What’s the difference between lesbian and queer?

picture of a Q on top of a black and white city scene
Photo via Damensalon
I mentioned last week that it is pride month and I thought that might be a good enough excuse for a queer 101 post.
I was recently asked this question by a well-meaning and genuinely curious progressive person. She’d heard me use the word queer and was curious what the difference was between that and lesbian.
I realized after answering her that there might be other folks out there with similar questions. We use the word “queer” at Feministing a lot, often interchangeably with lesbian, gay and bisexual, but I thought I’d share why I use the word and what I think the difference is.
From my perspective, there are two main reasons to use queer as an identifier. Queer is not as specific as words like lesbian or gay, and it does not explain exactly either your gender or the gender of your partner.
Lesbian implies pretty clearly that you are a woman who partners with other women. You might identify as genderqueer, trans or gender non-conforming, so that kind of specificity might not fit well. Or you might partner with people across the gender spectrum.
If someone partners with people across the gender spectrum, “bisexual” may not feel appropriate because it implies there are just two genders (bi meaning two). Additionally, if a person might not identify themselves with a binary gender (male or female) then a term like lesbian or gay might feel limiting.
Queer is an umbrella term, it really implies “not straight” more than it implies what exactly someone’s sexuality might be. It’s also a political term and many people use it as such, to imply a particular set of political beliefs alongside their orientation.
Queer does not resonate with all communities and is not embraced by all LGBTQ people. It has a derogatory history and has been reclaimed, but not by everyone.
If you identify as queer, why? What’s your definition?

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35 Comments

  1. Bridgette
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    As I wrote on a different post, I have trouble identifying as anything other than a lesbian woman even though technically I fit into the category of transsexual, transwoman or translesbian. None of those categories have ever really worked for me, and I find them very difficult to integrate into my sense of Self.
    I have also always been reluctant to use the term Queer since it does not seem to always garner a good reaction from people. While I do not have a problem with it, I find a lot of people who do.
    I also tend to find it rather interesting that most people do not know the origins of ‘straight’ and ‘bent’, or ‘normal’ and ‘queer’, even though we use them in a rather ad hoc manner.
    I tend to see ‘queer’ as a blanket term to cover the entirety of the ‘alphabet soup’ that our Community tends to entail.

  2. DeafBrownTrash
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    really great post, Miriam. I agree with everything you say. “Queer” is a very general term. You also forgot to mention that “queer” can also include androgynous, for those people who do not feel either masculine or feminine.
    I consider myself “genderqueer” because sometimes I feel my gender is interchangeable. On some days, I feel like a man and I want to be a man and dress like a man. On other days, I want to be very feminine and girly. But I am not lesbian or trans, I am just genderqueer. I don’t believe in placing everyone under a strict gender category.

  3. Nora Rocket
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    This subject recently came up on a college alumni message board among a group of us. Interesting convos resulted.
    I identify as queer because it allows me to identify less by *whom* I do and more by how and what I do. When I was partnering with men, I was still queer. When I was monogamous, I was still queer. When I was partnering exclusively with women, I was still queer. And in my current sitch (poly with a queer not-wife and a straight boyfriend), I’m certainly queer. “Lesbian” restricts me as much as “straight” would, and I don’t feel like it’s fair to lesbians or straight people for me to say I’m either of those things, and it’s definitely not fair to me! The spectrum of my attractions and practices can best be described as queer. Besides, I’m queer in the sense of odd or unexpected, too.
    It took me years to remove “queer” from the hate with which it had been used against me – and I had to leave my hometown, go to college, graduate, and even get all the way to The City before I could say it out loud. But it is now a word of consent and a name for how I’d like to be seen in the world that I take enthusiastically.

  4. ses.dreamwidth.org
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    I identify as queer, and have done for the past couple of years. I use to identify as bisexual, and if people were to look on my life from the outside they would probably say that is still the case now.
    However, I feel that:
    1) As you covered above, gender is not binary.
    2) Tied into that, I feel describing myself as queer also takes into account other aspects of my sexuality which are not covered by “bisexual”, which “queer” does cover.
    3) I am probably going to get flamed for this, but I do feel the past 5 years or so the word “bisexual” has been devalued and there is a perception when a girl says she is bisexual what comes up in quite a lot of people’s minds in my experience they assume you mean that you like having a few beers and kissing girls to turn the guys on, and I want to distance myself from that.

