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What does “queer” mean? We asked 15 people what it means to them

what does 'queer' mean. Womens' legs in a bed

Defining the term “queer” is often an ambiguous task. It is a word with a  history of evolving meanings. First entering the English language around the 16th century, it was used to describe something as peculiar, eccentric or strange. Then by the late 19th century its associations with homosexuality arose, becoming more commonplace in British dialect as a slur, a derogatory adjective meaning homosexual. As a result of these violent origins, some people – often of an older generation, who directly experienced this word as a means of oppression – may still dislike the term. 

However, undeniably so, “queer” has been reclaimed by generations of younger people as a much loved self-identifier. From the 2000s onwards, it is predominately used as an umbrella term for all non-heteronormative identities and sexualities, inclusive of all people within the LGBTQIA+ community(ies). Defined commonly by its fluidity, its resistance to categorisation, people are drawn to queerness as it accounts for the not-quite-sure, and perhaps offers the comfort of you-don’t-need-to-be-sure. 

Further to this, pioneers of ‘queer theory’ such as Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Michael Warner and Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick, ‘queer’ takes on a more political meaning. Associated with anti-assimilation, queerness is used to reflect a defiance of the ‘normative’ systems of oppression that structure our society, such as heteronormativity, racism, and capitalism. 

To gain some more clarity, and a more personal insight, we asked a group of individuals to describe what queerness means to them in their own words. Here’s what we found… 

In support of this more political definition, some people claimed that to them, queerness is: 

‘Liberation from the oppression and faff of heteronormativity, and to reimagine oneself through the lens of joy’ 

‘Deviance, opportunity to live, create and embody and experiment with alternative and freer paths [of life]’

‘It’s about expressing yourself in a way that is so genuine, it disregards societal expectations and what is means to be your *born gender or sexual orientation*’. It’s about living authentically regardless of what people think, it’s political, radical and anti-establishment. It’s EVERYTHING’ 

‘It doesn’t just define non-conformity in regards to my sexuality and gender, but in regards to everything. I use ‘queerness’ to mark my refusal to submit to and support all oppressive systems of heteronormativity, of capitalism, of racism, of ableism. It’s about seeking alternative lifestyles and social relationships, imbued always with compassion, and equality’ 

For some people, queerness was firstly about finding community, finding reciprocated love in relationships of all kinds, and experiencing new, unbounded joy! They defined queerness as: 

‘Deepest of unconditional love and understanding in relationships and friendships’ 

‘Queerness means community to me, and through queerness I have found that’ 

‘An identity without boundaries, full of deep love and community’ 

‘Queerness means maximal silly n goofy 24/7 and also community!’

‘Being free to love who I love, and being supported by a very loving community’

Within the same realm, others rejoiced at the freedom that identifying as queerness has brought them: 

‘Living authentically as myself & freedom to express as I wish’

‘Finally being comfortable with who I am’ 

Others, acknowledging the reality of how a majority of the public remain close-minded and find it challenging to accept queerness, said: 

‘I associate queerness with the words ‘relief’ but also ‘fear’. 

‘I get to watch straight middle aged people panic when I use the word queer’ 

Finally, I can’t not include some of the funnier – although perfectly valid – responses. As if we’ve taken anything from this discussion, it’s that queerness has little boundaries, little strict disciplinarily. It allows for perpetual self-determination, and that is exactly the joy in it: 

‘Chaka khan’  (No further explanation necessary)

‘Queerness means having a sexy girlfriend’  (I must admit, this one was submitted by my own girlfriend)

If you like this article you might also like our other articles in our life category.

Love Team Nonchalant xx


Hii I’m Mads (they/them)! I’m an anthropology graduate who is passionate about queer politics and countering intersectional oppression through communal practices of queer joy!

Writing for Nonchalant is to me a way to help keep our community connected, informed about moments of cultural significance, and up to date with events that help foster solidarity amongst us!

Find me on: Web | Instagram

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