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“Queerness” uncharted: Understanding this common term

Robyn Exton

Jun 29, 2023

“Queerness” uncharted: Understanding this common term

You’ve probably heard the words “queer” or “queerness” 1000 times and may even be using them to describe aspects of your sexual or gender identity – or something else. 

Now a staple of expression for LGBTQIA+ folks around the world (you might know that the Q in LGBTQIA+ stands for “queer” as much as for “questioning”), the concept of “queerness” has blossomed from hateful slur to a synonym of “homosexual” to, well, anything.  

If there’s one thing to know about this term, it’s that queerness is no one thing. The beauty of queer community, and our individual queer identities, is its freedom in the first place – to be who we are and to let our words reflect and elaborate exactly who that is. 

There’s so much more to enjoy and explore in queerness than meets the eye. Let’s understand where this word came from and how that history has shaped its present and future. If you’re interested in diving into queer theory more on your own, we’ll also include some more useful examples of it in practice later on.

People marching with rainbow flags and Pride signs in the street on a sunny day

Source: Unsplash

Origins and early use

“Queer” hasn’t always been an empowered, flexible, or inclusive term of self-expression, nor has it been a political statement; it hasn’t even been primarily derogatory. 

It’s a word that is as multifaceted as the people who now claim space under its umbrella. 

Queer as derogatory

As early as the 16th century, “queer” was used in English synonymously with strange, odd, or peculiar – anything that fell outside the ” normal range.” 

Somewhere along the way, in the late 19th century, around 1894, “queer” was first used to mean homosexual by the Marquess of Queensbury, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. (This was after he – yes, he – discovered that his son was having an affair with Oscar Wilde and pursued him in a damning court case.)

This began the progression of a dangerous association, where queerness quickly became a negative and insulting attribute. Here are a couple of instances of this pejorative use: 

  • The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang: “queer” takes hold as hate speech in the United States around 1914
  • The Oxford English Dictionary: 1936, “fairies, pansies, and queers conducted […] lewd practices”

From the beginning of the 1900s until the early 1990s, “queer” was widely used, politically and individually, to scorn, distance, and “other” the LGBTQ community – or anyone else who presented themselves as different from social norms. Perhaps because of the speed with which it was adopted as derogatory in both the US and the UK, it influenced all ages, showing up not only in homophobic protests or community-level attacks but also in bullying among school children. 

Early 20th-century queer identity

At the same time that “queerness” quickly became demeaning, in the early 20th century, the word was also quietly adopted among homosexual men for self-identification. Self-professed “queers” didn’t claim the word as a matter of politics, and a more neutral colloquial reference to homosexuality even grew out of this practice. 

20th-century portrait of two finely dressed queer men

Source: Smithsonian Magazine

Reclamation of queerness

These two streams of queerness – a largely-external hateful application and a personal, more neutral self-expression – existed side by side until the middle of the AIDS epidemic in the late 80s and early 90s. Here, the queers in history really started showing up and celebrating this identity. 

There were two main stages for the revitalization and transformation of queerness. First, “queer” became a symbol of anarchy and activism, reclaimed as recognizing and celebrating the differences (now individualities) that had historically alienated them. Organizations like Queer Nation were developed to “eliminate homophobia and increase LGBT visibility,” using slogans like, “We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!” in their protests.

“Queer” also found a strong foothold in academia, with scholars like Judith Butler and Michel Foucault paving the way for the new thinking of gender and “queer theory” to emerge. In the academic world, queerness and queer theory questioned the reigning sexuality and gender norms as both the challenger and the challenged.

It’s uncertain whether queer as a focal point for LGBT strength, pride, and identity began specifically on the streets or in academic discourse. However, it is clear that the relationship between the two was, and still is, deeply empowering. 

Scholars developed the theory – resulting in courses, workshops, and entire university fields of study – while activists put that knowledge into practice, raising awareness of “queer”’s breadth and depth with all who did and needed to listen. 

It’s possible that the philosophizing of queerness in this unprecedented way helped bring the term to life among activists who received these teachings. Even in my own experiences, I know of “older queers,” and even my own partner, who used the knowledge from courses they attended to build protest strategies, create art installations, and even design LARP (live-action roleplay) campaigns to explore queerness and queer identity further.

Whichever came first – like asking about the chicken and the egg – things changed, and queerness became an embodied identity, a source of pride, and the initiator of much-needed discourse around gender and sexuality.