  5. tpaperny
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    I’m pretty sure I’ve heard people identify as a “queer lesbian” or a “queer bisexual” before. Meaning their sexual identification is lesbian/bi but their politics are queer (which I generally assume to mean pretty left of center).

  6. Posted June 16, 2010 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    i identify as queer because that is how i feel. i am currently in and the majority of my past “relationships” have been with people who are cisgender male and therefore would be considered straight by society. but heterosexual, straight and/or bi do not represent me.
    i do not conform to gender or sexual norms. i see gender and sexuality as fluid and exisiting on a spectrum rather than dichotomy. i do not consider myself to be bisexual even though i have have also engaged in relationships with and identify as cisgender female.
    queer is a truly liberating identity for me. queer allows me to love and be attracted to whomever i chose and not have to worry about how society views me. queer allows me to interpret the personal AND the sexual as political.
    i recognize that the label queer is not for everyone and i recognize that there are some people who do not share my opinions on gender and sexuality… oh fuckin well. i have had very lengthy conversations with many of my closest and most respected friends and colleagues about my use of the label. i respect their aversions to its use but have come to the conclusion that queer is the only identifier for me that does not feel too tight in the crotch.

  7. Radically-Yours
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    In my Queer Lit class, we used your exact definition, Miriam. One of the primary reasons that we used that term and definition was that our class as a whole believed that us queer folk are already restricted enough as is; we don’t need to restrict ourselves with terminology as well.

  8. freshmanbliss
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    I identify as queer not just because of my personal gender expression/desire, but because I reject the gender binary and in politics want to work towards radical emancipation from a culture that confines us to essentialist/demeaning images of non-straight, non-white people. It’s an identity that moves towards collective action rather interest group politics.

  9. cmb
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    i’ve heard some critique of the word “homosexual” because defines romantic relationships in a strictly sexual way. you’re a person with XX genitalia dating a person with XX genitalia therefor you’re homosexual. but people aren’t strictly sexual creatures, we also operate on some hazier plane of “gender” and “gender presentation”. i tend to use the word “queer” to describe someone who isn’t strictly heterosexual (XX pairs with XY), but also someone who isn’t using regular gender norms (XX female pairs with XY male). i think “queer” is actually describing the identity of a person not just their sex and relationships. “queer” attempts to describe, though it doesn’t define, that grey space where sex and gender interact. where you can have people who are XX male or XY female or who move between genders and sexes. this area, in my opinion, doesn’t need definition but it does need recognition.

  10. ackey
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    I’ve used the term queer for some time and it has led to having some good, in depth (educational) discussions with people about gender and sexuality.
    I’m in a LTM relationship with a cisman and it has made navigating the “alphabet soup” somewhat difficult. The movement to “queer the census” had the LGBTA categories – no “queer” option. I don’t consider myself bisexual since I consider the percentage of WLW I’d (potentially) date to be orders of magnitude larger than the percentage of MLW I’d (potentially) date. I can’t see myself ever dating a person who identifies as straight. I think “queer” is the best word to describe that.

  11. svollga
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    I identify as queer, meaning ‘anything but cis hetero’ (though I’ve had relationships with cis males during my female phases). I’m physically female, bigender and pansexual, with a slight preference to the partners with female body and androgynous/male/bigender identity. And I don’t want to always say it in as many words :)

  12. annajcook
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    For years, before I was partnered with anyone (of any gender), I used to use phrases like “not quite straight” to talk about my sexuality, because I felt like I couldn’t be “bi” or “lesbian” until I had actually had the experience of sex with a same-sex partner (that I didn’t feel the same way about the language of straight, heterosexuality highlights the heteronormativity in our culture) … now that I am partnered with a woman I use bi, lesbian, fluid, non-straight and queer fairly interchangeably.
    I like “queer” because it’s not as clunky as “non-straight” and doesn’t automatically refer to the straight category — it stands more on its own. It’s also specifically gender/sex related in our language, whereas “fluid” isn’t really common usage. So “queer” has useful political and cultural connotations. “Queer” also really, really helps short-cut the tangle of terms in the alphabet soup and the fear that I’ll leave someone out when I refer to marginal sexualities and gender identities. I realize it’s not perfect, but I’m grateful to have it in the toolkit!

