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The 'Queer' Word and Lesbians

By Tabula Rasa

The word “Queer” means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

To people like my grandmother, it means odd or strange, and she’ll often tell me that there’s a “Quare change in the weather”. To others it’s just seen as a pejorative term, which has been used to abuse them. To an ever-growing number of people, however, it’s the way they express their identity, and is the umbrella term which can be used to cover a whole host of different sexualities and gender expressions.

The best definition for “queer” as we will use it here actually comes from Wikipedia, which is: Queer is an umbrella term for sexual minorities that are not heterosexual, heteronormative, or gender-binary. In the context of Western identity politics the term also acts as a label setting queer-identifying people apart from discourse, ideologies, and lifestyles that typify mainstream LGBT communities as being oppressive or assimilationist.

I’ll be the first to admit that up until very recently, I shied away from using the word “queer”. To me, it was what was shouted across the street while people were hurling abuse at me, it was what LGBT people were called when they were being beaten up. In short, it was always negative.

But the more I thought about it, the more important the term became. As we all know, gender isn’t a binary. There isn’t just male and female, there is both and everything in between (and outside of) these binaries. People who represent the larger spectrum of human sexuality and gender expression may not fit into the sometimes “rigidly” defined terms of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. And there needs to be a term for people to use, to identify with, and to unite under.

My girlfriend had a different experience from me regarding the Q:

For me, being queer is pretty much the most defining characteristic I have, but because of that, it is also the least noticeable. I pretty much live my life as a political statement, and that kind of behaviour is normalised very quickly.

I never associated the word with anything negative as a child, but I think that has less to do with society and more to do with how many Enid Blyton books I used to read. When I grew up and exploded out of the closet, I did so as a lesbian, but it was apparent that that was not strictly true from day one. It took me until very recently to identify as the Q that I clearly am, but that I didn’t have the vocabulary to express previously.

Saying that, I also think that identifying as Q is something we grow into. I don’t mean that identifying as LGBT is a transitory stage; I mean that, for me at least, it was an identity I could latch on to.

“LGBT” was a thing I could relate to; that accepted me; that I fit into. It provided for me the space to grow into who I am, who I always was but didn’t know it. That space is essential. Adding Q to the acronym is also essential. The idea of identifying as “other”- what an idea that would have been to a teenaged me!

And I don’t think I’m the only one. Sexuality and gender are things that develop as we grow, one way or the other or both, I think, just like everything else about us, they change as we age. Nobody dies the same person they were when they were born. And Q is a nice, simple way of expressing that idea.

For me, queer means, “Let’s just go with this, see what happens. It’s OK.” It gives me the freedom to experiment with who I am, and I love that freedom. I love being Q.

What other women think

We asked our friends on Facebook to message us if they felt more comfortable self-identifying under the Q as opposed to other letters of the LGBT acronym. The response was huge. And I have to say, I learned a lot.

Many people have their own definitions for their sexuality, which ranged from pansexual to “Futagirl” (which they went on to explain as a “Feminine external expression of an internally andogenous nature”) and everything in between.

I asked a couple of people to to expand on what they meant when they said “pansexual” and both answers were pretty much identical:
Well pan is when there’s no gender consideration. Unlike bi, which is both male and female, being pansexual means that a person doesn’t have to have a definite gender to be attractive because it’s not part of the thinking process.

I then asked one of these pansexual identified people why they felt that the Q best applied to them rather than anything else, and was told:
I think it’s because “bi” feels a bit limiting […] I mean, I fall for people and although in practice I do tend towards women, in reality their gender isn’t really an issue for me. So male/female/neither/both/whatever, as long as they’re comfortable with their identity, it’s not an issue for me, so queer feels a bit more accurate.

People have many different reasons for using Q to identify themselves.

For some people, it is political

Queer for me is a political label. It tells people that I am interested in the issues of our whole community and not just (for example) in trans issues. Also, as somebody who lived as a lesbian for 10 years, is very camp, and have also been living as transgender and then transexual for the last 5 years, I don’t feel as though one label accurately reflects the total of my experience withint he community.

I also feel that if you say “queer” it tends to invite more questions about your personal journey and experience than a label like trans or lesbian as people hear that and make their own narratives and assumptions.”

For others, the Q is about not having to fit into any defined ‘boxes’:
I identify as queer because it feels very free to me. “Lesbian” always seemed not quite right as a label for me, I never felt like I fit in that mold. I like the radical nature of “queer”, and the almost aggressive nature of it. For me identifying as Q means I don’t have to fit any stereotype or gender role, which is awesome!”

