Is “queer” a slur?

A photo of a march with Queer Nation activists holding a banner saying "Queer Nation: Get Used To It!"

Originally meaning “strange” or “peculiar”, the word “queer” began to be used as a slur against gay men and lesbians in the late 1800s. Beginning in the 1980s, activists began to reclaim the term as a deliberately provocative and radical label in response to homophobic violence and assimilationist pressure from within the gay rights movement. 

In the 1990s, activist group Queer Nation introduced slogans like “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it”.

In the 2000s, “queer” shifted to become an umbrella term for anyone with a non-normative experience of sexuality or gender. And in the past decade, “queer” has become an increasingly popular label for trans and non-binary people as a word that describes orientation without referencing binary gender.

So is “queer” a slur? No! And yes.

For many 2SLGBTQ+ people, especially trans and non-binary people, “queer” is the only word they can use to describe their orientation and/or gender. However, there are 2SLGBTQ+ elders who have lived trauma with “queer” as a word associated with extreme violence. As with any label, we should be sensitive to how individuals identify and not describe someone as “queer” if that is a label that is traumatic for them.

Left: an older man at Pride holding a sign saying "we're here we're queer get used to it"

Right: a sign at Pride reading "Bitches Butches Dykes & Divas & Sluts & Queers Unite"

It’s equally important not to police the language of 2SLGBTQ+ people who use “queer” to describe themselves as there is no other commonly understood word that can accurately describe or reflect the experiences of many nonbinary people. Additionally, “queer” is an important term for those who know that they are not straight or cisgender but either don’t know how or are not comfortable describing their gender and orientation.

Many TERFs and “gender critical” people (who will be discussed in more detail in the next lesson) do not like the term “queer”, because it is too inclusive of the types of people (trans and non-binary people) that they most want to exclude. They will often try to shut down conversations in which queer people talk about their experiences and issues by saying “queer is a slur”, but this should be recognized as a tactic designed to encourage intra-community fighting and further the erasure of trans and nonbinary people.