My wife recently referred to herself as queer while talking to an older cisgender, heterosexual, male friend of ours. I’ve heard her use the term many times, so it was nothing new to me. Our friend, though, stopped in his tracks. He got really serious and explained how he had known her a long time and admired her greatly, and that it truly hurt to hear her use that word to describe herself.
This interaction brought me up short. It seemed to catch my wife off guard as well. Although we frequently use the word in its reclaimed sense, her friend clearly thought that she was putting herself down by calling herself that. Let me point out that we are not exactly part of the young generation (we’re both in our 50s), but we are younger than her friend and younger, apparently, than a lot of people who find that word derogatory. We have grown up in a generation in which LGBT people often used it to describe themselves. There was the TV series Queer as Folk, and the Q even got added to LGBT. It has become the go-to term for someone who either doesn’t completely identify with any of the LGBT or identifies with more than one.
Although she identifies as bi, my wife has been leaning more toward “pansexual” or something similar, because she is attracted to people with a variety of genders. Yes, bisexual is often defined that way now as well (“bi” referring to attraction to the same gender and all other genders). And she could call herself pan. But queer is a good one-size-fits-all word. I also find it useful to describe myself. I am trans and mostly attracted to women. Knowing what I do about human sexuality, though, I doubt if I would be a 5 on the Kinsey scale (do we even pay attention to the Kinsey scale these days?).
Yes, I am attracted enough to other women to sometimes refer to myself as a lesbian, and even belong to Facebook groups for lesbians and trans lesbians. But queer, for me, also encompasses the full scope of my identities. I am trans. I am attracted mostly to other women, but have dated men as well. I have been, at one point of my life or another, three of the LGBT (I wasn’t really attracted to men when presenting as a man, so I leave out the G), but, actually, queer describes me best.
For my non-binary friends, queer is often the most descriptive word in terms of both sexuality and gender. If someone is agender (having no gender), for example, virtually no kind of attraction is a same gender attraction, and there isn’t necessarily an “opposite” gender, either. In terms of their gender, some non-binary folks refer to themselves as genderqueer, because that is the name they feel best fits their particular gender.
Not long after my wife’s and my conversation with our friend, I noticed an older gay man taking offense at use of the word in a comment to an article here on Medium. I totally get where he was coming from: at one time it was only used as a slur, and only said by those who would discriminate against and abuse us. It’s not that hard to understand how the word would leave a bad taste in some people’s mouths, but it is increasingly taking on a more positive connotation.
If someone takes offense at my calling myself a queer woman, they don’t have to read my words or refer to me that way. However, they don’t have the right to tell me what to call myself.
At the end of the day, a lot of people might ask, what does it matter what I am called or what I call myself? Aren’t I the same person regardless of what I am called? Would I be the same person if I didn’t use the word queer to describe myself? Of course. But words matter.
In a lot of ways use of the word queer is similar to my struggles surrounding pronouns. You have every right to ask me to call you the appropriate pronouns for you. If you use they/them pronouns and I keep referring to you as “he,” you have a right to be upset. If you refuse to acknowledge my pronouns, and call me anything other than she/her, then I will be the one who is upset.
It’s pretty simple, really. It all comes down to a matter of respect. Far from using it to disrespect ourselves or others, I see queer as the perfect word for some of us. It’s the perfect word for me, at least some of the time. I wouldn’t presume to use it for everyone, just as not everyone identifies as gay, bi, lesbian, trans, non-binary, asexual, etc.
As for me, though, I am queer. And that’s OK.