Defining: Queer

Welcome to another installment of our “Defining” series, where we unpack various terms and identities.

Define It

“Queer” is a reclaimed word used to describe any sexual orientation and/or gender identity that may fall outside the common identities of heterosexual and/or cisgender. Queer can also be used as an all-encompassing, inclusive term for LGBTQIA. For example: Queer Theory, Queer Literature, Queer Studies.

Explain It

“Queer” is a hard word to define because it’s so broad, and it means many different things to different people. It is simultaneously an umbrella term to capture many LGBTQIA identities, a personal identity, and an academic term--all in one word. It can also be a derogatory, offensive word when used in a negative way. Academically, queer is also used as a broad, umbrella term for LGBT areas of study, such as Queer Studies or classes in Queer Literature.

Within the LGBTQIA acronym of letters, Q often stands for two words: “queer” and “questioning.” Both Q identities are important to our community. Both identities can be broad and inclusive, and both identities fill a need for people who might not identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, or might not know where they identify exactly.

The word queer has had a long history, which you can read about in depth here. Over the centuries, queer has gone from meaning misaligned, not straight, weird, or quirky, to an important identity in our community. Queer has also been used as a derogatory term, and in the ‘50s and 60’s LGBT people felt it was only a slur used by heterosexuals against homosexuals. During the AIDS crisis in the 80’s, “queer” was reclaimed by activists to be used as radical,challenging, rebellious, and politically-charged word. During the AIDS crisis, activists needed a word that could shock the inaction out of the general public. That’s where the phrase, “We’re here, we’re queer…” came from. During the 90’s, “queer” also began popping up as an academic term for LGBTQIA-specific studies, theory, and literature. “Queer” steadily became more and more mainstream, and was even used in pop culture, like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

Context is key when using the word queer. Queer has been, and continues to be used negatively, so someone yelling “Queer!” at an LGBT person or saying “Wow, what a queer,” is using the term in a derogatory context. However, someone saying “I identify as queer” is using the term as an identity marker.

Our society tends to box things into categories with strict definitions, like Male, Female, Gay, Lesbian, Straight, Black, White, etc. Queer is not one of those strict categories. Queer is flexible, broad, and also powerful. Queer has a radical history, which lends to its power as an identity. Queer is still seen as an impolite word to some people, so claiming queer as an identity can be a brave and radical act.

Queer can be a very personal identity to own. While identities like gay or lesbian are fairly easy to define, queer is different. Queer is whatever an individual person needs that word to mean. Queer is yours. Queer is theirs. Queer is ours. Queer is Queer.

When your child comes out as queer, don’t assume what that word means to them. Because queer is so personal an identity, it often means different things to different people. Encourage honest and open communication, and let your child guide you. It’s okay to ask!

Sara Schmidt-Kost is an out, queer Educator in Minneapolis, MN. She spent five years as a leader in the LGBT student organizations at St. Cloud State University where she completed her undergrad in Secondary Social Studies Education. Sara currently co-leads the in-school and after-school GSA groups at the middle school where she works, and she is thankful for the opportunity to support her students as they grow into fully-functioning adults. She has also created a training workshop on LGBT Issues in Schools and has presented it to groups of Social Studies teachers, other educators, and students alike.

Help support our contributors here on Patreon!