  13. Thomas
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Recently, Asher Bauer, a trans guy who writes at Carnal Nation, stopped identifying as a gay man and started using queer. I wrote about it here (with links back to Asher).
    My basic point was that sexual orientation is an umbrella that is expected to cover the sexual, romantic, political and cultural aspects of people, and that’s too much ground to cover because it those things don’t exactly match for a lot of people. “Queer” has the advantage of being deliberately imprecise.

  14. phoquess
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    I use “queer” because none of the other words really encapsulate my sexuality, because it’s tied in with my gender identity in uncommon ways. It’s a very useful word that communicates, or leaves open to interpretation, more than “bisexual” does.
    However, I disagree that the word “bisexual” contributes to a gender binary. After all, the words “heterosexual” and “homosexual” have no relation to how many genders there are: they mean “attracted to my same gender” or “attracted to a different gender.” So bisexual, given the contexts of the other two words, just means “attracted to the same and different genders” rather than “attracted to men and women” or whathaveyou. If the common terms were androphilic and gynophilic or something that specified gender, then it might make sense; otherwise, not so much.

  15. Icy Bear
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    There are two main reasons I identify as queer. The more simple one is that I honestly don’t know what my sexual identity is. I spent an awful lot of time engaging in self-discovery, and it really got me nowhere; eventually, I just gave up trying to figure out what I am. I’m not straight, I’m not gay – but beyond that, I don’t know what I am. And after awhile, the sense of doubt and uncertainty I have towards my own identity is something I have come to treasure, as it rejects the idea that we have to know ourselves inside and out all the time.
    The second reason is that queer implies to me philosophy and politics along with identity. I find it impossible to separate my identity from my philosophies, but I am so used to the gay rights movement in the US that has effectively distanced gay/lesbian/bi identities from anything else in the world (in framing it as a natural orientation one is born with, and nothing more). Not that there’s a problem with that rhetoric – it certainly serves its purpose in the particular context of gaining gay rights in the US – but it doesn’t work for me at all. ‘Queer’ is a way of stating my identity along with my philosophies, and suggesting how intertwined they are.

  16. Audentia
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    I’m coming from a very specific perspective, so everyone who identifies as queer, I do understand that for you all it means something different than for me. I entirely respect that–I would never police something so personal–just be you.
    That said, I have major problems with the label. I was involved founding the first GSA in my area, one of the first in that region of the U.S., and we dealt with a *lot* of crap. We had quite a few het students (or presumably het) come to our meetings to be all subversive and underground, and they would inevitably identify themselves as “queer.” But then in public, they would preface every single statement against homophobia with “I’m not gay but.”
    That left the actual BLTG (I enjoy the ‘BLT’ :P ) students in a terrible position. Deny your identity and say “I’m not gay but,” or not say that and be thought gay/lesbian by the rest of the student body and the teachers. Harassment, violence, losing all your friends…you know the drill.
    So queer has very specific connotations to me. I’m sorry in advance to anyone who is offended by all this.
    (Oh, and then there’s “queer theory” in academia…don’t get me started).

  17. Ranyart
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    I’m a not-terribly-male-identified trans guy with a genderqueer partner – I have no idea if most people think of us as a “gay” couple, but there’s no way you could call us “straight” either. I am attracted to a pretty wide range of genders and presentations; I think the only thing I know for sure is that I’d be hesitant to date anyone who was straight-identified.
    Saying I’m queer is much easier than trying to figure out how my unconventional gender identity relates to the people I’m attracted to. The dynamic of me dating a cis gay man is going to be a little different (in my case; certainly not for all trans guys) than the dynamic of two cis men would be, but it’s not like it would be a male/female dynamic either.
    I used the term “pansexual” for a while, and while I do still like it, I think “queer” is a bit more readily understood by most people. I also like to use it as an umbrella term for the alphabet soup, as some commenters have already mentioned.

  18. Matthew Williams
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always had difficulty with doing it, and have never done it except in specific circles of people who know me well, but I do refer to myself as queer. Despite, to all outward appearances to most people being a hetero cis-male with what many people regard as an odd obsession within LGBT rights and feminist & queer theories.
    For me Queer is definitely a statement of my ‘politics’ and goals for society, not an expression of my sexuality. Howerver, as I said above, I don’t tend to use the word to identify myself except in circles where people know me and my beliefs well because I don’t want to (mis)appropriate the term.

