What Does Queer Mean? An Answer in The Queer Renaissance

What makes Queer such a divisive, yet powerful term, and when was the turning point for its current meaning?
what does queer mean?

The term Queer remains in a state of ambiguity, embraced by younger generations and challenged by LGBT elders, leaving the cishet world utterly confused about whether it is okay to say it aloud. For the record, I identify as Queer, and yes, you can say it.

It is not without critical deliberation that I named this publication Queerist. In answering what Queer means today, I examine its earliest meanings and the first efforts to reclaim the term for empowerment. I look within myself to understand why the term adequately describes my identity today. I turn to the LGBTQ+ community to gain perspective and capture a broader consensus of what meaning the word holds in our modern-day lives. And I reference the first publication to define the term publicly. All of which leads to how we at Queerist define Queer today.

TL;DR

Today, Queer holds an expansive and inclusive meaning, which describes identities outside of cisgender heteronormativity. It is used by some—but not all—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, non-binary, and more people who identify with the word in terms of sexuality or gender (or both).

Early Definitions

“Up through the nineteenth century, [Queer] was primarily used to mark individuals considered odd or outside social norms,” Christina B. Hanhardt states in Queer History. She adds that it was a term ascribed to others versus used by someone to describe their identity.

During the late nineteenth century in American history, Queer became a pejorative term used against homosexuals, which the country also labeled as sexual deviants. I understand why our LGBT elders hold such strong opposition to the term. Yet, there is powerful history to uncover in the term’s reclaiming. 

It would be highly insensitive to reclaim a term that once caused our LGBT elders so much pain, not having experienced it yourself, without first uncovering that the people who began to reclaim it also suffered from its prior pejorative status. It is also essential to understand that their objective was to be provocative, radically political, and rectify the Gay Liberation Front’s problematic assimilation perspective.

The Queer Renaissance Offers an Expansive Definition

The 1969 Stonewall Uprising is well known for igniting the modern movement for LGBTQ+ rights; perhaps it also sparked the Queer Renaissance. Robert McRuer, in his 1997 book, The Queer Renaissance: Contemporary American Literature and the Reinvention of Lesbian and Gay Identities, examines the “unprecedented wave of cultural activity by openly queer poets, playwrights, and novelists” in America’s 1980s and 1990s, quantifying such writers in the thousands. While Queer publications existed before and after the riots, McRuer states their rarity before this renaissance.

Essential to capture from McRuer, is the recognition he shares that while The Queer Renaissance is aptly named for its content from gay and lesbian writers, it is also aptly named for its context. The Queer Renaissance is itself Queer, meaning different from other renaissances which celebrate a nation’s cultural position—this renaissance transcends American Queer oppression to reimagine and reshape Queer identity.

The final point from McRuer I wish to include is the identification of Queerness during this period as an expansive and inclusive term. One that recognized spectrums of sex, sexuality, and gender, and the notion that heterosexuality and homosexuality are not fixed and equal opposite identities. There is fluidity between the two, and further, there is a spectrum of sex and gender identity in-between and outside the binaries of male and female, man and woman. In this sense, the term recognized the marginalized identities within the LGBT community that the Gay Liberation Front did not. In this time, Queer begins to carry the inclusivity we see in it today.

My Personal Definition

Despite growing up through this Queer Renaissance in the 90s, I was not heavily exposed to the term as a child—the prominent pejorative term used against me starting in the 3rd grade was gay. At that time, it didn’t sting as intended, mainly because I didn’t yet understand what the world was labeling me at eight years old. I recall the exact conversation when “he’s so gay” was slurred at me. While I didn’t yet understand the term, I felt the shame of being othered.

Later in adolescence, as my understanding of gay expanded, I would identify with the label used to bring me pain and suffering. I thought, if that’s what you call a boy who likes boys, then I suppose that’s what I am, and there’s nothing I could do to change that—believe me, I had tried. Like many before me, I found empowerment in the label to describe that facet of my identity. It was my first experience in reclaiming a word.

“We’re here! We’re Queer! Get used to it!” is my earliest memory of the term Queer. Which—I am discovering in writing this—originated from Queer Nation, “an LGBT activist organization founded in New York City in March 1990 by AIDS activists from ACT UP New York.” I am sure I had first heard it in an episode of Will & Grace (1998). I would later see the term in television show titles, Queer as Folk (2000) and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (2003). While I became more exposed to the term as I grew older, I was still content to identify as gay.

