September 21, 2022

What "queer" means and why it is such a useful word


"Queer" is a great word that can be used to describe those who not belong to the heterosexual/non-transgender majority.

Sometimes, but just sometimes, the queer debate becomes so neurotic that it does more harm than good. The discussion about the term queer can serve as one example of this. We have become so afraid of offending anyone that we dismiss terms that can serve us well, because they were once used as slurs.

"Queer" originally meant strange or odd. In the US it became a slur used against everyone cisgender/heteronormative people saw as gay. 

Since the early 1990s, however, an increasing number of gender diverse and non-heterosexual people have been using it as an umbrella term for all kinds of variance in the realms of sexuality and gender. 

Is queer a slur?

How can you use a slur to describe a group of people that is constantly bullied, harassed and invalidated? The answer: Because we can. 

By doing so we reframe the context of the bigoted use of the term. Our  understanding of the term reveals the hate underpinning the way homophobic and transphobic people use the term. If we use it as a positive and empowering term, it becomes a positive and empowering term.

As James Somerton underlines in the video embedded below: "Gay" was also a slur once, and some continue to use the word to hurt gay people.  Still, for gay men and lesbian women the term has become a powerful, affirming, term. Indeed, the term gay seems to have replaced the term homosexual for the most part, as it is seen as less stigmatizing. 

People who use "gay" as a slur today broadcast to the whole world what kind of bigots they are.

A term for the outsiders

Maybe there comes a time when our cultures become so open and accepting that we do not need a term for those outside the dominant norm because there are no given sexuality and gender defaults, but we are not there yet.

We desperately need a term to describe those that live outside the cis/hetero-world. We need a term that does not define which group is included and which one is not. A term that is precise enough to make sense to those who know something about non-cis/het people, but at the same time ambiguous and open enough to avoid the endless "who are in and who are out" debates.

"LGBT" does not communicate well

The LGBT-term  does not work. People use it as an umbrella term, for sure, but it is not... not really. 

The LGBT abbreviation defines the queer family as those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. These are indeed terms that apply to many queer people, but not to all.  

We now know that sexualities and gender identities exist in an open landscape, and that the boundaries we draw between them are more the product of our categorizing minds and cultural habits than a reality "out there". 

Few are denying the existence of biological sex or a given sexual orientation, but as far as gender identities and sexualities go, there are no strict binaries. Sure, people can identify as men or women or as being exclusively attracted to men or women, but they may also not. The borders of the pink and the blue areas above are ambiguous, in the same way our language cannot capture the strict boundaries between man and woman, masculine or feminine. Moreover, the yellow and green areas indicates that there are other options as well. Illustration: pop_jop.

This also why the rainbow "alphabet soup" is getting insanely complex. When I am posting over at tumblr, I am currently using the hashtags LGBT, LGBT+, LGBTQ, and LGBTQAI. I don't have to stop there. There is even an LGBTQQIP2SAA abbreviation, which stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, pansexual, two spirit, asexual and ally. 

All of these terms are meaningful and helpful, but this has become an endless quest towards total inclusivity, and given that queer people constantly make words to describe specific parts of the color wheel above, that goal can never be reached. 

Trying to search the web for queer content has become a nightmare because of all these variants.

Note that there is no N for nonbinary. The enbys apparently belong to the Q, but the Q belongs to all. Some also include an A for "ally". Cis/het allies play an extremely important role, but if you include them as members of the queer community, the description of this community loses all meaning, as I see it.

The reason we need a word for "queer" in the first place is that we have a majority of people that see themselves as cisgender and heterosexual and who think that they represent what's "normal". What all queer people have in common is that they are seen as someone outside this norm, not that they neatly matches one of the many letters in the alphabet soup.

Ambiguity is good

By the way: The ambiguity of the queer concept is useful for another reason: It leaves room for the journey of self-exploration. Queer people may identify differently later in life, as they come to learn themselves better or when new term brings new meaning. 

It also allow for a fuzzy border region between queer and non-queer. It turns out that many of those who identify as cisgender and heterosexual are not as straight as they or others may think, and that is OK. They should be allowed to define who they are, whether this is straight or queer.

In Norway skeiv (queer) has become the common term

Is it possible to replace LGBT etc. etc. with the term queer? It has been done. 

In Norway I rarely see queer people refer to the  LHBT abbreviation anymore (the H stands for "homofil"). Instead they use the term skeiv (pronounced "sheyv"), which means the same as the English rainbow term queer. 

There is the organization Skeiv Ungdom for queer youth, and Skeiv Verden (Queer World) for first and second generation immigrants. The main organization is simply called Fri ("free").

The term skeiv has not, as far as I know,  roots in a slur. That might have helped its adaptation. 

Yet, it is not an unproblematic term. It is a pun on the word streit, which  queer people adapted from the English term "straight". Skeiv means tilted or askew, and some find that disturbing. 

But again: The Norwegian queer community has adopted the term, so now it has become a force for good.


Here's the video that inspired this article:

Main illustration based on a drawing by Filo.


  1. Excellent points, Jack. 50 years ago when I was in HS we certainly used "queer" as a slur. In hindsight I don't feel bad about it. As far as I know none of us threw any such slights at the one or two seemingly gay boys in our school. We were just kids trying on our independence and wanting the validation of the group. Heck, we even used to describe police as "pigs" which was a leftover from the 60s.

    I love this: "How can you use a slur to describe a group of people that is constantly bullied, harassed and invalidated? The answer: Because we can." I think that our use of the word is like telling those who'd use it as a slur that we really don't care that they are so ignorant.

    I must admit, though, that when one of my best friends (a cis lesbian) says, "Cheers queers!" when we toast each other, I love it and I cringe internally a little. Its use as a slur is hard for me to forget.

  2. What I like about more nebulous language is that it allows you to identify that you are different without locking you in. This is probably most useful and relevant when you are still searching but perhaps cannot precisely verbalize it. A term like "queer" might fit the bill until something better comes along.


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