The purple, white, and green genderqueer flag

Source: LGBTQIA+ Wiki

What does “queer” mean to you? 

Since there is so much diversity in being “queer,” no discussion about it would be complete without hearing voices from the queer community itself. Here’s what some people shared in response to the question: What does “queer” mean to you? 

“I love words and their various definitions and evolutions of connotation. I think that they can be really empowering. For me, “queer” feels like a reclamation of myself. I have distinct memories of hearing it used as a slur growing up – before I had the capacity to explore, express, or even acknowledge my own queerness – and maybe that’s why I get a little glimmer of pride from using it to describe myself now. 

I’ve always known that parts of myself were not in line with the “norm,” and being able to name them may or may not change how others perceive or treat me, but it absolutely changes the way I perceive and treat myself.” – A.

“To me, queerness means not belonging to mainstream society. [Here’s one time when this word made me feel different.] A couple of weeks ago, I was at [a queer bar] to see a show [and met two queer friends who had brought another female friend]. I had a little chat with said woman… and then I asked her if she was also queer. She replied, “No, I’m normal.” People from main[stream] society make me [feel like I] stand out… just [using] small little words.” – E.

“As an older millennial/Xennial, I grew up with really rigid 90s/00s ideas about gender and sexuality, which never really fit for me. In the world I grew up in, being “a lesbian” meant fulfilling a certain checklist of (heteronormative) criteria (e.g., butch/femme relationships). I knew I wasn’t straight. Still, somehow, I also wasn’t gay in the “right way” for the people around me. 

My younger life was a lot about exploring and trying things out, seeing how they felt. In this rigid worldview, falling in love with “the wrong person” suddenly meant I didn’t fit in anymore, even though I myself hadn’t changed. No matter where I was, I felt like I was on the outside looking in.

For me, queerness was the identity that allowed me to express my feeling of difference and find others who were similar to me. Most importantly for me: queer as a label allowed me to define myself as myself first, without being dependent on sex and relationships to define me.” – M.

“Calling myself “queer” allows me [both] not to squeeze and not to be squeezed into a category. I came out as lesbian when I was 15/16 years old. Since my outer appearance is more “straight,” I often got comments (from straight people) that I don’t even look like a lesbian, which made me, especially [at a] younger age, insecure about fitting into this category. 

Additionally, I asked myself, what if one day I’m together with a woman who prefers to live as a man? Or what if it [happens] that unexpectedly I meet a cis man [with] whom I’m falling in love? Both would be fine for me. “Queer” means allowing these thoughts without kicking [me] out of this category.” – M.

The organization Queer Nation protesting in a street march with a sign that reads “Queer Nation: Get Used to It”

Source: KQED

Queer art and media

Queerness in books, tv shows, film, music, and other art is no longer in short supply. Since the rise of its reclamation from the 1970s and onwards, a distinct “queering” has occurred where the representation of gender and sexual identities has diversified with time. 

Even more significantly, the resulting so-called queer art and media depict life experiences outside the existing norms as naturally and effortlessly human, distinct precisely because they are not distinguished from any other experience. There’s no big fanfare or point made, just “queer.”

However, queer representation has been around even before activists made a point to change the status quo around the label. Ursula Le Guin, a groundbreaking sci-fi writer, creates gender-neutral societies, or species that could shift their gender at will, in her novels. Musicians like David Bowie challenged gender norms with his unorthodox fashion choices. It’s not that queerness has never been there, but rather that the prominence of the conversation about it has changed.

Many creators are exploring queerness – their own and the collective’s – and queer theory in their work, but here are some (and hardly all) of the most influential results: 

  • Movies: Shortbus and Rocky Horror Picture Show
  • Animated TV shows: Adventure Time, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, and Steven Universe
  • Live-action TV shows: Queer as Folk, The L-Word, and sense8
  • Music: David Bowie, Placebo, The Smiths, and The Knife
  • Literature: the works of Octavia Butler, Judith Butler (no relation), Ursula Le Guin, and Becky Chambers
  • GenderQueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary and Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation are also excellent reads
The full cast of the new Dreamworks She-Ra and the Princesses of Power queer tv show on a rainbow background

Source: Shipping Wiki

Frequently asked questions about queerness

Do I have to identify as queer in order to be queer?

This question is an ongoing conversation within the queer and/or LGBTQIA communities; therefore, it doesn’t have one clear-cut answer. But here’s what I and my own queer community think: At the very least, we should not close the door of queerness to anyone, even if they don’t identify as queer, who has life experiences shared by many queer people.

