Questioning “Queer” Across Generations

I nonchalantly referred to my friends and myself as queer to my grandmother last week, and she was floored: “How could you possibly use such a derogatory word to describe yourself?”

As a white, cisgendered, female, presently able-bodied, queer lesbian feminist student in my early twenties on a small, northeastern US college campus, I, along with my pals, use the word queer like unicorns and sunshine. It’s a happy way to describe ourselves: a strange mix of radical people of all variations of gender presentation and sexual orientation, from various class and racial backgrounds. By definition, queer is vague and open. It means whatever you want it to mean, and what I generally say, when asked, is that queer means “anything and everyone resisting and/or transgressing traditional heterosexual norms.” To be queer is to love and act radically. I don’t think loving people of the same gender is a prerequisite for queer. I have plenty of friends who are primarily or exclusively attracted to the opposite gender, and they do a lot of resisting and transgressing of heterosexual norms in their relationships and their performance of their gender.

But as we know, queer has a longer and more complicated history than the day I showed up on my college campus, started going to “Queer Lady Parties” and then came home for Thanksgiving and told my dad we could call our family queer because he remarried after my mom died and we’re still super close with my mom’s parents (whose house I sit in writing this), and we also have a bunch of scattered friends around who we treat like family and heterosexual norms are not enforced upon anyone.

My grandma, where this whole article began, is not queer, nor a lesbian, nor bisexual. So I asked my friend, Charoula, a self-identified lesbian feminist, who went to my school in the late 1950’s, what she thought about using the word queer. “When the word ‘queer’ came into use, I could no more identify with it – I did not feel strange = queer, I felt superior-  than with the word “gay.” There was a lot of sadness in being lesbian.” she told me. “I realize this is the legacy of the past, but that is how I feel.” I know Charoula is not alone in her feelings; when I heard a group of lesbians speak on a panel last year, they expressed their shock and displeasure with young people’s use of queer, because there is a certain violence attached to it. My 30-year-old friend/teacher/mentor, Katie, said to me “because of its origins and history, I feel, at the end of the day, like [queer] is a term that should be used by those who identify in some way as LGBT[…]. When my 60ish-year-old friend–a straight, white male–talks about the queer community or his queer friends, using the word queer, something about that feels a little funny to me.”

Gail (Charoula's partner), Maddie and Charoula

Charoula’s partner Gail, Maddie and Charoula

I find myself struggling to reconcile the energy and life and openness I find in queerness with the push-back from people who might fall into my definition of queer, but who consciously do not identify as queer, or who see the definition as narrower than I do. The potential disconnects this creates between generations and within communities worries me. As a queer who spends a lot of time with other queers, rallying around our queerness, am I isolating those who have a more troubled history with the word?

Intergenerational connection and understanding are incredibly important in any group of people, and we, the queers, the lesbians, the QUILTBAGS, whoever it is that WE are, are no exception. Lots of us have the aunt, the teacher, the couple down the street, the camp counselor, the Jodie Foster, who let us know that there were others like us when we were young and scared, and helped us come to learn that the way we exist in the world is better than ok – it’s fucking awesome. And that’s what Autostraddle is here for too, right? Maybe you are the aunt or the teacher or neighbor or camp counselor who sees that girl down the street who’s trying to figure out where the hell she fits, and when you do what you can to help her along, you learn something new and wild that totally challenges what you thought you knew for sure, and you’re glad to have your world grow and stretch a little bit more. No matter where you fall in the generations, we need each other.

It drives me nuts when people whose worldviews are rooted in different historical moments can’t have a conversation, especially when they want roughly the same things. Some of my friends avoid using the word queer outside explicitly queer spaces for this reason. In an email, my friend Kaylee, a self-identified queer woman, said, “I am trying to be kind of careful [because] I get the sense that for some (especially older members of the community) it is still a really violent word with major negative connotations.” Yes, queer communities need to consider and respect the perspective and context of people’s experience of the word, especially when that context carries violence.