Indeed, not having to fit into any particular mould is the reason most people I spoke to prefer to use the Q.

Ariel Silvera told me that:
When I first came out, I used the word “queer” more often to refer to myself. I was basing that usage on understandings I gained from a lot of reading on trans and queer issues and experiences, as well as from my experiences travelling to queer communities in the UK and Germany.

I did then, and still do now, see “queer” as a place of possibility and a place of flexibility. A place where my sexuality and my gender can be articulated in myriad ways, without being limited to a particular identity.

In other words, it feels like it is something which, growing from LGBT, has the potential of limitless genders and sexualities.

Others all responded in a similar vein:

In some situations it’s better than “gay” or “lesbian”, in other situations it’s easier just to say “I’m gay” and no one looks at you funny. I like queer for it’s lack of specificity: It tells you I fall outside the hetronormative without giving very personal details. (If you say “lesbian” sooo many guys in my age group instantly think “porn”.)

I like that “queer” says I have something in common with people who are trans, poly, gay, bi, anything-a-bit-less-usual because I think it’s important that there is an element of togetherness in LGBTQ, and the Q gives an umbrella we can all stand under even if we don’t have lots of the specifics in common we can still stick up for one another.

I find myself attracted to people’s personalities, who they are, rather than their gender.

I find women, men, trans men, trans women, drag queens, drag kings and all kinds of genders attractive. If I describe myself as “bi”, people - straight and gay – seem to be really keen to push me one way or another. If I had a euro for every time I’m asked, “Which do you prefer, men or women?” I’d be rich.

Being queer for me is about being attracted to anyone of any gender if I feel a chemistry with them. I’m really happy to be queer. I’d be sad to not be able to feel attraction for someone because of their gender. Not being attracted to someone because they were perceived as female would for me be as arbitrary as not being attracted to someone because their name started with a vowel.

The appeal of the term queer is it’s versatility. It can be molded to suit the sexuality of the individual, and as a result has none of the difficult connotations of other sexuality discourse.

I call myself queer because I identify most closely with the term “lesbian” both politically and sexually, but find myself in a very happy relationship with a cis male. […] Using the term “queer” means taking back my sexuality and defining it for myself without the pressure of trying to slot into a sexuality that I didn’t actually feel.

Queer fits more of my identity than LGB or T. For me it is considerably wider than the others, which only cover sexual orientation and gender identity. For me Queer represents a wider rejection of heteronormativity. It is about deciding for myself when I want to be poly or mono (or indeed whether one of those is an identity for me), what my kink orientation is, what my relationship with my gender is, who I fancy, who I fuck, how I fuck. It gives me more space to move along continuum of sexuality and gender without being fixed within the confines of boxes that don’t entirely describe me. It’s also political. For me queer is politically lefty, and that fits too!

I like to use queer rather than gay because people throw the word gay around so much in a negative sense…by saying things like “OMG my leggings are so gay.” I also like it because it can be used by everyone who feels they fit into the LGBT- it’s less limiting and I think it helps people stop constantly labelling themselves.

I liked that idea – whether I am with a woman or a man I am queer – their gender identity doesn’t change who I am. Queer feels like an identity I can have forever, it’s mine and not contingent on someone else’s genitals.

Some use the term queer to subvert gender norms.

One person explained that:
“[...] Q suits me best due to my own personal identity. Some days I feel I identify more as male and bind my breasts and dress more masculine. I’m not trans, and don’t suffer any body dysphoria so I feel “queer” best describes me.

Maybe in a world where dressing masculine wasn't such an oddity I wouldn’t need the queer label but.. it is.

One of the respondentd to our questions expanded along this line with:
“Lesbian” seems so specific. It’s just never felt right. And “gay”, that’s not quite right either. My answer to gender is usually “no”, that means I’m not trans or cis, just somewhere in-between. I don’t like the label “bi” because I believe there are more than two genders, and I’m picky like that.

But “queer” is comfortable for me. Like, I belong in the LGBT community, somewhere in between the Ls the Gs the Bs and the Ts; but where might depend on the day. And it’s nice to not feel restricted.

A recurring theme in many of the answers centred upon the area of bisexuality and how at times that term was too limiting for people due to the implied binary, as well as the problem of other LGT or heterosexual people disenfranchising those who labelled themselves as “bi”, by insisting on imposing a sexuality on them based on the gender of their partner.

