Back in the 60s and 70s identifying openly as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), was a way for people of the LGBT community to create a place for themselves in society, where there otherwise was none. In a period when beatings and arrests were common place of openly LGBT people, bonding as a community by identifying specifically as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, in juxtaposition to the "oppressors," was essential to being taken seriously as a movement. A non-label would have only allowed people in the mainstream culture to dismiss them and/or allow the individual to remain closeted in ambiguity. So instead they came out gay, and they came out proud.
Today, more and more young people are coming out “queer,” much to the dismay of the older generation of the LGBT community who is used to hearing it as the oppressors attempt to degrade and dehumanize them. Although not exclusively used by the younger generation, and not used by all youth in all cities and towns, it does seem that more LGBT people are choosing Queer as their term of identification than LGBT people ten years ago and that those who choose to identify in this way actually benefit from not choosing a specific label. Today the choice to not identify using a more specific label is a way for all who are different to bond together and create a movement of full acceptance within a society that wants to box them in, understand them in concrete terms, and then choose how to relate to them. Not choosing a specific label is kind of like saying, “Why does it matter how I’m different, when I’m different, or why I’m different? Just let there be a place in this society for difference- of any sort- and accept me any way that I am or am not. Accept me as queer.”
But what is queer?
Think of queer as an umbrella term. It includes anyone who a) wants to identify as queer and b) who feels somehow outside of the societal norms in regards to gender or sexuality. This, therefore, could include the person who highly values queer theory concepts and would rather not identify with any particular label, the gender fluid bisexual, the gender fluid heterosexual, the questioning LGBT person, and the person who just doesn’t feel like they quite fit in to societal norms and wants to bond with a community over that.
"I like to identify as queer because I like the way in which it is a much more inclusive identity than identifying as a lesbian. I find that I am more likely to identify as queer when I am in group with other LGBT individuals because then I like to focus on what we all have in common in terms of our identities rather than what is different whereas if I am with straight individuals then the focus is going to be on what is different whether I identify as queer or lesbian so then I normally opt for the descriptive identity of lesbian." – Lisa
It is a fluid label as opposed to a solid label, one that only requires us to acknowledge that we’re different without specifying how or in what context. It is also a concise word that people may use if they do not feel like shifting their language along with their ever-evolving gender, politics and/or sexuality. It may also be an easier and more concise identity for some people to use if and when people ask, because they do.
Danielle Flink says, “When I first came out, I identified as bisexual. Over time, I realized that I really was way more attracted to women so I identified as a lesbian. Then the person I fell in love with came out to me as transgender. I wasn't sure where I fit anymore. I was confused. I asked myself a million questions before I came to a self understanding that my sexual orientation wasn't fixed. It never had been. Even before I placed a label on myself upon coming out, I didn't feel like I belonged in any "group" or "box" or "label" that society currently had to offer me. So then I came across queer. At the time, I was pretty gender nonconforming as well so it really seemed to fit everything I wanted into a word that I could tell people when they asked.”
Of course, understanding why a word is used does not always make it easier for people to use, or even like. However, while understanding that this word may be very difficult and uncomfortable for some, we encourage you to be open and willing to ask questions in order to work on shifting the way you think about how people identify. Whether you personally like the word or not, desire to make it part of your personal repertoire or not, please remember to respect the identity a person chooses for themselves. To know how they like to be identified, by people in and outside of the community, remember to ask.