The first time I heard the word queer, it was violently flung at me and my then-girlfriend through a car window by a gaggle of giggling (and likely, intoxicated) football-player bullies in high school. It wasn’t until my sophomore year of college—when I took a Queer Studies 101 class and learned the true history of the word—that I felt comfortable adding it to my identity CV. I proudly began considering myself a queer bisexual dyke.
In the decade since I first began identifying as queer, I’ve noticed that many others in the LGBTQ+ community have taken on the word, too, along with folks who don’t identify with any of the letters represented in that acronym at all. For instance, some who are polyamorous or who belong to the kink community might identify as queer. And while the proliferation of the identifier as a point of pride is wonderful considering the historically negative connotation of the word, I do have to wonder whether this wide use of the word is appropriative of the highly marginalized LGBTQ+ community.
If history has taught us anything, when it comes to identity, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Below, get a history of the word queer and then expert takes on how it is best used now without causing any harm.
The history of the word queer
“Queer wasn’t always used as a slur against queer people,” says Brooklyn-based queer educator Clark Hamel. According to anthropologist and social-change advocate Bahiyyah Maroon, PhD, the word entered the English language in the 16th century as a synonym for odd, strange, or eccentric. It’s a word that could have been used to describe anyone or anything deemed abnormal. For example, it could describe an unwedded woman and a person doing a funny dance alike. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that the word was first used to describe homosexual behavior, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
In the 1890s, the Scottish nobleman John Sholto Douglas used the term derogatorily to describe a man his son Francis was in a relationship with. The whole affair went public when Douglas found out his other son, Alfred, was sleeping with Oscar Wilde and launched a lengthy court case against the playwright. By the early 1900s, the term’s pejorative connotation had traveled from Europe to the United States, where it remained for decades as a term used to ridicule and shame people—especially men—who were either known to be, or thought to be, engaging in homosexual activity. At this point, “the word transitioned from naming oddness to naming the ‘illness’ of homosexuality,” says Dr. Maroon.
Queer, a reclamation
In the 1960s, activists spearheading the gay liberation movement began to describe themselves as ‘queer’ in order to take away the term’s power to harm by reclaiming it, says Dr. Maroon. And by the late 1980s and early 1990s, fueled by outrage by the response (namely lack thereof) to the AIDS epidemic in many parts of the world, more and more folks in the LGBTQ+ community joined in, using the word proudly. An anarchist organization, Queer Nation, which Newsweek called the “the angriest, nerviest in-your-face gay-rights activist group,” was born and began to spread the word that the LGBTQ+ community was tired of being bashed and wasn’t going to take it anymore. “We’re here, we’re queer” and “We’re here, we’re queer, we will not live in fear” became rallying cries of the era.
As the updated connotation became more popularized and accepted, Hamel says some people began using the word queer instead of words such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and so on, or using the word queer in addition to those other identifiers. (That said, he adds that a number of LGBTQ+ folks, particularly those who were older, felt “that the word still has a sting” and disliked the term.)
These days, the definition of queer varies based on who’s doing the defining. Psychotherapist and sex and relationship expert Rachel Wright, LMFT, for example, defines queer as an umbrella term for any behavior or identity that doesn’t include being cisgender, heterosexual, or allosexual. (Allosexual is the opposite of asexual, describing people who do experience sexual attraction.)
So, can someone straight be queer?
Plainly put, yes, someone who is straight can indeed be queer, so long as they are not cisgender or not allosexual.
To contextualize why, Hamel suggests considering those who are transgender or intersex. When the word queer was reclaimed, “it wasn’t just LGB folks who were doing the work,” he says. “It was the entire LGBTQIA+ community,” including those folks. With this in mind, some people—particularly those who are trans or intersex—might indeed be both queer and heterosexual.
Similarly, there are the folks who are aromantic, demisexual, asexual, greysexual, or fraysexual who are queer because they experience attraction in a way that is not exclusively heterosexual. Some of these people may identify as straight because if and when they experience attraction, they experience it towards people of a dissimilar gender from their own.
Someone who is transgender might identify as straight…they don’t identify as queer because of their sexuality, but because of their gender.
For another example, someone who is transgender might identify as straight if they are attracted to people with genders different from their own. In other words, they don’t identify as queer because of their sexuality, but because of their gender.
It’s also crucial to point out that not all people who were assigned one gender at birth and now identify as another, identify with the label transgender. And not all people in that experience identify as queer. “The only way to know how someone identifies is for them to tell us,” says Hamel.
Can someone heterosexual, cisgender, and allosexual ever be queer?
It’s complicated. There are cisgender, allosexual, heterosexual folks who want to identify as queer because they belong to the kink community or are polyamorous. In looking at both the way folks in non-monogamous relationships are treated by (monogamous) society and the definition of kink—any sexual activity that is seen as non-normative—it makes sense why someone in either of these communities might want to identify as queer.
However, many queer folks believe that people who are cisgender, heterosexual, and allosexual shouldn’t identify as queer. As Dr. Maroon explains it, you don’t have to identify as queer if you’re on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum, but you do have to be on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum to identify as queer. “In my opinion, identifying as LGBTQIA+ is a prerequisite for identifying as queer,” she says. “If you are not those things, it would be more accurate to call yourself a queer ally.”
“Identifying as LGBTQIA+ is a prerequisite for identifying as queer,” she says. “If you are not those things, it would be more accurate to call yourself a queer ally.” —anthropologist Bahiyyah Maroon, PhD
The reasoning is that those who are LGBTQIA+ have likely experienced the negative effects of their identity, including discrimination, poor medical care and compromised health, and increased risk of depression, suicide, and self-hatred. And if someone who hasn’t had to deal with those challenges describes themselves as queer, it may be seen like an affront to those who have faced hardships. In short: It would be a form of appropriation.
The problem with saying who can and who cannot identify as queer in this way is it risks becoming identify gatekeeping. In the context of gender and sexual identity, gatekeeping is the act of policing who can use certain identifiers for themselves, says Gabrielle Alexa Noel, queer activist and founder of Bi Girls Club. “The result of gatekeeping is that it disconnects a person from their identity. It can be an incredibly disembodied experience,” she says.
That’s why Wright likes to say that anyone who understands the history of the word and feels that the word describes them may be queer. To put further limitations on who is and is not queer runs the risk of gatekeeping, she says.
Ultimately, someone absolutely can be straight and queer. But which straight folks should take on the label is a matter of historical understanding and discretion.
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