  19. Comrade Kevin
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    Queer seems to be the only really adequate term to describe who I am and how I identify. There’s a certain maddening fluidity to gender identity and even to sexual orientation, at least in my experience.
    I’ve mentioned before that it seems like no matter what word or term I embrace, I never fit neatly into any of them. I’m trying to accept right now that my gender and my sexual orientation is split between poles, leaving me beholden exclusively to none. I’m a little bit here and a little bit there. Any sort of binary has felt limiting, though often times I wish it worked for me.

  20. iphisol
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    A couple people have touched on it, but I’m surprised nobody has said it explicitly yet- to me, “queer” is an outsider identity. “Gay” and “lesbian,” as identities, connote to me a much more privileged perspective: after watching *gay* organizations like the HRC repeatedly throw trans people under the bus, and watching other mainstream gay rights organizations systematically eliminate the presences of at-risk youth, people of color, sex workers, and other folks who, y’know, they don’t want on their Christmas card to their senators or whatever. Or just watching how pervasively people and groups will claim to be “GLBT” or “LGBT” and then act aggressively as if they hadn’t included the T at all… I’m not that interested in claiming that identity. Even though, y’know, I’m a woman who tends to date women. Or, more specifically, I’m a queer who tends to date queers.
    It’s interesting ’cause the way I use it in conversation, I’ll say “dirty queer” almost as often as just “queer.” It’s intentional: “queer” for me is about being nonmonogamous, unpresentable, sleazy, dirty, and most of the other things that the folks prioritizing gay marriage above all else are swearing, up and down, that gay people aren’t. Queer sexuality still feels like an outsider identity/sexuality, whereas I don’t think gay or lesbian sexuality really are any more. I’m not super interested in assimilating myself into a society so racist, sexist, violent, classist, and lots of other kinds messed up. Whereas it seems like lots of gays are. And I mean, obviously this isn’t the experience of everyone who identifies as queer; I’m only speaking for myself, but that’s what it’s about for me.

  21. tpaperny
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    I’d also be interested to know the ages of people commenting on the post (and of Feministing readers in general). There is definitely some differences in choices of label along generational lines.

  22. heyitsmartine
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    I can imagine that was really frustrating, but my first thought is, how can you be sure what their intentions were? You said they were presumably het, but can you really be sure? While I’m sure there were kids who did exactly what you said and were doing it just to be “underground,” there’s a lot of other scenarios that at least some of them could have been going through, e.g.
    -although you presumed them to be het, they were queer but closeted because of any myriad reasons people choose to stay closeted
    -they had not yet realized the implications of othering queer folks by prefacing statements with, “I’m not gay, but…” and nobody had stopped to tell them why this was hurtful
    -they had specific reasons to fear being read as queer (like abusive and homophobic parents) and that was there way of standing up to inequity while still protecting their personal safety in the only way a 15 year old may know how
    Or perhaps they were completely aware of all the issues this posed but every once in a while everybody slips up and you happened to hear them the times they did.
    I still cringe every time I think of a time years ago that I referred to a cis woman at a drag show as a “real woman” in front of a trans friend of mine. At that time I wasn’t even aware of the term cisgender. Nobody said anything to me then (which of course they were under no obligation to, nobody has to live their whole life as a teachable moment), but I learned more as I grew and matured and have completely integrated the word cisgender into my vocabulary since then. I just hope that when he thinks back on that day, if he remembers it, he doesn’t think, “Man, she is so fucking cruel,” and instead gives me the benefit of the doubt. It’s one thing if somebody’s throwing bricks through your windows, but if somebody appears to be making a sincere effort (for example, by coming to your meetings), they shouldn’t be demonized for the inevitable missteps along the way.

  23. heyitsmartine
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    Just to add to my prior post: I’m not trying to “But what about the hetz??” or anything. Obviously queer folks face those same type of hardships and don’t always get the easy way out that het privilege provides. That said, I still think that giving people credit for trying their best and (hopefully) educating themselves as much as they can along the way is really important.

  24. heyitsmartine
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Ughh… “their way” not “there way”, sorry!

  25. Dena
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    I identify as both bisexual and queer. Bisexual because I’ve only been attracted to cis-gendered men and women and queer because I’m open to the possibility of being attracted to non-cisgender persons. I like the term queer because, while I understand it once had negative connotations and may still does to some, I find that it is used well as an inclusive term. For example, I often feel left out in the way I identify when people talk about gay rights or the gay movement, I much rather prefer the queer movement or queer rights. And queer studies as opposed to gay and lesbian studies. To me, it’s more a matter of inclusivity than anything.

