I remember talking with my father last summer – we chatted about my relationships, my social circle, my writing. At some point in the conversation, he asked “isn’t queer a slur? Why do you call yourself that?”
There are a few reasons why people might use the word “queer” to describe themselves.
One of the reasons people call themselves queer is *because* it’s not a polite or apologetic word.
Before the late 80s, “queer” and “invert” were both words used to describe gays, but especially gender-stereotype defying gays of all genders (recall that for decades, the entire LGBTQ umbrella lived under the word “gay”). Some people did claim those labels with transgressive pride, but it took until the late 80s for “queer” to blossom into a politicized identity. “Queer Rights”, “Queer Power”, “We’re Here, We’re Queer, Get Used To It” – all of these popped up on signs and flyers, and were shouted from parades and protests. Queer was a radical identity for LGBT folks who weren’t looking to assimilate into a heterosexual world by being “good gays,” but rather wanted to live loudly and proudly, with no need to conform to heterosexual and heterosexist ideals.
Queer is a radical identity. Queer means that your sexual attraction or gender identity are not here to play nice with the patriarchal society that dictates what counts as appropriate or desirable. Queer is not normal, and proud of it. Queer is angry.
Another reason people like the word “queer” is how it functions as an umbrella term for the entire LGBT+ community.
Fifty, sixty years ago, folks who were gay, gender non-conforming or otherwise trans, bisexual, etc – they all banded together as a community, as the “gay community”, regardless of their differences in gender and sexual attraction. Certainly, people made smaller social groups that allowed them to connect with people whose practices were more similar to each other, but there was mainly one political and social group, all working together.
Now, partially thanks to the growing acceptance of LGBT identities, partially thanks to the internet, there’s more of a splintering of identities. Bisexual Jewish women can connect with other bisexual Jewish women, and have a very specific interaction based on the ways in which they are similar. Safe spaces exist where trans people of color can interact without having to worry about cis folks’ or white folks’ feelings. We’ve realized how valuable and supportive it can be to have labels that allow us to see that we’re not alone.
But sometimes, we still need to band together as a group. We need to connect on a level where everyone of a marginalized gender or sexual attraction can come together to protest or vote or celebrate or work. And having the queer umbrella for the community allows each person who feels connected to that word to be explicitly invited.
If an event calls itself a “lesbian and gay” event, that says something very specific. If a protest calls for attendance from “LGBT” folks, that *still* says something. “Queer” is the word that holds all of us. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, asexual, aromantic, agender, questioning, intersex. All of us are queer, if we want to be.
A third reason why we use the word “queer” is that it’s an easy shorthand.
LGBT+ identities can get pretty specific, because every single person’s sexuality and gender are unique. No two people experience sexuality or gender in the same way.
Genders of people that I know include: “genderqueer demi-boy” and “non-binary woman” and “genderfluid but usually woman-aligned, masculine presenting” and “agender magical girl”* and “genderqueer trans woman”. Attractions of people that I know include: “panromantic asexual” and “biromantic androphilic” and “attracted to anyone that isn’t a cis man” and “bisexual in theory, but monogamously married in a heterosexual relationship so does it even matter?”** and “homoflexible lesbian.”
It can be fun to talk about the nuances of gender or attraction in a queer-friendly context. But when you’re dealing with the straight cis outside world, it can be vulnerable to disclose that much, not knowing what kind of judgement you might face. And even if you’re speaking with accepting folks, it doesn’t always feel good to have to play educator about your own identity, to explain a whole new vocabulary to people who just don’t understand it. People who have a very specific gender or attraction experience may not want to explain their entire identity every time LGBT topics come up. Using the word “queer” allows people to quickly communicate to others that they are not cisgender, heterosexual, and allosexual with just one word.
If you don’t identify as queer, I wouldn’t use it to talk about other people unless they’ve explicitly invited you to, or have made clear that it’s their preferred term to refer to them by. It makes some people uncomfortable, and some folks would prefer to not hear it from non-queer people. So accept it when you hear it, please admire its versatility and its utility. The word queer is a politicized and radical identity. It’s an inclusive identity which ties people together. It’s a shorthand for complexity. It’s a beautiful word, and it’s ours.
*if you believe that gender is nonsense, why not have fun with it?
**yes, if you want it to matter.