What's the difference between 'gay' and 'queer'?

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3 November
17:01
November
2016

There’s a strong generational divide here, a really different take on what those terms mean, and whether they apply. When I was talking to a group of senior men and women, I was burbling away about being queer, and sensed that something wasn’t right, and it turned out they didn’t like the term ‘queer’, they were very proud of being gay or lesbian, this is what they had fought for, and they didn’t want to be associated with ‘queer’ because the term was used against them in their day. But I’m happy to use it, and about myself, and it’s currently the respectable word to use in academic publications. 

‘Homosexual’ is regarded as outdated and ‘gay’ is associated with a kind of cultural politics, like gay marriage, and expenditure and mortgages, and mainstream acceptance. It can indicate a narrow vision of culture. By way of another example, a group of Masters students that I recently met recognised the word ‘gay’ and three-quarters thought in a gay-straight binary manner, ‘I’m straight so I’m not gay’, but one quarter said no, I know and like the word ‘queer’, it’s very now, it’s about being disruptive and non-conformist, refusing to toe the line and to be identifiable or classifiable, to take charge of your own identity. 

T-shirt at Jerusalem Pride, 2012 (Photo: Neil Ward)

That’s where a queer mind might come in, a more androgynous and indeterminate thought-world, of people who don’t feel they fit neatly in a world of binary categories of male and female. They might be asexual too. There can be recognisable diversity within a single life, being fluid and variable, and perhaps changeable in the future. My friends don’t sit around saying ‘I’m gay’, and I don’t either, I don’t know the last time I used that phrase. I’d say I am queer. 

I also think you can be queer without sleeping with the same sex. Like, in society, there’s a deeply ingrained view that women are passive, but if you have the role of a dominatrix, a top, I think that’s also queer, because it challenges the norm of what a woman does in bed. A straight guy who wants to be fucked by a woman with a strap-on, I think that’s queer in our culture too.

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