  26. SecondBeach
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    I agree with most of the responses here and I’d like to add that queer is nice because it removes the ‘-sexual’ that hangs at the end of most of these categories: homosexual, transsexual, bisexual, pansexual, etc. I am very sex positive, know it’s an important part of identity, and don’t want to erase or ‘sanitize’ (as some say) the sexual parts of these queer identities; however, sometimes people – especially the straight communities – tend to focus in a very narrow, almost dehumanizing, way on the “sexual” part. I know many members of the queer community who tire of being reduced to who they sleep with and what’s in their pants (or skirt!). It also, especially in the case of gay and bisexuals who face the “hypersexual” stereotype, can lead to the straight community focusing on the sex aspect to the exclusion of romantic love. The word queer is, I think, more inclusive not just of different types of people, but different aspects of life.
    I like queer just fine.

  27. jumbledwritings.wordpress.com
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    I call myself queer because every time I try to define myself more specifically I met somebody that renders that specific label “wrong”.

  28. bifemmefatale
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    I’m 41 and ID as queer. Gay and lesbian people 10 or more years older than me have definitely recoiled from the word before, but not all of them.

  29. sonia
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    I identify as queer, for the exact reasons you discussed

  30. Zoe
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for the clarification! I’ve never gotten a good explanation on the definition of queer until now.

  31. Mollie
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this Miriam. I identify as queer to encompass my gender (genderqueer?) and sexuality (gay). I really love the word – it’s very flexible and useful – though a lot of older LGBT folks I know still feel the negative connotations attached to it.

  32. Gular
    Posted June 17, 2010 at 12:50 am | Permalink

    While it’s easiest for me to say I’m gay, I really do identify myself as queer. I call the community the Queer Community and other such things.
    I do this because the never ending acronym changes depending on who you’re talking to, what you’re doing and who’s invited to your particular party (both literally and figuratively).
    I also do this because I’m not some mainstream label thing. I’m a person and I can be the person that I am with the identity of queer. “Gay” or “Lesbian” or “Trans-” (“-” left for personal identifier) have very specific ideas about what they are. They exist in stereotype within society.
    Queer transcends and breaks that. It takes heteronormativity and bends it into something that is absurd.
    It’s self-empowerment, for me. And it’s a label, as any other, but one that is nondescript.
    It says “uniquely me, uniquely not your useless binary one-versus-the-other culture”.

  33. Audentia
    Posted June 17, 2010 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    “How can you be sure what their intentions were? You said they were presumably het, but can you really be sure?”
    Oh,absolutely. And to be clear: nobody, ever, has the right to demand someone reveal their sexual/gender orientation. Ever.
    But, it’s not really *that* to which I’m objecting. The rest of us had specifically requested that they stop saying “I’m not gay, but [you shouldn't use that word]” or whatever. We figured that if nobody said it, other people’d stop expecting it. And even that day, they still said it. I suspect if we’d had the word ‘ally’ things would have gone better. I’d love to assume the best of them rather than the worst. But this was high school, we had zero outside support, we got harrassed constantly. Basically, we were young and terrified.
    If this happened today, I would like to think it wouldn’t bother me. And really–I know exactly how snotty all of this sounds, which is why I’m stressing, never disrespect someone else’s right to be called what they want. But every time I hear the word, there’s always a split second where it feels like my heart just dropped to the floor. It’s usually gone just as fast, but it happens.
    I’m not trying to say “But what about the hetz??” or anything.
    Totally didn’t sound that way, don’t worry!

  34. Kessei
    Posted June 17, 2010 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    I don’t identify as “queer”, primarily because you have to queer OFF of something. Its a word which means, basically “different from the norm,” so its use reinforces the idea of a “norm.”
    And I consider that “norm” as its described – the imposition of gender, of gendering traits, of “femininity” and “masculinity”, and cultural associations with the label “straight” – to be a product of sex oppression.
    Besides which, many of the markers of queer gender identity or sexuality are themselves just that – social markers, rather than expressions of innate self.
    Personally, I think the best answer to a person who asks, “What are you?” is to say “None of your fucking business.”

  35. heyitsmartine
    Posted June 17, 2010 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Ahhh okay, that makes a lot more sense! When they were told why it wasn’t okay and continued to use that kind of language, extreme frustration definitely makes a lot of sense. Thanks for clarifying!

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