For example, ever heard of “queer time” – following a different life course as a queer person from a more “typical” heterosexual one (childhood, university, career, babies, house, etc.)? Or what about the fact that we queer folks tend to have a smaller dating pool or make family in different ways? Let’s not forget about inevitably having to come out over and over again.

So, if you don’t want to identify as queer, you don’t have to be queer, but I don’t believe your “queer card” is or should be “revoked” because of this choice. Based on the similarities between your life experiences and those of self-identified queers, you may find yourself doing so, but it’s not a given or a necessity.

Regardless of how someone labels, I think it’s important to note that outsidership (as well as authenticity) is often common between those who identify as queer and those who don’t.

Who should I expect to see in a queer space? 

The answer to this question can also vary, but in theory: anyone whose experience of gender or sexuality is different from social norms. It depends on where and when you’re looking because the people who fall under that scope – and also actually show up to designated queer spaces – can be quite different from place to place. 

“Queer” distinguishes the people who fall under, or identify with, the label as a distinct community. However, as a whole, queer in its nature involves all groups within the LGBTQ spectrum as it doesn’t have a single meaning. It’s also true that the term is in constant evolution and dialogue with itself, which in turn plays a role in who you’ll find in queer spaces. 

Where can I find queer community?

Well, the queer community is everywhere! But more specifically, there are many queer organizations and groups that host forums, chats, and meetups in-person and online. Sometimes you’ll find them on social media, sometimes in specific local bars and venues (in more queer-friendly areas), and sometimes you’ll simply find them when you least expect to. 

Another helpful resource are dating apps for queers (we’re partial to HER) that let you connect on safe, comfortable, and authentic terms with other queer people you may eventually call lovers, new friends, and even chosen family.

Crowded queer bar, the Cubby Hole, in NYC with colorful decorations on the ceiling

Source: The Guardian

What is queer theory?

In its essential form, queer theory is queer people writing theory about themselves. This practice emerged in the 90s at a time when the meaning of queerness was changing. Queer theory attempted to ask questions that philosophers had previously ignored, highlighting that some knowledge is, and has been, forbidden. Queer theory discussed subjects ranging from gender and sexuality to language, fashion, politics, and time.

The YouTuber Philosophy Tube created an entertaining and highly informative video covering the basics of queer theory that you might find interesting. 

Is “queer” a political position?

According to some people, but not to others. The “queer” label as we know it was born out of the resistance to discriminatory gender and sexuality norms in the 90s and was predominantly political in this origin. Some people argue that being part of the LGBT community isn’t enough to make someone “queer” and that engaging with liberatory gender politics is the deciding factor. 

Other people would say queerness is simply a label for anyone being “othered” for their gender or sexuality – or the gender or sexuality of the people they are with – regardless of political involvement. For these people, queerness may be, but isn’t necessarily, based on a political position. 

Here’s an example of how these two contrasting thoughts may play out in practice. Two cisgender (receiving an accurate gender assignment from birth) gay men who are conservative-leaning in their politics – but aren’t politically outspoken or active – are occasionally harassed for holding hands in public. Group A might say that the two men aren’t queer, perhaps “only” homosexual, because of their lack of political engagement, while group B could say they are, if only because of the discrimination they face.

This is the ongoing debate: is “living” queerness enough, or must you also actively resist a system of majority norms? There’s no clear or right answer to this question. 

If I am not political, do I still get to be queer? 

Expanding on the thoughts above, yes. Of course. You still experience life conditions shaped by outsidership, and some of your needs may fall under the queer umbrella — however you identify with it. Therefore, addressing your needs, simply on an individual and personal level, may mean engaging with your queerness somehow.

Queer community today

Queerness, and queers, in history, have gone through a tremendous journey in the last century, leaving us positioned like never before to connect and explore within that label. We’ve also worked to make the expansive possibilities of the queer umbrella more of a home for the intersections of race, neurodivergence, physical ability, and other experiences inseparable from queer identity.  

Absolutely, one of queerness’ greatest assets is the community it unites, so what better to do than dive in? At HER, we are dedicated to maintaining inclusivity, respect, and compassion in all of our spaces so that wherever you find yourself with your queerness, you’ll always have the room to keep exploring and connecting.

Robyn Exton

Robyn is the CEO & Founder of HER. Find her on Twitter.

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