As London celebrates Pride this weekend, we'll be seeing a lot of the word 'queer'. It's a term that's definitely becoming more prevalent, and not just because of that Netflix show whose episodes end with tears, tidier facial hair and Tan's French tuck. But while few of us struggle to understand what lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans mean, the 'Q' in LGBTQ is trickier.
It isn't simply a synonym for gay or neat alternative to LGBTQ. Queer is nebulous, loaded and even controversial – the process of reclaiming it began in the '80s, but some LGBTQ people still think of queer as a slur. For decades, it was slung at us to underline our otherness.
I was called queer at my all-boys grammar school in south Buckinghamshire; it was a handy stand-in for 'faggot', 'poof' or 'gayboy'
I was called queer by classmates at my all-boys grammar school in south Buckinghamshire; it was a handy stand-in for 'faggot', 'poof' or 'gayboy'. When my history class found out our teacher knew Sophie Ellis-Bextor, some boys brought in their girlfriend's copy of "Murder on the Dancefloor" so Miss Roddick could get it signed. But the CD I brought in was definitely my own, and in their eyes that was definitely queer.
Since moving to London 12 years ago, I've had a pejorative 'queer' lobbed at me a few times on the streets, but I definitely don't view it as a slur anymore. Still, I wouldn't necessarily use it to describe myself, at least not ahead of the word 'gay'. Then again, my sexual orientation isn't very complex; since puberty hit when I was 13, I've only ever been attracted to men. But for people whose sexuality is less clear-cut and more fluid, queer is a term that can really resonate.
"For me, it felt like the only word that was all-encompassing enough to accurately describe my sexuality," says 25-year-old Daisy, who's identified as queer since she was 18.
"I've slept with and had romantic relationships with both men and women, but I think sexuality can be more complex than 'what genders you’re into' – at least for me. Women can be masculine. Men can be feminine. Sometimes it’s not about gender at all – it’s about style, or how someone’s mind works. Sometimes it’s about how feminine or masculine that person makes you feel. I mainly sleep with women these days, but 'gay' feels limiting. 'Queer' feels like an easy umbrella for all of the above."
Puj, 34, who's non-binary, says they've identified as queer for six or seven years, and also views it as an 'umbrella term' – one that can "describe my gender identity and sexuality". But queer isn't just about how you identify and who you love; it's able to express a different way of approaching life and looking at the world. Daisy says her queerness also reflects the fact that "traditional heterosexual culture has always felt alienating to me".
"I don’t want to get married and have 2.5 kids and move to the suburbs," she continues. "I'm cisgender, but I've also never felt like a 'woman' in the traditional sense of what that word means. Queerness feels like acknowledging that you live outside of that bubble."
Caroline, 24, says identifying as queer "means I'm not locked into a binary option", and it feels liberating.
For me, queer handles the wishy-washy area of sexuality and gender and gender presentation
"Queer also expresses a little bit of the genderfuckage that I have going on," Caroline adds. "I'm really femme-presenting, but I like to play around with an appearance that's more masc sometimes too. So for me, queer handles the wishy-washy area of sexuality and gender and gender presentation."
But queer is no crassly convenient shorthand for expressing non-conformity. Helen, 22, says she's drawn to the term but feels unsure whether she's earned the right to use it.
"I kinda struggle to define my own sexuality and now go with 'heteroflexible' or sometimes queer," she explains. "Sometimes I feel more bisexual than at other times, and just wonder if the bi-erasure goes so deep that I can't recognise it in myself. But I don't feel like I've had to go through any struggle for acceptance the way many LGBTQ people have, so I feel almost guilty for adopting a bisexual or queer label. I’ve had quite deep romantic feelings for certain women, but it’s never gone anywhere because I think they see me as a straight girl. And I can understand that – they don’t want to be fucked around by someone who’s not sure what they want. But this place in-between can feel strange and lonely, and hard to define."
Puj's partner Sidonie, 27, identifies as a cis bi woman and says she's been on her own journey with the term queer.
"For a long time I wasn’t sure that you could be queer and cis, but I think I’ve settled on it being okay for me to define myself as queer as long as I’m not taking up space," she says. "I also didn’t feel bi 'enough' for a long time, so getting comfortable with labels that I feel fit [me] and defining them for myself is a process. I suppose I’m saying I don’t know if I was born queer, but I know that it’s a part of me now."
Confusion still surrounds the term queer – "I don't think my mum or my co-workers would know what to do with it," Caroline concedes; Puj reckons general comprehension is definitely getting better.
"Initially, I think some of my straight friends were a bit apprehensive about it, because they still thought of it as a slur," they say. "It’s become more of a visibly positive term over the last few years, and people are actively trying to find out what it means and asking questions to better understand it, which is great."
Clearly, it remains a trigger term for some LGBTQ people. Caroline says that at a recent Pride event, she saw a woman holding a sign that said, pointedly, "Lesbian Not Queer!"
But going forward, Puj believes the key is making space for everyone's conception of queer. "With any word that’s reclaimed like this, you’re always going to get some kind of pushback from within the community, especially – and understandably – from those who've had it used against them. But as with everything, there just has to be some sensitivity from all sides; respect the fact that some people don’t want to be labelled that way, and don't criticise those that do because it doesn’t work for you."