When I was in high school in the late 1960’s Thursday was always “Queer Day.” If you unwittingly—because purposely would make no sense—wore purple that day, you were ridiculed as “queer,” a bad thing to be sure. Why? This was unclear. Maybe—well, most certainly—it meant “homosexual,” but that wasn’t a term people used freely back in my little hometown.
Meanwhile, my mom and others of her generation used the word to mean “odd,” which of course was and is a correct definition. Fine. But when I came out in the late 70’s the word “queer,” used even in that kind of non-homophobic context, unfortunately retained its slap-worthy power.
In the 90’s things started to change, however. Some in the LGBTQ community began to reclaim the term “queer,” now using it in a self-affirming way. Gradually this trend caught on with more and more people— though not with the majority of those from my generation.
Today, although “queer” is now used regularly and proudly by many, it continues to depend on who you’re talking to as to what it means. PFLAG National, for example, sees it as an “umbrella term”:
It includes anyone who a) wants to identify as queer and b) who feels somehow outside of the societal norms in regards to gender or sexuality. This, therefore, could include the person who highly values queer theory concepts and would rather not identify with any particular label, the gender fluid bisexual, the gender fluid heterosexual, the questioning LGBT person, and the person who just doesn’t feel like they quite fit in to societal norms and wants to bond with a community over that.
The Gender Equity Resource Center at Berkeley agrees with the umbrella-ism and adds (similar to the above) that the usage of “queer” can be:
- a political statement, as well as a sexual orientation, which advocates breaking binary.
- [about] recognizing both sexual orientation and gender identity as potentially fluid.
- a simple label to explain a complex set of sexual behaviors and desires. For example, a person who is attracted to multiple genders may identify as queer.
All of this is so well worded but also seems so…I don’t know…word-y. Label-ly, head-y, politically correct-y. All of the above-y. So, perhaps putting an actual face to queerness could help. Buzzfeed recently listed 15 Responses to the Question “What Does the Word ‘Queer’ Mean to You?” Below are some of the answers given by different individuals:
4. “It lets me comfortably move with my sexuality as it changes during different periods of my life.”
7. “Queer is what you make it.”
I know many people use ‘queer’ as an umbrella term, and I understand why they do, but I think it’s really reductive to forget that while it may be an umbrella term for some, it’s very specific for others. Queer is what you make of it — and, for me, being queer means that my sexuality is not fixed, that it can evolve over years and that I can be sexually and romantically attracted to various degrees to the spectrum of gender identities that exist…
8. “I see both gender and sexuality as fluid concepts that I think we should be able to freely move between.”
9. “I don’t feel like the other labels appropriately describe me.”
14. “I’ve always seen [the world] through queer eyes.”
For me, queer goes beyond sexuality and encompasses the way I see the world…
Well, I hope that clears things up for everyone. But somehow I doubt it. Because, in fact, “queer” is such a broad term with such varied meanings and because it still carries such an emotional kick for some of us, the concept remains challenging. As Slate recently wrote, “Despite its widespread use in classrooms, pride parades, and LGBTQ blogs…the term ‘queer’ remains contentious for some—and confusing for many more.”
Bottom line: When someone uses the term “queer,” take a cue from Buzzfeed and consider finding out that particular someone’s (possibly unique) take on the word.