Is "Queer" Offensive?

By, Michele Zehr, M.A , M.Ed.

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Not long ago, I taught a professional development course for mental health providers in Henrico County. The training I designed was titled, “Is Queer Offensive? Practicing Cultural Humility While Providing Mental Health Services to the LGBTIQ2 Community.” Most of the participants identified as straight allies, and one common point of confusion was the many versions of “alphabet soup” that exist—the never-ending list of letters that keeps growing in an attempt to be inclusive when referring to anyone that does not identify as heteronormative.

I believe there are two valid answers to most questions in life, because life is more of a “both/and” than an “either/or” journey, but for this question—is queer offensive—I think the most accurate answer is, “It depends.” It depends on what generation you’re from; it depends on whether you’ve experienced painful heterosexist name-calling using this word; it depends on your exposure to social justice discourses; and, frankly, it depends on too much to list here. So I’m offering another perspective for this on-going conversation, because I believe a fatal flaw exists with our “inclusive” alphabet soup, and embracing the word queer may offer a solution. First, a little historical context.  

As early as the 1940s, the word “gay” appeared to refer to both homosexual men and women. It wasn’t long before gay women felt invisible because people generally associated “gay” with only men. This became the birth place of our current day alphabet soup. Over the next seven decades we’ve seen “gay” morph into an endless series of ever-lengthening acronyms in an attempt to include everyone. Here are a few of my favorite versions: GLB, LGBT, LGBTIQ2, LGBPTTQQIIAA+, and in February 2015, Wesleyan University coined its own all-inclusive acronym that I have to admit, makes me giggle: LGBTTQQFAGPBDSM. I genuinely appreciate what folks are trying to do here, but I think we’re now missing the point in our effort to be “politically correct.”  

Here is the problem with our acronyms and why we keep having to add letters. Humans fall on multiple spectrums of sex, gender and sexuality that are completely independent of one another. For example, an individual may be born with XY chromosomes (biological male), may feel psychologically female (feminine gender identity), might wear a combination of men’s and women’s clothing (androgynous gender expression), find themselves attracted to both men and women (bisexual orientation), but only have sex with women (heterosexual behavior). We can mix and match along each spectrum all day long and still not capture every single combination or “degree” of variables—hence why we keep adding letters to our alphabet soup. We are trying to define every “way” of being human and I’m sorry, you can’t quantify the infinite.

What I mean by “infinite” is that there are an infinite number of “points” along each spectrum, so it begs the question: Where exactly does someone become exclusively lesbian, transgender or even heterosexual? (There’s a great TedTalk that addresses this question called Fifty Shades of Gay.) When we are born, we aren’t “locked in” to our respective places on each spectrum either. In fact, many people travel back and forth on these spectrums in a more fluid manner throughout their lives, something Dr. Alfred Kinsey brought into our awareness in 1948 through his research known as The Kinsey Reports.

Personally, I thought I was straight until my early 20s because I didn’t know that loving another woman was even an option! It was a totally nameless concept within my life context. Of course, once the light bulb illuminated, I couldn’t help but wonder how I had ever missed it. With that said, when I came out of the closet in 1995, I first identified as bisexual but, in time, I began referring to myself as lesbian as I hadn’t found myself attracted to men for over 20 years. In recent years, I’ve begun referring to myself as a queer woman, because the word queer encompasses all of those spectrums, not just the one that tells people with whom I share my bed. Queer is in fact, all-inclusive, and it offers me the ability to define myself in the ways that feel most authentic at any given moment of my life. I hope in time we won’t even need to make a distinction between “straight or queer,” but society isn’t quite there yet.  

So, this brings me back to the original question. Is queer offensive? As a social justice and empowerment educator, I personally prefer the term queer. It offers us a both/and solution. It both acknowledges that humans are not exclusively heterosexual and, at the same time, does not limit us to the latest string of “inclusive” letters that cannot possibly represent everyone.

There is one more reason I like the word queer though. It is another example of how our community has begun to reclaim what was once a painfully derogatory slur and that, my friends, is an act of taking back our power. This is not the first time we’ve done this as a community. The pink triangle was originally used to shame and denote “homosexual men” in Nazi concentration camps during WWII. It was anything but a badge of honor, but that same symbol has been reclaimed and is now used in many contexts, such as Pride celebrations and as part of signage indicating that a particular place is a “safe zone” for queer people (ironically!).

So, for me, queer is not offensive, but maybe for you it is, and I can totally honor that. I’d like to suggest that we all consider the possibility that human beings are “big enough” to hold it all, and that this is not a right/wrong issue. If we are faced with having to use a label to describe someone else and are unsure of which one to use, how about simply asking the individual what she/he prefers, because in the end, nobody is a better expert on you than you.

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Michele Zehr, M.A., M.Ed., is the founder of We2 LLC: Women’s Experiential Empowerment. She custom-designs and facilitates empowerment workshops for a wide-range of professionals, offers one-on-one Soul Weaving coaching, teaches R.A.D. Self-Defense for Women and gives Transformational Talks by invitation. To learn more about Michele’s other services, please visit her website at: www.we2empower.com or contact her via email at info@we2empower.com or by phone at 434-218-2462.