A friend told me:
“Bisexuality” implies an equal interest in both sexes, which I simply don’t have. I struggled hugely with my sexuality, and found it extremely difficult to find anyone whose sexual experience was similar to mine. It was quite an isolating experience and created a situation where I lacked agency within both the straight and gay communities.

Amiee expanded on this point, except in her case people were disputing her right to identify as queer:

There are those within the community who feel Bs, Qs and quite often Ts as well, don’t belong in “their” spaces. Like any community the whole idea of “inclusiveness” doesn’t always work out so well in practice – we have to work on that.

I was recently told, by a gay man, at my own birthday party, that if I was seeing a man I couldn’t claim to be queer. I have also been asked by a straight friend why, if I am not in a lesbian relationship, I don’t drop the whole queer thing because it might make people uncomfortable.

It seems a lot of people shared my initial misgivings about the word, due to the implied negativity, and the feeling that we haven’t yet achieved full reclamation of the term. Others weren’t sure about giving up the identity they had originally used for themselves:
I had REAL issues with the use of the word queer when I first arrived at Uni as, like you say, I had only heard it in a pejorative way before then and didn’t feel ready to reclaim the word.

I felt that I was being told to by predominantly white middle-class individuals who had recently come out and, as somebody who had been out since the age of 12 and relatively isolated, I had a real history with the word being used as an abusive insult. Also, I thought to myself, “I like my label and the security of knowing where I fit in the world. ‘Lesbian’ seems to describe me and so why should I give up that hard won label in order to sit under an umbrella term?”

Initially, I didn’t want to use Q. I wanted to be able to function within a sexual sphere in which my sexuality could be considered “normal”. I wanted to be able to be part of a community and not struggle with complex sexual feelings alone. Most importantly I wanted to be able to discuss my experiences and not worry that peoples eyes would glaze over at the mention of “queer”.

"I think for political purposes Lesbian is a stronger identity and would use it more"

Others share this experience, and responded with:
I think a lot of the community find it too confrontational or too political. I remember when Queer Spraoi events were on, people saying they didn’t want to go because the name wasn’t nice.

I have encountered many LGBT people who view “queer” as a very negative word, and I can see why they would feel that way. It was used against us for a very long time. But for me I feel like we have re-appropriated it for ourselves. I guess that is a personal thing. I know I have huge problems with the word Faggot, whereas a lot of LGBTQ people I know use it all the time.

I have frequently come across instances where people feel the word isn’t appropriate to describe them and are quite hostile to its appropriation either as an individual or within the wider framework of the LGBT community.

For me, it’s a bit like saying please at the end of a request. I know that ‘LGBT’ is intended to include everyone but it does so rather specifically. Adding the Q, to me, is a bit like saying ‘and everyone else no matter how you identify, come join the party’. It’s polite but I don’t feel excluded if it’s not there.

I know several lesbians and bisexuals who feel that the male influence that is associated with the word gay takes from what they identify with. By adding the letter Q, some of the people who are under the LGBT umberella an optional identity that will allow them to just live their lives in alternative setting that is not solely concerned with the gender that they choose to have sex with.

For something such as pride where we are extending acceptance to all of the community i think the Q is very important because as with everything some people just slip through the cracks and its good to have a safety net so no one is left out.

I think having the Q sends a message that you don’t have to declare, you don’t have to be sure, you don’t have to be definitely/just/only LGBT. Q gives breathing space to people.

It is extremely important to me. Extremely important. Queers are invisible, we have no agency whatsoever and we need to be acknowledged and accepted. I’m tired of having to constantly explain myself and “queer” has excused me from that. For me, it is vital.

Writing this piece, we spoke to a lot of people. Like, a lot. So many more than we thought we would be speaking to.

Not only were there more technicoloursuperqueers than we thought, but every one of them was so open about it, so proud of the Q. And yet, quite a lot of them reported originally feeling negative about the word. In fact, quite a lot of LGBT people seem to associate Queer with being insulted.

Why is that? Why are these fantastic, special, totally unique and proud of it people not all over the place? Well, what I discovered is that they are. Out there, Queering up the mainstream, and the gaystream, and they are doing it without causing much of a fuss at all.

The word Queer has been reclaimed by individuals, what needs to happen now is for it to be reclaimed by the community. You may even identify as Q yourself, but you aren’t sure about it. Maybe you are positive in your identity, who knows? The biggest lesson writing this gave us is that you know what, it doesn’t really matter. We are here, we are Queer, and people are getting used to it.

Above article was first published in the Irish Lesbian Website: Gaelick.com. When it was submitted to us we decided to re-publish it here it because of its relevancy to South African readers.

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