Language evolves with society, often due to the brute force and fierceness of those who wish to see change. Such is the case for “queer,” a term predominantly used by the LGBTQ community to stake a contrast from mainstream, heteronormative society. “When I think about ‘queer; I just think ‘different,’” says LGBTQ-friendly sex therapist Kelly Wise, Ph.D.
While all labels used to describe one’s sexual orientation are unique to the individual, unlike homosexual (an attraction to the opposite gender), “queer” is an umbrella term that can be used by anyone under the LGBTQ spectrum. Queer conveys both an orientation and a sense of community.
“The community aspect states, ‘Because we’re all different, we can celebrate our differences. I can accept you for who you are, and there’s power in numbers,’” Dr. Wise says. “There’s an aspect to it that doesn’t allow for isolation.” Some folks who fall somewhere in the middle of the sexual orientation spectrum will describe themselves as queer rather than bisexual (attraction to both your own gender and genders other than your own) or pansexual (attraction regardless of gender). Others will use both, and introduce themselves as “bisexual and queer,” for instance. The term queer is also used by those whose gender does not fall on the binary.
The celebration and use of the word queer is one of reclamation. Not too long ago, queer was still used as a slur. “Back in the day, definitely when I was growing up, the word queer was a derogatory term,” Dr. Wise says. “The reclamation of the word is like, ‘This is who I am. We don’t need to be like everyone else; let’s celebrate our differences, and don’t try to put me in any sort of box of who you need me to be because I’ll continuously try to break down the boxes.” It is worth noting that while the word queer is generally celebrated, some LGBTQ folks still prefer to avoid it due to its discriminatory history.
Despite the progress, the word queer isn’t without controversy—some people within polyamorous or kink communities identify as “queer” even if they enjoy solely heterosexual relationships. “Just because it’s one penis and one vagina, that doesn’t mean that there’s not some queer aspect of you,” says Dr. Wise.
While some agree that polyamorous sexualities count as “different” (and therefore “queer”) others feel that for a straight, poly person to describe themselves as queer is piggy-backing on decades of LGBTQ activism to gain fundamental rights, and celebrate their identities. But, to keep it simple, if someone describes themselves as queer, it’s quite often because their sexual orientation and/or gender falls under the LGBTQ umbrella, rather than the heterosexual norm. There are as many ways to identify as queer as there are people who do so—so if you feel you may be queer and want to own that, go forth with pride.
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This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.