It was recently, in my 30s, that I began to question the term I used to describe my identity. While gay predominately means “gay man,” more generally, it describes homosexuality without regard to gender. There are cultural limitations and boundaries set upon gender to which I do not fit neatly. Today I identity as Queer for several reasons, but the most important is that it more adequately describes my identity in sexuality and gender expression.

What Queer Means to LGBTQ+ People

Despite my research on the history of the term and my personal views, I felt it imperative to ask the community. Below are select responses from LGBTQ+ people on what Queer means to them.

“For the longest time since I first came out eons ago, it meant gay; now it encompasses the entire LGBTQ+ umbrella. I guess it is now for those who identify as Queer to define it for themselves.” — Chris.

“I don’t personally use it, and don’t much care for the word, but what it stands for I can totally understand.” — Anon.

“Not the norm. I think it evolves, and so does society’s definition of ‘the norm.’ I was probably Queer when I was younger, but as being a gay man becomes more normalized, I wouldn’t necessarily relate to that term any longer as a broad identifier. Perhaps when I paint my nails, that action is Queer.” — Jason.

“To me, it means all the identities that are under the LGBTQ+ banner that have been marginalized and harassed by the use of that word in the past and present. It is a word that liberates me from the need to justify myself to those who use it as a pejorative term. Queer means I am free to be who I am.” – Patti.

“To me, being Queer isn’t just about the fact that I’m attracted to people across the gender spectrum, but that I’m open to interrogating what that means for how I live my life. Just because our society’s narrative goes a certain way, that doesn’t mean my love, my partnership, my sex, my body also have to look or feel or behave that certain way.” — Tyler.

“I think of it as an all-encompassing term. While we take pride in more specific labels such as gay, transgender, asexual, etc., Queer brings all identities outside the heterosexual, cisgender norm together under one inclusive umbrella. It is a reminder of the commonality we share despite–or even because of–our differences.” — Michael.

“Queer is what you are wrapping your mind around. It is striving. It is the taboo, the gothic, unspoken, mundane. It is safety. It is fear. It is loud, unnerving, inviting.” — Ashlee.

“It means freedom. Freedom from the gender binary. Freedom to be and express yourself without society dictating how you ‘should’ look, feel or act. Freedom to fully exist without the weight of the world’s expectations.” — Stevie.

“Honestly, it’s still a confusing term for me. I think it means non-binary.” — Art.

“For me, there’s duality in the meaning. When I call myself queer, it’s to acknowledge 1) I’m not straight, nor do I like to be referred to as ‘she/her’ but instead, ‘she/they,’ and also 2) not wanting a more distinct label for myself.” — Anon.

A Definition from the Queer Nation Manifesto (June 1990),
Published Anonymously by Queers

“Well, yes, ‘gay’ is great. It has its place. But when a lot of lesbians and gay men wake up in the morning, we feel angry and disgusted, not gay. So we’ve chosen to call ourselves queer. Using ‘queer’ is a way of reminding us how we are perceived by the rest of the world. It’s a way of telling ourselves we don’t have to be witty and charming people who keep our lives discreet and marginalized in the straight world. We use queer as gay men loving lesbians and lesbians loving being queer. Queer, unlike GAY, doesn’t mean MALE. And when spoken to other gays and lesbians, it’s a way of suggesting we close ranks and forget (temporarily) our individual differences because we face a more insidious common enemy. Yeah, QUEER can be a rough word, but it is also a sly and ironic weapon we can steal from the homophobe’s hands and use against him.”

The Queerist Definition of Queer

To Quote Robert McRuer once more, “The writers at the center of The Queer Renaissance perversely insist that we can and should sustain the messy processes of interrogating the exclusions our identities and communities effect and of imaging our communities and identities otherwise.” In this and the Queer Nation Manifesto, I find validation in my choice to use “Queer” as an expansive and inclusive anti-label, one that aims to unite the LGBTQ+ community.

To me and this publication, Queer means living outside of cisgender heteronormativity. Our use of the term Queer encompasses the full spectrum of LGBTQIA+ identity. We acknowledge and respect that not everyone in this spectrum identifies with the term. We reclaim this term for our empowerment. We capitalize the term to reflect its current status.

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