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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