If you’ve never given much thought to your sexuality and gender and how they shape your existence, it might be hard to understand how complicated, frustrating, and urgent it can feel to find a label that fits. But that was the case for me. In fact, after years of an affinity for the identifiers “lesbian” and “dyke,” I recently began identifying with the word “queer” because I like that it allows me to exist comfortably in a gray area.
Maybe you too identify as queer or have friends who do. Or maybe you’re still not sure what the heck the word means.
In the last few years, you’ve probably been hearing the word more — thanks, in part, to the Netflix show “Queer Eye.” But what you might not know is that queer isn’t just a tidy version of LGBTQ+. For decades, it was used as a slur intended to alienate and assign otherness to folks, explains LGBTQ+ expert Kryss Shane, MS, MSW, LSW, LMSW.
While some members of the LGBTQ+ community have been working to reclaim it since the ’80s, in some spheres and communities, it’s still considered (and used as) a slur. Personally, a few years ago, I had the word lobbed at me and my partner — who, like me, was white, cisgender, and met traditional beauty standards — by the football team when we held hands walking through our college cafeteria.
AJ Holly Huth, youth services manager at The Center in Las Vegas, says, “As the youth services manager at The [LGBTQ+] Center, I have witnessed both the pain and frustration from our senior community when ‘queer’ is used, and also the desire to continue reclaiming the word from the younger generations.” Indeed, the “Q” is trickier and more delicate than other identifiers like gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
According to Liz Powell, PsyD, an LGBTQ+-friendly sex educator, coach, and licensed psychologist, “queer” is currently used as an umbrella term by people whose sexual orientation isn’t heterosexuality and/or who’s gender isn’t cisgender. “It’s for people who exist outside the gender or sexual norm.”
But in addition to signaling sexual orientation or gender identity, it also conveys a sense of community and radical pushback to the majority. “There is a revolutionary and political aspect to identifying as queer,” says Powell. “It also helps unite lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and trans folk. There’s a community-building and forming aspect to it.”
If it sounds vague or hard to pinpoint that’s because ultimately queer can mean something different, depending on who you ask. “Queer encompasses so many different emotions that to pare it down to just one definition would take away this word’s strength,” explains Will Lanier, executive director of The OUT Foundation in New York City.
With that in mind, Greatist asked 23 people (including Huth, Powell, and Lanier) who identify with the word “queer” to share their thoughts about what it means, signifies, and stands for more broadly.
“My friend says that queer starts a conversation. And it does. It doesn’t necessarily offer specifics because you could be asexual, lesbian, gay, transgender, agender, etc. I like that it indicates that there is more to know.” — Liz Powell
“The word ‘queer’ means extraordinary, different, remarkable. Extraordinary because I am able to overcome anything that stands in my way, with my head held high. Different, because I am different. I am a trans Filipino woman, who is also a dancer, and advocate for the LGBTQ community. Remarkable in a way that I was able put myself out on social media and be able to be met with a community and receive such positive feedback. This is what the word ‘queer’ means to me.” — Jayna Ledford, model and ballerina
“Queer, to me, is a way to include the outsiders. It’s a way to let us know that we’re not alone and certainly not as ‘other’ as society would have us feel. Being queer is about sharing love and understanding through societal adversity.” — James Whiteside, principal ballet dancer at American Ballet Theatre, New York City
“It’s inclusive. For me it’s about how you love, not who you love. Like you can be whoever you want to be and love whoever you want to love. Especially now, I think we could all use a little more of that kind of inclusivity and love in our lives.” — Meg R.,Washington, D.C.
“I define queer as being free to be myself. Love who I want and f— whoever thinks otherwise. My life, my rules, my heart, and embracing the community that comes along with it.” — Shana Sumer, head of community and social media at HER Social App, San Francisco
“To be queer requires compassion and empathy. Compassion for those who feel they must have an opinion about your lifestyle and empathy for those who choose not to understand you. To be queer takes strength in character through fear of the unknown. Strength in character to nod and smile during the holidays, where your Trump-loving family ‘loves you but not your lifestyle.’ As a queer person, you live in anxiety and fear that your rights will be stripped and you will be sent into the street with a pink triangle stitched to your jacket (if you don’t believe me, ask a queer person).