So why don’t we just drop queer? What’s the harm in LGBTQIA for everyone, of all generations? Why can’t I just identify as a lesbian and leave it at that? Well, first of all, I know I left someone out in that long string of letters, (like pansexual – where’s the P??). Second, nothing feels quite so invalidating and othering as having to explain each and every identity in that to someone who doesn’t know. You or the other person will inevitably get frustrated and details will be missed, which perpetuates the invisibility of people who don’t fit into “mainstream” non-heterosexual identities. Third, the LGBTQIA acronym has an inherent hierarchy to it. Fourth, queer is also an open door to those who can’t pick a letter. Just ask my best pal, Amy: “Queer suited me at a time when my sexuality felt anything but stable – it could mean what I wanted it to, and it could shift as I grew and changed.” Finally, queerness, the way I experience it, has to do with so much more than the gender of the person you love; it’s about having a deep love for people and trying to resist the systems that try and stomp that deep love down. Two women in love being able to be together without fearing hate is as important to me as a mother being able to raise her children without fearing deportation.

Amy, Maddie and their friend Molly

Amy, Maddie and friend Molly

As queers, we deserve respect and acknowledgement for what and why we identify as we do. It’s all part of the evolution of movements. We deserve to be listened to. ALSO, though, we – my queer community, your queer community, the queers down the street – have to examine our origins: why we use the word queer, what sorts of people opened the spaces that were precursors to ours, and how other people have and continue to hear the word. We need to listen and be open, too — and I’m definitely open to being challenged on what I have to say here. Otherwise we’re shutting out people we need and people who need us. Listening to and loving each other will make us stronger, no matter what we’re called.

Maddie Taterka is a third-year student at Vassar College, where she studies Women’s Studies and Geography, and works in the Women’s Center. She is the author of Laying Foundations, and she can’t stop listening to Closer by Tegan and Sara.

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Autostraddle staff writer. Copy editor. Fledgling English muffin maker. Temporary turtle parent. Zine creator. Swings enthusiast. Political human who cares a lot about healthcare and queer anti-carceral feminisms. I asked my friend to help me write this bio and they said, "Good-natured. Friend. Earth tones." Another friend said, "Flannel babe. Vacuum lover. Kind." So. Find me on Twitter or my website.

Maddie has written 100 articles for us.


  1. Thank you so much for this post. This is one of the first real discussions of these issues on AS, which tends to usually throw the term queer around pretty loose and easy. I also appreciate the respect you show to people of other generations and of differing gender identities, rather than just saying “we’re reclaiming queer and it’s good for you whether you know it or not.” Kudos for a genuinely honest, respectful discussion, and I look forward to seeing more of your writing!

  2. Thank you for writng this Maddie. My previous experience in my youth with “queer” was that it was a derogatory term used only as a weapon. When I started hearing it used recently it was apparent that the “flavor” of the word had changed for the better. I became more confused when I was recently told by another Vassar student during a Bananagrams game that it was “not an acceptable word”. Your article helps me to see that the definition is fluid, changing and disagreements occur around what this word means today. Thanks for putting your thoughts out there for others to see and mull.

  3. This is so great and I’m really happy to see it! It’s a respectful, thoughtful examination around why some of us deeply identify with and use the word queer, while other people do not identify with or feel comfortable using queer. I don’t define queer as broadly as the author does, but it’s a refreshing perspective.

  4. I really am glad somebody started this discussion. I had this chat this weekend with some Gay male friends of mine about how we view Queer as sort of a Rectangle term. All those letters in the acronym are squares. So all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. I think it is helpful to have an all encompassing term, but I know that I don’t really think of myself as a rectangle because it feels like a cop-out sometimes. Like we don’t want to say Lesbian, even if it is about Lesbians because Queer is more inclusive. It feels a little threatening, but I can also appreciate how it can be unifying in the right circumstances. It opens lines of communication or it has the potential to. Great Article!

  5. Beautifully written. As someone who volunteers a lot, talking to teachers and students about homophobic language and LGBTQ* visibility in schools, I have to answer “But I thought queer was a bad word!” every session.

    It’s important to understand the generational differences, but we can’t be hampered by them. I know many older lesbian and gay individuals who still don’t believe in bisexuality, and one famous gay man with whom I was leading a session actually explained to the classroom full of teachers that pansexuality was “a funny term that means you’re attracted to everything in nature”. My hand shot up immediately to correct him, but still. Times are changing, so our vocabulary should reflect that. It’s nice to have an umbrella term because not everyone fits those 7 or so letters perfectly. It’s also a nice word to identify with saying Fuck You to a heteronormative, cissexist patriarchy.

