What Does Queer Mean Anyway?

BY Wednesday, 18 October 2017

And how is it different to lesbian, gay, bi, trans or intersex?

The meaning of ‘queer’ has changed a lot over the past few decades. From being a slur, to being reclaimed by some LGBT people and rejected by others, ‘queer’ means many different things to many different people.  

Finding umbrella terms for a community as diverse as ours isn’t easy (trust us - we know). Over the last fifty years or so, we’ve cycled through a great deal of them. The ‘gay community’ became the ‘gay and lesbian community’,  then the ‘LGBT community’, or the ‘LGBTIQ community’, and so on. 

Like the word Gay used to mean “happy”, queer used to mean “strange” or “different”. But like all words, its use evolved over time and quickly came to mean something different.

There’re lots of reasons why people identify with queer, either individually or as an umbrella term. It encompasses a wide range of identities, and doesn’t risk excluding groups that the acronym may leave out. Some people find queer’s ambiguity appealing since it gives a sense of community without the need for a more specific label. You might be gay, I might be trans - but we’re both queer, and that brings us together. 

A lot of people like it because it’s easy to say, and a whole lot fewer syllables than LGBTIQ and overall, it’s easier to use and remember; especially if this all new to you.

There are lots of people who dislike the term, mostly due of the fact that it has also been a term that’s used as a slur (a word people use with hate). In the 1960s onwards, people used the word queer as a weapon, usually saying it when attacking or trying to humiliate LGBTIQ people.

It wasn’t until the 1980s when activists began to reclaim it, writing it on their banners and flags when they marched down the street.

Reclaiming language is a powerful tool against other people’s hate and bullying. The thinking behind it is that you can’t be hurt by words that you use to describe yourself. Take the word ‘slut’ for example. If someone calls you a slut it takes away a lot of that person’s power if you turn around and say “I am, so what?” 

For lots of people words do hurt, and for anyone who’s been called queer as an insult, hearing it used within your community can remind you of those experiences. This doesn't mean that it's never OK to use the phrase 'the queer community'. It’s important to keep in mind that there is no umbrella term that everyone is 100% happy with. Lots of people don’t like LGBTIQ! So there’s no one size fits all. 

At Minus18, we use the word when talking about our events and some of our projects. Like the Queer Formal, it makes it easier to communicate to others what we’re talking about. It’s also good to point out that 97% of people who come to the Queer Formal ‘like’ or ‘don’t mind’ the name - that says a lot to us!

We’re using 'queer' in a way that tries to be an all-inclusive and unifying umbrella term that includes people who are same gender attracted and gender diverse as well as the intersections of people and identities within our community. 

So while it’s a word we use, keep in mind that not everybody uses it, and that’s totally OK if they don’t.

Here’s what some of the Minus18 Crew think of it

“Queer is an identity that’s strong and proud, inclusive and flexible. Queer allows me to navigate the ever growing and shifting elements of who I am with a force field of recognition. Queer doesn't tie me down, but lifts me up” – Mill

“I find Queer is inclusive and allows me to identify myself within a community without necessarily sharing my specific label.” – Lucy

“Queer is me and it’s us. It’s not aggressive for me. It’s like a verbal hug to a community I care about” – Chris

Keen to learn more?

There's SO much to explore and unpack when it comes to one's identity and the language used within and about the LGBTIQ community.

Minus18 can lead workshops and training sessions for Australian schools, teachers and workplaces. Find out more about youth workshops and adult training now.