and author of Queer Virtue, about what 'queer' means today:

What does queer mean?

Queer is predominantly used as an umbrella term to describe sexual orientations and gender identities other than heterosexual and cisgender (people whose gender identity and expression matches the sex they were assigned at birth). For people across the LGBTQ+ spectrum, the word 'queer' can also convey a sense of community, acceptance, kinship, and represent a revolutionary, political rejection of heteronormativity.

'Queer can be used in a range of contexts by LGBTQ+ people,' Baldwin explains. 'It can be used by people who want to reject specific labels of romantic orientation, sexual orientation and/or gender identity. It can also be used by people who want to challenge perceived norms of the LGBTQ+ community – for example, seeking to reject racism, sizeism or ableism.'

Up until very recently, the word 'queer' was exclusively a homophobic slur. 'It was first reclaimed in the late 1980s,' says Balwin. 'A younger generation of LGBTQ+ people now increasingly use the term. It can be empowering – some LGBTQ+ people associate the word with a sense of community and acceptance.' Not everyone feels this way, he adds, so it's important to listen to LGBTQ+ people and find out how they identify.

Not only is the word 'queer' interpreted in different ways by different people, but it can mean many different things to an individual, too. As an author, says Edman, 'One of the first questions people always ask me is 'how do you use the word 'queer'? The word 'queer' means two things to me. It is an umbrella term comprising various iterations of Queer sexual identity and experience.

'Basically, it's a neat and nifty way to communicate what is otherwise an increasingly cumbersome list of initials that begin LGBTQIA,' she says. 'I like 'queer' in this sense because it can hold identities and preferences that are being felt and named now and into the future.' In addition, Edman's work 'draws on the academic discipline of Queer Theory, where "to queer" is to rupture false binaries – or put another way, to disrupt rigid, black and white thinking.'

Is 'queer' an insult?

'The label "queer", when used by people hostile to difference, is a slur,' says Dr Tomas. 'All slurs act in the same way: it is a way of labelling someone as sub-human, indicating to the world that they do not deserve to be treated with humanity or respect. Sometimes the most powerful way to fight back from such an act of violent labelling is to reclaim the term itself.'

Using the label is a choice that can only be made by the individual. 'One can self-identify as Queer, but it is not appropriate to label others as Queer because of the history of the word,' Dr Tomas explains. 'So, if you know your friend identified as Queer you can talk about your queer friend – but if you think someone is gay, it is not appropriate to refer to them as queer.'

Photo credit: Nicolas Menijes / EyeEm
Photo credit: Nicolas Menijes / EyeEm

The history of the word 'queer'

The word "queer" hasn't always related to sexuality and gender. When it entered the English language in the 16th century, queer was a synonym for strange, odd and eccentric. 'It wasn't until the 1940s that the term was used a slur against gay people, or anyone who wasn't gender-conforming,' says Dr Tomas. 'To be labelled as "a queer" was extremely dangerous, and would often result in violence, abuse and sometimes death.

Three decades ago, Queer – with capitalisation to denote a proper noun – was reclaimed, Dr Tomas continues. 'Reclaiming words that have been used as slurs and weaponised against oppressed communities is a form of resistance,' she explains. 'There is power in taking back a term used to shame, humiliate and violate, but that reclamation can only be done by members of that oppressed and marginalised group.'

How to be more inclusive of Queer people

It's easy to make the world a more welcoming, safe space for Queer people. Here's some pointers on being more inclusive that are actionable right now:

🌈 Don't miss the 'Q' in LGBTQ: Whenever you talk about sexual orientation and gender identity, make sure you include the word queer.

🌈 Increase your understanding: Do your own research. 'Listen to LGBTQ+ people, learn about LGBTQ+ identities and challenge homophobia, biphobia and transphobia whenever you hear it,' says Baldwin.

🌈 Don't make assumptions: Open your mind to the possibility that any person you ever meet might identify as Queer. Avoid drawing conclusions based on your perceptions of who they are.

🌈 Share your pronouns: 'Making a point of sharing your own pronouns – "Hi, I am Kate, I use She and Her pronouns" – and not assuming any one else's are two powerful and impactful ways to make Queer people safe and welcomed,' says Dr Tomas.

🌈 Ditch dualisms: Make an effort to use non-gendered language whenever you can, like 'people' instead of 'men and women' and 'children' instead of 'boys and girls'.

🌈 Fly the flag: Quite literally, if you can. 'Displaying the rainbow flag in your businesses will instantly let Queer people know you are safe for them,' says Dr Tomas.

What is Queer Theory?

Queer Theory (QT) explores and challenges the various ways society perpetuates gender-, sex-, and sexuality-based binaries, such as feminine/masculine, man/woman, and heterosexual/homosexual. These binaries reinforce the notion of the minority as abnormal and inferior, Encyclopaedia Britannica writes, 'for example, homosexual desire as inferior to heterosexual desire, acts of femininity as inferior to acts of masculinity.'

'Thus,' the text continues, 'Queer Theory is a call to transgress conventional understandings of gender and sexuality and to disrupt the boundary that separates heterosexuality from homosexuality. Instead, Queer Theorists argue that the heterosexual-homosexual division must be challenged to open space for the multiple identities, embodiments, and discourses that fall outside assumed binaries.'

In essence, Queer Theory focuses on dismantling oppressive cultural norms. 'Whether or not you are considered to be "a man" or "a woman" directly impacts how much power you have access to, how much respect you are given, and therefore how safe you are in the world,' says Dr Tomas. 'If you happen to not confirm to either of these options for gender presentation, or you are neither a man or a woman, the world is not a safe place.'

Last updated: 30-04-2021

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