    • yeah, I dated someone who was shocked when I referred to the “queer collective” at university – he thought I was being homophobic!

      being attracted to everything in nature sounds uncomfortable. lava, you’re so hot!

  6. I think it’s kind of cool that queer is being reclaimed. And it does make a nice umbrella term (just how long can the alphabet soup get before it collapses?). But I admit that it still feels weird to use it about myself (I’m 48). And I’m careful about using it with people when I don’t know how they feel about its use (particularly people my age and older). It was a really nasty term of abuse for a lot of people and they still have a knee-jerk to it. But that may change as it becomes more commonly used (media follows the youth). Maybe in 10 years this will be a moot discussion and we’ll all just be our queer selves.

  7. This piece was really eye opening to me, as a woman who identifies very strongly as queer. Personally, I feel a little too gay to identify as bisexual, and a little too sexually fluid to be comfortable calling myself a lesbian. “Queer” has grown and shifted with me, and covers the swings in my gender expression as well as my sexual expression. After wrapping the term around myself so thoroughly it became easy to forget the negative connotations it carries outside the community, and within the part of the community that have personally faced those negativities. Thank you for giving me something new to think about, and reminding me to remain conscious of others needs.

      • Same here. I strongly identify as queer, and much prefer it to bi or pansexual, Neither of which feel quite right to me. I always find both some men, women, and non-binary identified people attractive, but how much so is fluid and shifting.

        I also really like there being an umbrella term that includes everyone – the acronym is fine (though it gets a little clumsy when you say all of the letters), but I hate when people use “gay” to refer to the whole community – it erases the experiences of so many of us. Still, I have to recognize that “queer” can sometimes do the same thing and be conscious of my own use of language. Thanks for the article!

  8. Great post! It’s so good to see something like this on Autostraddle, as I know that when I first used the word queer to describe myself and some of my friends to an older lesbian her shock was surprising to me. I personally do prefer it over LGBTQIA or any variation thereof, but these days I tend to use it sparingly in situations where it may not be as accepted as it is with my friend circle or here. Very interesting how a word’s definition can change so drastically within a generation.

  9. Thank you for writing this, I feel pretty ignorant of the history of these words. I hadn’t really come across the word queer before I discovered this site as either positive or negative. I think this article highlighted to me how little I know about the history or community. I have never had ‘the aunt, the teacher, the couple down the street’ in my life and this website is providing my main education on this stuff. I am very grateful for articles like this and would like to read more.

  10. Hey! I agree with a lot of what you’re saying, especially about the importance of being sensitive to the different meanings that the terms we use can take on when used in a cross-generational setting.

    I wanted to push back on your definition of queer a bit. I like that it’s a bit of a catch-all, but I think expanding it to include everyone that “lives and loves radically” invalidates some of the things that have made it an important term in my life (and, like you, I’m a college student with none of the older and harsher associations with the term).

    LGBTQIA is of course incomplete, and I don’t want to be that person who tells other people they don’t belong, but for me queer is helpful b/c it identifies one coherent factor: not straight. Being queer isn’t a lifestyle choice. I’m reacting against feeling like queer in this context means everyone who’s not stoically traditionalist. Could you clarify for me what the advantage is of including so many people who identify as straight in this definition?

    • Yeah! Honestly, I struggle a bit with this, too. To answer your question, I think “straight” as a label can be pretty complicated for some people. I think that by including people primarily attracted to the opposite gender who would perhaps identify as straight, but who are down to examine and resist heterosexual norms, the potential for breaking down those heterosexual norms, which feed a patriarchal culture that oppresses queer people, grows.

    • A familiar anecdote I hear is that children of same-sex parents also identify themselves or their families as being “queer”, despite being heterosexual in their own sexual orientation. It’s just their way of acknowledging that their families don’t fit the heteronormative box.

    • I feel the term “straight” when talking about gender identity and expression is walking a very fine line. There are lots of heterosexual trans people (I’m one of them) who neither ID themselves as queer nor ‘not-straight.’ Also, if we’re somehow including intersex persons under the umbrella (and I’ve heard a lot of them have mixed or negative feelings about that too) many of them ID as straight. The issues with queer have way more to do than with inter-generational differences and experiences… they’re also about gender identity, body parts, differing cultural perceptions and even class. I like how Maddie’s post reaffirms the need to really consider the “universality” of these labels, because some of them don’t feel good to a lot of people across generations. Isn’t this a discussion about awareness of other’s unique experiences and self-identifications?

