What Does It Mean to be Queer?

Time to understand what it means to be queer once and for all.
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“Queer” has been through a lot. It’s a word that was once a slur, weaponized, and then reclaimed. However, what does it mean to be Queer?

Now it’s not just a word, but an identity and an orientation, too. However, Queer is still complex and occasionally controversial. So, what does it mean to be Queer in today’s world?

How Queer Went from Insult to Empowerment

To understand what it means to be Queer now, we have to go back a bit. In fact, our story starts in the 16th century when “Queer” was used to mean strange or peculiar. But by the late 19th century, it was more commonly used as an insult applied to gay men.

However, as early as the 1950s, the gay community started to take the word back, and by the 1970s, Pride marchers could be heard chanting, “We’re here, we’re Queer, get used to it!”

Fast forward to the 1990s, and LGBTQ+ folks were commonly using “Queer” to describe themselves and their communities. Then, in the following decade, the term expanded. By the 2000s, “Queer” was no longer just a synonym for gay but an adjective or catch-all term for LGBTQ+ places, people, and things.

Becoming Intersectional

Since the 2000s, what it means to be Queer has both broadened and become more nuanced. The term now encompasses a whole range of overlapping intersectional differences both for people who aren’t straight and those who aren’t cis.

For some people, the term goes beyond just a typical description of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It weaves in other differences, too, like neurodivergence, disability, fatness, and more. What it means to be Queer has gone on a radical journey from the strangeness of the 16th century to weaponization as a slur and then to reclamation and expansion.

The Role of Queer Theory

So, how exactly did “Queer” expand so much? Well, a big part of the explanation comes down to Queer Theory. Emerging in the 1990s, Queer Theory is the academic exploration of gender identity and sexualities beyond heterosexual and cisgender. 

Queer Theory challenged the conventional wisdom on gender and sexuality and did a great deal for our contemporary understanding of the topic. For example, Queer Theory scholars viewed sexuality and gender as fluid, which was a departure from the more binary understanding of the two that had dominated previously. 

So, how does this relate to our everyday experiences of being Queer? Well, the emergence of Queer Theory had something of a ripple effect on the LGBTQ+ community at large. It provided a framework for Queerness as a broader resistance or deviation from conventional expectations of sexuality and gender.

This more expansive understanding resonated with many LGBTQ+ people, who found validation and recognition in the term and embraced it accordingly.

Isn’t Queer still Controversial?

Despite this vast linguistic and conceptual transition, “Queer” still remains a controversial term in some quarters. Not everybody in the LGBTQ+ community identifies as Queer, and some even find the term offensive.

As recently as 2023, The Guardian newspaper received a letter from a 66-year-old gay man complaining about the normalization of the word “Queer” and comparing its use to the N-word.

On the other hand, just a week later, the paper published a letter of rebuttal from a millennial reader who argued that since “gay” was the insult much of their generation was bullied with, and as no one is policing the use of the word gay, why should Queer be considered unacceptable? So much for millennial snowflakes!

For those of us who do identify as Queer, it’s a term of empowerment rather than a reminder of repression. It’s both specific in its acknowledgment of our divergence from the traditional gender and sexuality norms and as broad as it needs to be.

So, what is the honest answer to what it means to be Queer? Well, it’s actually really simple: what it means to be Queer varies from person to person, it’s flexible by design, and that’s what makes it beautiful! 

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