So to me, to be queer is to accept yourself for the unique, loving, empathetic and compassionate person that you were born to be. To stand up for the rights of your community. To demand inclusion where there is none. To lift up those around you too scared to raise their voice. To stare in the face of adversity and say ‘I’m here!’ — Will Lanier
“Queer is the rejection of a stagnant box, an understanding of the fluidity sexuality over a lifetime. I think it’s illogical to believe that one label will fit throughout our entire life. To me, being queer means accepting my own growth and change while adamantly rejecting the ‘one size fits all’ idea for my gender and sexuality. Queerness is accepting the beauty and different ways of loving each other without self-judgement. I am queer and that can mean whatever I need it to.” — Diandra Beckman, Northampton, Mass.
“To me, ‘queer’ means going against the societal norm in regards to sexuality — heterosexuality. It can mean a lot of different things for a lot of [different] people. What I like is that it’s open for interpretation.” — Karli Buckley, New York City
“It’s freedom to and of sexual orientation labels. It represents not having to conform to a specific way of life or label yourself. I like ‘queer’ because I think it gives people the liberty to be their truest selves without putting themselves into a box. For many gay, lesbian, queer, or homosexual people, the experience of being with your partner and how you identify in that relationship can be greatly different from other couples, but also can be different from one relationship to the next. To me, queer provides an umbrella term for so many intricacies of relationships, personalities, and identities.” — Emily Buckley, New York City, NY
“I’ve always loved the word ‘queer.’ It sounds kind of cheery to me. Like gay but with double e’s. I remember as a kid, the saying was ‘queer as a $2 bill.’ I always thought, ‘Wow, a $2 bill is way cool and unique.’ So I started collecting them. To me, ‘queer’ is an all-encompassing word that just means you’re fluid and open. I’ve never wanted to be the norm. So I like how being queer means you stand out from the rest. You’re uniquely and unapologetically you. I find it empowering.” — Fran Dunaway, co-founder and CEO of TomboyX, Seattle
“Queer is a strange word for me, as it was used in a derogatory term during my childhood. Now, I am happy we are turning this word around and bringing empowerment and inclusiveness within it. Now we have a word that describes ‘us’ that is general enough to encompass many different sexualities and genders. It’s an umbrella and in my opinion, it is much better than separating out LGBTQ+ folks for each other. I’m queer therefore I am different… but no different than anyone else… just in unique circumstances.” — Chase Johnsey, gender-fluid ballerina and LGBTQ+ advocate
“I use queer as an umbrella term to identify myself within a larger group of queer women or queer people. I know it was initially meant to be an insult, but I’ve always loved that ‘queer’ literally means ‘odd’ or ‘strange.’ These words indicate that to be queer is to be outside of the norm. And that’s a great compliment, to me.” — Kassie Brabaw, health and sex journalist, New York City
“The word ‘queer’ to me is the millennial version of LGBT, a subculture from the mother-brand that identifies with a new group of minorities. It’s rebellious, it plays outside of the norms of gender-conforming rules. It means seeing gender outside of characteristics, mannerisms, and psychical body representation. It shows the spectrum of beings and sexuality rather than the ‘black and white’ version of attraction and gender. It means being your authentic self, however you display yourself to the world.” — Kenny Ethan Jones, model, activist, and entrepreneur, New York City
“Words can also carry power and give people a sense of pride. What resonates with me when I hear the word queer is an embodiment of our community as a whole. I feel that queer tells the story of our history, diversity, struggle, pain, resilience, and triumph in one word.” — AJ Holly Huth
“Queer holds so many meanings; however, the most foundational way I can describe queer, from my perspective as a black trans woman, is that queer is unapologetically authentic, resistant, and a revolutionary act of reclaiming one’s narrative, while understanding that this is how I define it not instituting my interpretation as the one size fits all.” — Micha Anne, Lawrence, Kansas