    • You make a really good point, and I think that part of the value of the word queer is that it makes us discuss it and revisit our assumptions about it. I identify as queer, but not in a way that means “not straight.” For me, queer isn’t about the type of people that I am attracted to but rather the type of relations that I have with other people. It is about putting things (generally heteronormative structures) at issue rather than assuming them. To me, that means that you can be both straight and queer if you are operating with intentionality and openness rather than by default, regardless of the gender ID of your partner(s).

      But defining queer in this way means putting my own definition of the word at issue as well, and not just assuming that it is the same for everyone else who calls themselves queer. If another queer person defines it in a radically different way, but a way that works for them, then more power to them. It also means recognizing that not all people, particularly not all gay people, identify as queer, and that not everyone should. I guess to me queer is a solution, not the solution. Or better yet: Queer is many solutions, but not all of the solutions.

    • One other thought:
      In my experience, queer is a lifestyle choice. For you, it isn’t. And I think that the ability of both of those things to coexist is AWESOME. But you said that you feel like some definitions of queer invalidate your experience of it. I hadn’t thought about that, but it makes a lot of sense to me. To me, the beauty of the word queer is that it can mean so many different things. But if that’s not true for you, I can see how it would seem like my definition is sort of encroaching on yours. hm. I hope that’s not the case, and I’d love to hear what you think about it.

    • Ginapdx, You’re absolutely right that straight wasn’t the right term there. I strongly believe that anyone trans* and straight or intersex and straight who chooses to id as queer (without the assumption that anyone in particular will) should be able to. My bad, and I hope that addressed your point.

      From the other comments, especially Eggks it looks like I may simply have had a different definition of queer in mind. Since in reclaiming terms we basically get to define them however we want, that’s totally fine. If for you it’s a lifestyle choice, then I don’t see anything wrong with that. We’re just using the same word and meaning different things. But I do think we need to keep other terms in circulation in that case.

      Since queer is generally the term I hear used today to describe any subset of the LGBTQIA+ community, I want to elaborate on why I think we need to keep others around. And/or, we should think about the more subtle effects of using queer as a joinable group instead of a discriptor.

      As far as I can tell, queer in this context means everyone who’s not living heteronormatively, which is definitely a community I’m happy to be part of. But many people only identify with that usage of the word if they’ve been told what it means and they like it: it’s an opt-in system. (Unless people can be queer and not have chosen the term, but that sounds more like an id to me… maybe it can be both? What do you think?) In this opt-in sense, It’s partially an indication of who’se had access to the type of environment that these terms are used in. Liberal arts campuses (like my own), I’m looking at you.

      I’m worried the term queer will simply mean those who have the privilege of knowing it includes them, and that it’ll be an “umbrella term” that doesn’t refer to, for instance, a trans* girl in Arkansas who’se never heard of a QSA. This is not to say that this usage of queer is bad, it’s just that if we forget that it’s something we choose instead of a marker, we may inadvertently ignore that many of us are also socially marked. There are parts of our identity that aren’t opt-in, and I feel like based on the way “queerness” is being popularized that fact often gets forgotten in liberal environments.

      SO BASICALLY: after hearing everyone’s responses, I’m totally cool with this new usage of queer. I just hope we remember that even though queer is about opt-in lifestyle choices, we may still need something like the alphabet soup to delineate the elements of our identity that aren’t chosen. Because worst case scenario, queer might come to mean little more than those people who know to call themselves queer, which is generally the liberal/highly educated/presumably pretty white subset of our alphabet soup. I’d love to hear your thoughts…

  11. Language is so tricky and inexact, but having these sorts of conversations about how and why we use the language we do helps us to be more mindful of each other spaces and identities.

  12. I love this.

    I primarily identify as queer, but because a lot of people in my life are deeply uncomfortable with the word (and honestly, most of those people are straight), I tend to use “gay” or “bisexual” to refer to myself in certain communities.

  13. Excellent post and a conversation that needs to keep happening. I too am selective about with whom I use the word queer. I have a bit of an uneasy relationship with it because I still see it as a somewhat academic idea, and my relationship with academia ranges between unease and outright disgust. Plus, my relationship with queerness as a person of color is still somewhat murky and I’m still working it out.

