04 June 2017

Is queerness something that all lesbian, gay, bi, and trans people have in common? Is it a sexual identity, a political identity, both, or something else entirely?

No doubt we are all familiar with the term, but coming up with a definition for “queerness” presents quite a challenge. Sometimes “queer” is used as a slur, yet there are many people who proudly self-identify as queer.

It’s not so unusual for slur words to get re-appropriated by the group targeted by the slur, but “queer” stands out in a certain way. Not only has the term been reclaimed as an identity, but since the 90s, we’ve also had Queer Studies departments in universities, devoted to the study of queer theory. Other slur words, like “bitch” or “slut” have been reclaimed (or attempts have been made), but it would be quite remarkable to find a program called Bitch Studies in any university. Similarly, I’ve never heard of anyone making “slut art,” though we do have queer art and literature.

Queer theory developed from the ideas of French philosopher Michel Foucault. He claimed that sexuality and sexual categories are not determined by genetics and biology. Rather, they are socially constructed, they are products contingent on history and culture. For example, in Ancient Greece, though young men were encouraged to take an older lover—a man who could act as a kind of mentor to the youth—they did not call those relations “homosexual” or “gay.” It would be an anachronism to apply those concepts to these kinds of relationships when that is not how the ancients thought about them.

In Medieval times, some people were described as “sodomites” — but that had nothing to do with which gender they preferred to have sex with. That label was not thought of as a sexual identity at all. It did not express something deep and important about who you were. You were a sodomite only if you committed the act of sodomy, in the same way you were a thief only if you stole other people’s property. Once you stopped engaging in those acts, the label no longer applied. This is quite different from how we understand homosexuality today.

These examples illustrate the various ways in which sexual identities are a function of culture and society. They’re not natural kinds, dictated by biological facts. So, queer theory is concerned with examining the various ways in which we construct gender and sexual identity.

That’s one way the term “queer” is used. It also seems to be used as a kind of umbrella term, a short hand for LGBT. But it’s also a contested term. There are gay men and lesbians who dislike the term “queer” and would not use it to self-identify, and there are also some who prefer “queer” and dislike the “gay” and “lesbian” labels. Often, the difference is generational, with younger, urban types preferring to call themselves “queer.” Given that fact, “queer” cannot simply be an umbrella term that includes all other categories.

The choice to identify as “queer” as opposed to “gay or “lesbian” or “bi” is often a political choice. Consider the defiant chant queer activists like ACT UP began using in New York in the 90’s—“We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!” It’s a refusal to fit into the neat, binary categories that mainstream society tries to enforce on us, it’s a refusal to hide, to become “normal” or “respectable” or otherwise change. It is society that must change to accommodate queerness.

Speaking of not fitting into neat categories, we haven’t talked about the “T” in LGBT. While some trans people might identify as queer, there is a fundamental difference between the “LGB” and the “T.” The former say something about erotic or romantic attractions, whereas the latter does not. A trans man, for example, might be attracted to other men, or to women, or both. To describe someone as “trans” doesn’t say anything about who they are attracted to. But it does complicate ideas of sexuality in interesting ways. For example, I have had friends who identified as lesbian and had lesbian partners, then decided to transition from female to male. Their sexual preferences didn’t change, but by transitioning from female to male they transitioned from being a lesbian woman to being a heterosexual man. And what about their partners? Does their sexuality change because they are now romantically involved with a trans man, when all their previous relationships were with cisgendered women?

Perhaps this is why the word “queer” is so useful—it encompasses human sexuality in all its complicated, non-binary messiness...



Comments (4)

DoomsDay364's picture


Thursday, March 9, 2017 -- 11:41 AM

Very informative and

Very informative and interesting post, Laura! It makes sense that labels like "queer" and "gay" are as much political symbols as terms of reference, but does that mean somebody could be gay but not queer? I'm interested in figuring out what these words really mean...

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Thursday, March 9, 2017 -- 1:59 PM

Certainly, someone could

Certainly, someone could identify as gay but not queer. Imagine a well off, middle-aged, "straight-acting," gay Republican, for example (they do exist, I'm told!) who is married to his partner and leading a life of middle class respectability. Someone like that might identify as gay but not as queer. Perhaps someone who grew up hearing the term "queer" only ever used as a slur (i.e. before the 90s) might also not want to identify as such, despite being either lesbian or gay. That's what I meant when I said the differences often fall along generational lines. I know some women who identify as "queer" and dislike the term "lesbian" because to them it connotes a certain kind of "respectability" that they reject. Or they associate it with second wave feminism and its politics, whereas "queer" sounds more third-wave, or intersectional. In trying to figure out the meanings of these terms, I think it's important to note we're not making ontological distinctions. These are terms of identity—it's not about *being* gay vs. being queer, but rather how one chooses to self-identify.

Hubert Miller's picture

Hubert Miller

Thursday, September 19, 2019 -- 10:55 PM

You seem to insinuate that

You seem to insinuate that people who think men's restrooms should still have urinals are fearful dinosaurs. I suggest you climb out of your progressive minds and check out the real world out there. Men tend to be slobs and I conclude I would rather have my fellow man use the urinal than to pee all over a toilet seat I might want to sit down on. Also, when you have managed to build only unisex restrooms as you prefer, you will probably have to hire security people for each restroom, because sad to inform you, but there are a certain number of men out there who do not listen thoughtfully to Philosophy Talks, and in fact might be accurately appraised as "creeps".
But I guess there are no creeps on campus, right, so that didn't occur to you. Also, once you eliminate urinals in favor of progress, are you also going to take your enlightenment to France ?

biowed23's picture


Monday, December 18, 2023 -- 5:16 PM

game that has the best

game that has the best graphics plus gameplay and is already loved by millions of players.
gta v modded account

I've read and agree to abide by the Community Guidelines