“Queer is my identity. It’s the closest word I’ve found to describe how I feel inside. Queer is different, but also special, and unique. It’s where I found home, and other people like me who understand. It’s a community and a family. The type of family I get to choose because mine didn’t accept me.” — J.R.Gray, author of queer romance novels, Miami
“Queer is not fitting in a box, not labeling yourself by someone else’s standards. Queer is the freedom to form your sexual and romantic identity on your own terms and to embrace it. It is a powerful word that allows us to make of it what we want, to take on our own identity through it, and just be.” — Judith Utz, queer fiction columnist
“To me, being ‘queer’ is basically anything that is not heteronormative. So it can apply to gender or sexuality or even the way you have sex. For me, ‘queer’ is just a catch-all for all identities across the spectrum. Queer used to be a word that bigots used to put down the LGBTQ community, but we have reclaimed it. Some people are frustrated that queer is in some ways undefinable, but I think that’s really what makes it so great.” — Brianna Rader, founder and CEO of Juicebox, a sex and relationship coaching app, San Francisco
“For me, being queer is not only my chosen identity marker, it’s also my community. Unlike other binary identities, queerness takes identity off of a binary and encompasses a wide range of gender identities and sexual orientations. Most importantly, queerness never risks leaving anyone out. Queerness is absolutely what you make it, and for me it is means that it also informs the decisions I make at a micro and at a macro level, from who to vote for to where my girlfriend and I should go on vacation. I can’t imagine a life not being a part of the queer community!” — Noa Gutterman, San Francisco
“I don’t think I have the most polished answer, but it’s what feels right so I think that queer means that I am one of the letters in L(G)QBT, and sometimes I don’t know which one that is — and that’s OK. Sometimes I date just women, but when I identify as lesbian I feel like I’m not honoring the real parts of me that like men. Bisexual doesn’t feel right, because again that doesn’t feel like it encompasses all the ways and people I could love, and have loved. Queer feels inclusive, fluid, and I feel seen there.” — Rachel Turner, author of “Brave and Afraid,” Columbus, Ohio
“Queer defines both my identity and my politics, which for me are inextricably intertwined. When I first came out when I was 13, in 2006, the only words I had to describe myself were gay/lesbian and so I adopted those, but I never felt like I could settle in those identities. It wasn’t until college that I encountered people who identified as queer and this was also where I had my first experiences with queer, anti-assimilationist politics. For a long time, queer meant that I was undefinable in my sexuality, my gender, and my politics. I could love and f— whoever I wanted without feeling constrained by gender or heteronormativity. Politically, it captures the anger I’d feel toward our political system.
The thing that I love most about queer is that it can be an adjective and a verb at once and for me it is both. In my work — I’m a PhD candidate in a sociology department — I use queer as a verb to destabilize and rethink dominant paradigms in my discipline, and in my personal and public life it is also an adjective to describe the indescribable nature of my nonbinary gender and messy sexuality.” — Sam Scovill, Tucson, Ariz.
“I vibe with the notion that being queer extends beyond gender and sexuality; being queer is a philosophy and way of life. It’s a willingness to experience other people without preconceived notions. It’s a value system that aims to liberate all human beings from oppression and discrimination. It’s a rebellion against gender expectations, cultural ideals, and a binary worldview, in favor of viewing the world as a series of infinite, colorful spectrum.” — Marissa LaRocca, author of forthcoming book “Everyone Is a Freak: Intimate Confessions About Sexuality, Gender, and Desire,” Nashville, Tenn.
“I have been using the term queer to describe myself since I was 17. I came out as bisexual at 13 (1988) and later as agender. I use queer to identify me with a more radical political end of the LGBTQ spectrum: one that embraced trans folks, gender-nonconforming folks, bi folks, and the marginalized segments of the community.” — Rebecca Blanton (aka the Auntie Vice), founder of the “Fat Chicks on Top” podcast
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.