    While I live in a decently-sized Midwestern city with a sizable population that self-identifies as queer, there is still a significant amount of folks–young AND older–who do not claim the term. I’m sure there are still plenty of kids around here who have only heard “queer” used in a hateful way–that’s still a thing that happens! And I’m definitely not about to think of them as less radical or enlightened if they choose not to reclaim it for themselves.

    The older I get, the more crucial I feel it is that we don’t get wrapped up in our little queer cocoon and that we do make a continual effort to keep the lines of dialogue open.

  14. Thanks for this post.

    I would like to point out that it’s not just a generational divide, though – it’s a geo-sociopolitical one. I’m 26; within the span of the “queer generation,” I believe, but I grew up in the very Christian Midwest, coming of age during the later Bush years when protecting morality against “gay marriage” was seemingly Goal #1 of the church and Christian communities I belonged to at the time. It took me a long time to claim the word “gay” and years to accept “lesbian” (which I still think has this harsh, reptilian sound to it) and I’m still not comfortable with “queer” because “queer” erases the boundaries that make me feel safe and integrated among heterosexual society; being gender-normative, not too political, willing to play by everyone’s rules except this teensy little sexual orientation-thing.

    My political consciousness knows I’m hiding behind my cisgender privilege and I’m not sure that’s a privilege I’m psychologically ready to risk. I spent most of my adolescence trying to convince evangelicals I was “just like them,” and I still envy them their simple, family-centered lifestyles.

    In my consciousness, if nowhere else, there are clear distinctions between sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. “Queer” doesn’t allow for these distinctions so I continue to reject the term.

    • I’m from a smallish town in the South, and my experience is very similar to yours.

      “I’m still not comfortable with “queer” because “queer” erases the boundaries that make me feel safe and integrated among heterosexual society” THIS

      “In my consciousness, if nowhere else, there are clear distinctions between sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. “Queer” doesn’t allow for these distinctions so I continue to reject the term.” ALSO THIS

      Thank you for putting some of my feelings into words for me.

    • Thank you for this comment. I never thought of it that way. I understand the reservations that come along both with accepting and rejecting privilege, though my experience is very much the opposite, in that I am often rejecting the privelege that comes with my heteronormativity, and passing as white, and upper-middle class. I have had experiences that make me want to place myself as far away from those things as possible most of the time, but I can definitely see it from the other side.

      There’s a lot of power in fitting into the system, and convincing people that you are much the same as they are, but for your sexual orientation.

  15. I’m not shy about voicing my dislike of the word “queer”. It’s not that I take issue with other people choosing to use it to self-identify, but I don’t want it applied to me. I am not queer. I don’t identify that way. For me, it’s equal parts dislike of the actual meaning of the word (coming from an area where being gay made you incredibly different and likely subject to some sort of discrimination or general poor treatment, I don’t want to use a word that literally means “strange” to describe my sexuality) and a lack of identification with what seems to be the majority of people who use the term (in my experience it’s been a rather specific subset of the community who uses “queer”, and it’s not a subset I have much in common with). I really wish the community could find a different all-encompassing term to use, because “queer” is not a one size fits all solution.

  16. I enjoyed reading this. I would have liked to see the author delve into how race/class/cis privilege might factor into her association with the word “queer”, because as Stefany mentioned above some POC have mixed feelings about the word. Other than that I thought the analysis was really interesting and the author brought up a lot of good points.

    Personally, I alternate between saying “gay”, “bi” and “queer” (to the endless annoyance of people who insist on pigeonholing me into just one label) but I’m more likely to use “queer” around other, well, queer people. Otherwise I have to take the time to explain myself to straight cis people which, as we all know, is everyone’s favorite thing to do.

    • Since you mention race, there’s actually been some positive feedback to ‘queer’ from communities outside the Anglophone West, at least from people writing / talking about those communities because we have always been very wary of identifying as ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’ etc. These Anglophone, West-specific identities are inaccurate, reflect and encourage US cultural hegemony / neocolonialism, and ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ are often used as very strong slurs (and, tbh, I’m a bit exasperated when Anglophone westerners insist that ‘queer’ should not be used because it’s ‘too offensive’ – I have no non-offensive words to talk about myself or my community, at least ‘queer’ is a lot more inclusive than its alternatives). ‘Queer’ gives us the chance to bring together under the same umbrella a lot of different people, many of which don’t openly identify as ‘non-heterosexual’ and even if they do, don’t subscribe to ‘LGBT’ identities, and to connect with communities in other cultures / countries, while managing to avoid identity boundaries which are too restrictive.

