Growing up identifying as a heterosexual girl in the ’90s, "queer," to me, seemed like a word to describe those on the fringes, people who didn’t "get" life; a synonym for "sad" or "weird." It was a label that had a bad rep, and in my desperate desire to fit in, I didn’t want anything to do with it.
I was oblivious to the complex politics surrounding the term and why, to this day, it’s not a word everyone in the LGBTQIA+ community is comfortable using, irrespective of how secure they feel in their gender and/or sexuality. I was a latecomer to realizing my queerness, but as time passed and queer community formed around me, I felt emboldened to stand in my identity. Now I self-describe as queer, but it took me 35 years to feel comfortable doing so.
“Since it first showed up in English about 1513, 'queer' has always meant something not normal, something peculiar, something odd,” writes Merrill Perlman in the Columbia Journalism Review. “Counterfeit money was 'queer'; someone who is sick might say they 'feel queer'; playground bullies would call someone 'queer' without knowing or intending any sexual connotations.”
Over time, queer became used to describe people who deviated from societal norms in terms of gender and sexuality and, by the 19th century, it had become a term used to describe gay and/or effeminate men. However, its usage started to decline once the two binary sexualities, heterosexuality and homosexuality, really embedded themselves into society in the 1940s.
In a movement led by people of color in the late ’80s, through the activist group Queer Nation, some people started to reclaim the term. “By co-opting the word 'queer,' QN claims, they have disarmed homophobes," according to a 1991 article in Newsweek, which also pointed out the rise of a popular protest chant that's still in use today: "We're here! We're queer! Get used to it!" Queer has now been widely adopted by people across the LGBTQ community.
Personally, I love calling myself queer because taking back ownership of a word and changing the narrative around it in a positive and joyful way is awesome. But I also recognize that I’m a white woman in my 30s who hasn't lived through queer oppression in the same way that many people in our community have.
“I haven’t used the word 'queer' to describe myself for a long time — the struggle we felt at that time is something I don’t want to be reminded of,” explains Ione (who requested her last name not be used), in her 60s, who lived through years where she, and many other LGBTQ elders, experienced severe queer-related hate crimes.
Tye Nicholson, 29, meanwhile, embraces the term. "'Queer' is all-encompassing yet ambiguous," they say. "For me, it means a sense of freedom that words like 'bisexual' and 'pansexual' do not allow. It allows for flexibility as I continue to grow in my relationships with myself and others.”
Queerness as a way of life
As a polyamorous person, "queer" encompasses yet another part of my identity — a relationship style I ascribe to as someone who believes that my love is limitless and that I can love more than one person at a time. I feel it is inherently queer because it deviates from the default — monogamy — where people are expected to hold one romantic relationship at a time. It's why I feel as though "queer" has become a label to mean many things not limited to sexuality. And others, I've found, agree.
“To me, queer is a way of life, not just a gender and sexuality label," Jay X, 20, tells me. "It’s about how my life divests from patriarchy, cis-het, perisex [born with sex characteristics easily categorized into male or female; not intersex] normativity and different facets of white supremacy, and how my life is a reflection of my values and not the values I’ve been told by society that I should center in my life." As a biracial trans person, Jay has experienced people outside of their communities policing their queer identity before, and feels powerful reclaiming the word.
In recent years, popular music artists such as Billie Eilish and Harry Styles have come under fire for queerbaiting: the use of queer suggestion and culture as a way to appeal to the LGBTQ community. Styles once told fans “we’re all a little bit gay," fueling even further scrutiny around his sexuality, which he has never publicly defined.
Witnessing rich, famous and otherwise privileged people being praised for appropriating queerness can be painful, particularly for those in the community experiencing hate crimes and other trauma just for existing. It's why, when a well-liked famous person proudly declares their queerness publicly, it can feel like progress — not to mention personal affirmation.
Meanwhile, there are some celebrities who have publicly used the term "queer" to describe themselves without really expressing what it means to them, like Jameela Jamil and Evan Rachel Wood. When Jamil wrote a tweet claiming her queerness a couple of years ago, while in a relationship with a man, she faced backlash and scrutiny.
But, Eshe Kiama Zuri, a 26-year-old Black queer organizer, tells me, “What matters is that we get to define our queerness and how we interact with it personally and as a community, whether we are comfortable with the term or not. Reclaiming can only be done by paying honor to our ancestors: queer, trans, Black, brown, disabled, poor, sex-working — real people who carved out space for freedom in a hostile world, and not by celebs or corporations 'queering' the capitalist white supremacist society we live in.”