Understanding the Word 'Queer'


Understanding the Word 'Queer'

by Dannielle Owens-Reid & Kristin Russo, founders of My Kid Is Gay

My daughter came out as ‘queer’ and every time I call her a lesbian she gets angry. But saying ‘queer’ makes me uncomfortable. I’ve always known it as a negative term. I don’t think my daughter is ‘weird’ or ‘strange’ and that’s what queer means... What’s the compromise here?
— Anonymous

Kristin & Dannielle Say:

Words are very complicated.

What one word means to you can mean something entirely different to someone else... which is exactly what is happening between you and your daughter. At the moment it sounds like your thinking is, "Queer means weird or bizarre, and I love my daughter and know she is anything but weird or bizarre." You have always heard the word in a negative context, and you disagree with all of the associations that happen in your own brain when it's spoken. Those feelings are completely understandable. You are, in your own way, being defensive of your daughter whom you love. You are accepting certain parts of her sexuality so deeply that you are angry that anyone would ever think badly of them. That's the marker of an amazing parent. So, before anything else, thank you.

However, you may recall us mentioning earlier that words are very complicated. What this word means to you is not what this word means to your daughter. She is telling you that she has found a way to describe her experience and identity. Many of us struggle with finding the right words to express how we truly feel, and the fact that she has found that space for herself is incredibly empowering. For a lot of people, the words "gay" or "lesbian" or "bisexual" can feel limiting. Those words also come with their own assumptions, limitations, and complications. Your daughter isn't asking you to call her 'weird' or 'bizarre' -- she is asking you to hear her understanding of the word queer, and how that fits with her experience of herself.

So, then, what does 'queer' mean? Well, the word 'queer' has a long history -- and most recently has become an incredibly powerful umbrella term for many that can encompass myriad experiences -- some related specifically to sexuality and gender, and some that are beyond those experiences entirely. There is no way that we can tell you exactly what this word means to your daughter, but we can tell you that the only way you will find that out is by asking her why she prefers that identity marker over others. One of the most powerful parts of using the word queer is that it requires a larger and more complex conversation around the nuances of identity. Since she has taken offense to the term lesbian, she will likely have a lot to say on what certain terms mean to her, and how they make her feel.

Something that you can (and should) do immediately is to stop referring to her as a lesbian. This is not a word that she identifies with, period, so it shouldn't be used to describe her -- even if you think it is the easiest way to communicate your own understanding. This is about her understanding of herself, and you should have a conversation with her about that, specifically. Let her know why it is hard for you to say that word -- explain that for you it has always meant something negative, and you love her so much that it makes you feel all sorts of conflicted. Just as you should work to understand some of her difficulties with words, so should she work to understand some of yours. It may take some time for you to feel comfortable using certain terms, or you may find that there is a middle ground that you can reach through your conversations. The bottom line is to open up a conversation, and to remember that words can come to mean different things to different people over time.

Be sure to listen to your daughter's understanding of the word queer. There is a good chance that you may come to re-understand it as something that is beautiful, complex, and essential for your child.

For a more detailed history of the word queer, check out this two part article on Autostraddle: Part One | Part Two