      • Thanks for your reply. It’s very alarming that Anglophone Westerners continually try to impose their language (and thus their way of construing identity) onto others, and it’s interesting that using “queer” becomes a method of resistance to that hegemony for those that don’t subscribe to the Western-defined “alphabet soup” of identities. I would have liked to have seen intersectional aspects of queerness like this explored in the original article, but I think the author (like me) felt that as a white cis Western able-bodied woman she didn’t have the authority to speak on these subjects. Even so, I felt a bit uncomfortable reading an article discussing queerness with no reference to intersectionality besides a brief “I’m privileged” disclaimer at the beginning. I do like that Maddie didn’t try and make her experience normative for everyone and left the matter open for discussion.

      • Dear Andy:

        “there’s actually been some positive feedback to ‘queer’ from communities outside the Anglophone West, at least from people writing / talking about those communities”

        There a BIG difference between western academics, filmmakers and gender theorists discussing these communities and the people from those communities actually speaking for themselves (not to even mention issues of translation). It can also be very difficult to determine the views of such communities when they’re so heavily filtered through the assumptions of their majority cis cultures, religions, governments and even lack of legality. I’d be interested to hear of any third world gender variant communities which have embraced the term queer. There are some which ID as something like third gender, but those are also countries where trans people mostly can’t legally change to ID as a different binary gender even if they would desire to have it.

        • I think I wasn’t entirely clear, I meant those of us – non-westerners – who speak out about our experiences and communities, and frame those conversations in political terms, which isn’t everyone because, well, there are so many different degrees of belonging to communities, of self-identification, and of disclosing that self-identification to others – most queer people I know are quite apolitical, apathetic and uninterested in talking about this, because they feel like fighting homophobia through political activism (an essential part of which is ‘coming out’) is entirely pointless and they just want to try to live their lives as safely as possible. But I have participated in discussions about ‘queer’ with people from home / Romania, as well as with people from other Central / Eastern European countries, we mostly agreed that it could be a useful tool, preferable to ‘LGBT’ – I’m not sure how much that means we’ve ’embraced’ it, although the usage on blogs, events titles, zines etc is increasing. I am sure, though, that a lot of queer people in ‘third world’ countries are also aware of the term and as intrigued / interested by it as westerners. We’re not actually that cut off from Western queer culture, if you become engaged with the local queer culture in any way, you get instant contact with it – we just don’t have the tools to engage with Western queer culture on equal footing.

          And, tbh, this dichotomy between ‘western academics, film-makers and gender theorists’ and ‘nonwesterner communities’ is a little strange because to me that reads like you’re assuming ‘academics, film-makers and gender theorists’ don’t exist outside the West. Nonwestern universities have gender studies programmes too, you know, so there are nonwestern academics, film-makers and gender theorists too, where are they positioned in this dichotomy?

          • “is a little strange because to me that reads like you’re assuming ‘academics, film-makers and gender theorists’ don’t exist outside the West. Nonwestern universities have gender studies programmes too”

            I hope I’m not assuming anything. The academic studies I’ve seen about non-western gender variant communities have been done by western gender theorists. There may be works done by non-western academics but I haven’t seen them in translation. Yes, there are many films about gender variant communities made by non-westerners… but they are overwhelmingly by gay men from those countries (an exception is the excellent recent Iranian film “Facing Mirrors.”) Most of these films suffer from the same sensationalism and assumptions that cis western filmmakers project onto trans people. The book I do highly recommend by a non-westerner is A. Ravathi’s “The Truth About Me”… to my knowledge, the only published work actually written by a member of one of these communities.

            I’d love to hear more about gender variant communities in Eastern Europe, but it doesn’t help a lot when someone says ‘queer’ or ‘lgbt’ people got together to discuss something unless that specifically includes an active participation by people from the trans umbrella.

  17. As a woman of a much older generation, I found your piece touching, generous, and wonderfully inclusive. It is not often that a word with a dark and painful history can be so eloquently redeemed.

