What Does 'Queer' Mean? A Guide To The Controversial Term

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what does queer mean

What does queer mean? Well, "queer" is not a new term. In fact, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word has been around since the 1500s, when it meant “strange, peculiar, [and/or] eccentric.”

But queer didn’t take on its current meaning until the 20th Century, during the sexual revolution of the late 1980s. But what is the real queer meaning? Well, according to Merriam Webster, the term actually stands for numerous things.

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Queer is — or can be — something which:

  1. differs in some odd way from what is usual or normal — i.e. some eccentric, unconventional
  2. is mildly insane and/or absorbed or interested to an extreme or unreasonable degree
  3. is disparaging and offensive
  4. is a term used to describe individuals who are sexually attracted to members of the same sex: homosexual, gay
  5. is a term, relating to, or used, by homosexuals


Urban Dictionary also notes that queer can be:

  1. an identity used because the terms gay, lesbian, or bisexual are not sufficient for their inner feelings 
  2. an identity used because some individuals whose gender or sex is non-conforming may not have an easy way to culturally identify their sexual orientation
  3. an academic word used in the context of “queer theory” and “queer studies”; the term queer replaces the term homosexual or LGBT
  4. a contemporary derogatory term and insult used to describe someone in the LGBT community, usually by someone outside of the LGBT community, or used to describe any other person who you do not like based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, general looks and/or behavior

In short, "queer" is a vague/non-specific term used to describe a thing, event, feeling, personality, and/or sexual orientation.

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That said, just because the word is defined in Merriam Webster does not mean its meaning is clear. In fact, queer means different things to different people, even those within the LGBTQ community.

Some individuals embrace the term and use it regularly — i.e. “We are here. We are queer. Get used to it.” Some individuals use the term as an identifier; instead of referring to themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered, they simply recognize themselves as queer. And some individuals avoid the term entirely.

They still see the word as derogatory, inflammatory, and, well... offensive. (In the 50s, 60s, and 70s, queer had a negative connotation, much as d*** and f****t still do today.)

As such, the term “queer” isn’t as clear cut as one might assume. It is full of eccentricities, idiosyncrasies, and debate.

That said, it is important to note that queer is a genderfluid term. This means that individuals identifying as men and as women use the word. What’s more, one can identify as queer regardless of who they are dating — i.e. someone can be in a same-sex relationship or an opposite sex relationship and still be queer.

There is no “barrier for entry.” Instead, in order to “be queer,” one must simply identify as such. However, one should never call someone queer — or refer to them as queer — unless they use the term themselves, as it remains a highly controversial term. One which individuals have strong (and mixed) feelings about.

So remember, whether you identify as queer or not, there is no right or wrong way to "be queer." Instead, you simply need to be yourself. Love yourself and embrace yourself — exactly as you are.

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Nicole Lane is a wife, mother, writer, and regular contributor for YourTango. She is a staunch defender of women's rights, she believes firmly in equality and parity, and she is an advocate for women's health, mental health, and sexuality.