Queer refers to people, things, and ideas that are unusual or strange. When applied to Gay people, it can be used as an insult or in reference to a community (capitalized as “Queer”), a field of scholarship, or a perspective applied to a text. When referring to an identity and community, Queer expands categories of gender and sexuality to allow for the inclusion of all those who are not heteronormal (do not fit into heterosexual norms) or who are not within the recognized LGBT identity spectra (sexual orientation, gender, and physiology), reflecting an ethos of inclusion that does not demand conformity.
From Insult to Identity
When discussing sexuality and gender, “queer” was originally used as an insult, a way of expressing disdain for another’s sexual orientation, gender expression, sexual physiology, or lifestyle. In the early 1990s, the term was appropriated by orientation- and gender-diverse populations in San Francisco as an inclusive way of describing marginalized communities, including Trans and Intersex.
Some members of the Gay community do not like the term “queer” because it has connotations that infer “defective.” Those who were called “queer” as an insult may not be as quick to accept the term. Nevertheless, there are many LGBTQ people who have embraced the term as a sign of camaraderie. Many homosexual rights and advocacy groups that originally labeled themselves as LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) have added a Q (for Queer) to the end of this moniker. Attracted by the inclusive nature of the term, several activist groups have used it in their names, such as Queer by Choice and Queer Nation.
Although it represents an ethic of inclusivity, Queer identity has nevertheless been criticized as being conformist simply for acting as a blanket term to which all in the orientation/gender/biological sex spectra are expected to comply. Its association with confrontational and radical activism is not necessarily representative of certain groups and individuals, as is its association with the stigma of the individual-as-misfit. On the other hand, many in the LGBTQ collective resonate with a misfit label, and celebrate it as a sign of being unique and noncompliant rather than typical.
Contemporary Uses of Queer
Queer has been appearing more frequently in popular culture. Examples of this phenomenon include the television shows Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Queer Duck, and Queer as Folk. The expression “queer as folk” is originally an English folk saying, “There’s nought [nowt] so queer as folk,” meaning there is nothing quite as strange as people. In its original context, it was not limited to sexuality. A cultural and musical movement directly associated with Queer is queercore, which began in the mid 1980s as a punk-related response to issues of prejudice within society and the Gay movement.
At the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries, the field of Queer Studies arose in the academic arena, and queer theory emerged from the field of Gender Studies. In university programs, it is often grouped together with Gender Studies or Gay/Lesbian Studies. Queer Studies expands the categories of “normative” and “deviant” sexual behavior to include a multiplicity of gender and sexual variations. Used as a verb, to “queer” a text means to read it for its homosexual, gender-variant, or sexual physiological-variant themes and messages. It can also mean identifying the way in which certain bodies of literatures default (subconsciously or consciously) to heteronormal themes and analyses.
de Lauretis, Teresa, “Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities”, Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2, 1991
Halperin, David. “The Normalizing of Queer Theory.” Journal of Homosexuality Vol. 45, 339-343.
Norton, Rictor, The Myth of the Modern Homosexual: Queer History and the Search for Cultural Unity. London: Cassel, 1997.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Tendencies. Durham, NC: Duke University, 1993.