  18. “Queer” is awesome as an individual’s chosen label but I’m squeamish about applying it as an umbrella term. As others have mentioned, it’s not just older people who don’t care for “queer”. It’s just as much a cultural divide as a generational one in my experience. There are plenty of young people who do not identify with “queer” and don’t appreciate having it put on them by others. For a lot of people, “queer” has political and philosophical connotations that are very tied to a certain flavor of western academia that not everyone likes or wants to be associated with.

    A term I’ve been seeing a lot recently is GSM (Gender/Sexuality Minority). I think this is now my preferred umbrella term. I feel like GSM conveys “not cis-hetero” without the uncomfortable emotional/political baggage of “queer” or the unwieldy five billion letters of the ever-growing LGBTQIPA acronym (Then again, Google tells me that GSM also stands for “Global System for Mobile” so maybe it’s not a good idea after all, if it’s already a common acronym for something else).

    There’s also QUILTBAG, but, come on. QUILTBAG. And it doesn’t even have a P for Pansexual…

    Umbrella terms are tricky. They’re necessary for political visibility but at the same time, you don’t want to impose a word onto people who aren’t ok with it. Especially when you’re dealing with oppressed minorities that may have unpleasant histories with said word. It’s an interesting discussion, anyway.

    • I wish that Gender and Sexual Minorities was a more used label. I find the ever growing acronym a bit embarrassing and although I sometimes refer to the ‘queer community’ I know it is not what many people use to identify themselves. From now on I’m going to use GSM.

  19. I like ‘queer’ because it’s not as clunky as GLBT (and people usually only say ‘gay’ which erases bi folks); I like the term ‘queer and trans or intersex’ because it acknowledges that while sexual orientation and gender identity are potentially linked, they aren’t the same thing. I’m often asked about the T being included with the GLB by confused straight people.

    The point about intergenerational dialogue is too often forgotten. I also find that increasingly, queer-identified people I know have a sense of superiority about the term, particularly in relation to the word ‘bisexual’, which has been deemed almost parochial in the context of a world with more than 2 sexes/genders. This is very much a class issue considering that ‘queer’ is more often used by a subset of academics. It would be nice if queers and radicals could honor our own definitions/realities without alienating others and vice versa.

  20. I’m happy to identify myself as queer alongside lesbian, and refer to “the queer community”, but I absolutely draw the line at any definition of queer that does not specify “same-sex attracted and/or trans”.

    Queer was, and remains in much of the English-speaking world, a slur that is directed against same-sex attracted people (and trans people by virtue of them being considered a subset of gay people, which is why I 100% understand why some trans people may want to avoid “queer” altogether). There is no-one on planet Earth who is cisgender and exclusively attracted to people of the opposite sex who knows what that feels like. I don’t care how asexual/kinky/polyamorous/whatever they are, I don’t care how much they ~subvert gender norms~, I don’t care how much they like, totally hate the patriarchy man. They aren’t queer. They will never be queer. They have no more right to this word that has been used to denigrate and brutalise and murder us than they have any right to “dyke” or “faggot”.

    This isn’t just an older people thing either; I’m twenty-five. I just don’t want cishets elbowing their way into our communities and making them unsafe for actual LGBTQ people.

    • Imogen, I agree with everything you said completely. Reclamation is one thing, but that kind of appropriation will never sit right will me.

      If radical/subversive cis straight people need a word, they can make a new one.

  21. My problem with using the word “queer” as an umbrella term is that it’s still applying a label to people who don’t necessarily identify as queer, much like using “gay” as a catch-all term.

  22. Thanks for your kind words and comments, everyone! I’m learning a lot from y’all’s thoughts.

  23. This is something I think about a lot. I work with an organization that focuses on LGBTQ rights, and I do a lot of trainings for volunteers, which means I end out coming out over and over and over again. I identify as queer. Thus far I have been solely attracted to women. I do not know what my gender is, though I was assigned female at birth. I do not like the word lesbian for myself because a) to me it seems I would have to identify solidly as a woman in order to be a lesbian, and I don’t, never have, and b) Historically the lesbian community has excluded trans women, and I have been attracted to cis and trans women. I don’t want to differentiate, because women are women, but I also don’t want to identify as a member of a historically very exclusive group. Of course, queer is also an exclusive group for the reasons mentioned in this article, but because it explains my gender and sexuality, I stick with it. I still debate over which word, queer or lesbian or gay, when coming out to groups of largely straight cis identifying volunteers. I want to be true to myself, but I also don’t want to inadvertently teach them that it’s cool to go around using the word queer willy nilly.

    • Re: lesbian as an exclusive term. I’m confused because this presumes that all lesbians have all always identified as part of a unified radical feminist community and that the word ‘lesbian’ must necessarily connote that community instead of being a simple signifier of homo attracted women, both trans and cis. I know trans women who identify as lesbians, and cis lesbians who date trans women.

    • Tall, just to be historically accurate, there have been many Queer-ID women’s spaces which have excluded trans women or made them feel unwanted as well. And there have been lesbians who have been trans woman friendly (not as many as I would like, but some). Let’s face it, “queer” (as it likely means anything to an AS demographic) is a FAAB woman who either presents somewhere on the masculine spectrum, or someone FAAB who expresses femininity with a certain irony involving self-conscious gendering. And to be (brutally) honest, trans women are only a part of that in how well they can “pass” into either of those roles.

  24. Maddie, this is extremely well-written, and something that is incredibly important to consider as we look across generational lines to gain wisdom and inspiration. Especially from our Wolf Girls.

  25. Interesting article. I myself do not like calling myself “queer.” Neither does my brother, who is gay. I usually trace it back to the fact that I grew up reading old literature. “Queer” will always mean “strange” or “different” in my head. I do not think of myself as strange, different, abnormal, any of it. I am just a normal person, the fact that I like girls does not make me different or abnormal, or even special. I am just me.

    I understand why other people use it. I have no problem with it, words have different connotations to different people. I just don’t usually care for it being applied to me.

  26. I’m 25 and, for me, lesbian actually carries some very negative baggage (and I suspect, perhaps, for some others as well?).

    Dyke, lesbo, and lesbian were popular slurs at my high school. Almost the way I imagine queer has painful associations for some older generations, the word lesbian makes me cringe.

    But the first time I heard “queer” I thought “Hallelujah! That’s me!” It felt right, and powerful, and liberating and I never want to lose the right to name myself. My girlfriend doesn’t use queer for herself, because it doesn’t have to same meaning for her and I totally respect that. Respect is the name of the game…the name game.

  27. I have a really odd relationship with the word queer…I’m the president of my college’s Queer-Straight Alliance…but I do not identify as queer. I’m gay. I’m a lesbian. But I’m not really “queer.” I’m part of the “queer community,” but I would not say that I am “queer.”
    I feel like “queer” is an all-encompassing term, and around here at least, it’s also used quite a bit as a synonym for pansexual or bisexual, or sexually fluid, or for people who don’t like to be labeled. I’m not any of those things. I’m a hardcore dyke, with no wiggle room. So, again, at least around here, it wouldn’t exactly be truthful if I said that I was queer. I’m a lesbian. And I feel comfortable in that, as well as gay, dyke, lez, lesbo, lady lover, and whatever else.

  28. First off, I want to THANK IMMENSELY Maddie for writing this article and everyone who has commented for all of their awesome points and views.

    I identify as queer and love the term. Sometimes, I identify as a queer pansexual woman, but most often just queer. If I’m ever in a situation where I don’t know how people feel about the word or I know it’s not a safe queer space but is a safe LGBT space, I’ll just say I’m attracted to people; men, women, and everyone within; etc. It allows room for our own definition instead of having it be defined for us.

  29. Me: Yeah so I’ve been going to QSA
    Grandma: ?
    Me: Queer Straight Alliance
    Grandma: Queer…like strange sexualities?
    Me: Um yeah sure Grandma.
    *half an hour later*
    Me: So yeah, E has been coming to youth…
    Grandma: The Odd People’s youth group?
    Me (horrified): Grandma! You can’t call gay people odd!
    Grandma: Well YOU did!!!!

    That was the start of a very interesting conversation…

    Oh, and I LOVE this article.

  30. Thanks for this thoughtful article Maddie. I am new to the autostraddle community and did a quick search on ‘generations,’ and was quite pleased to find this article. I am a graduate student and currently writing my thesis on this very issue- intergenerational division and generational ‘queer’ experience. There is almost nothing written about this very real issue but I have found that a lot of people of a diversity of ages and queer identities want to have these conversations. If you or anyone else would like to discuss this further, please send me a message. I know this article is a year old, but it’s still such a pressing concern!

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