cw: explicit language

The English language is an incredible beast. What makes it difficult to learn is also what makes it incredibly malleable and amazing. Not to get too vulgar right off the bat, but have you ever considered how many different ways we can use the word “fuck” to convey all sorts of emotions and meanings? Here, watch this real quick and you’ll see what I mean (cw: sexual violence, death; it’s from the show The Wire)😉😅

I shit you not, I only know about that scene because one of my linguistics professors showed it to us in class! But even without the video, you can see how a lot of our swearwords alone can be used in different contexts and mean different things. Okay, I guess we didn’t need to use swearwords as the example for this linguistic phenomenon (called lexical flexibility), but I like diving into taboo any chance I get. That being said, let’s get to the actual topic I want to discuss today: the word “queer” and its appropriate contexts of use.

“Queer not as being about who you are having sex with, that can be a dimension of it, but queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.” – bell hooks

I’ve used this quote before in my writing, as it pertains to who I am at my very core. The identities I hold most dear are the identities that are most at odds with my surroundings (outside of being in the environment I’ve curated specifically to be safe for my queerness).

This may be controversial to say, but as a former linguistics student and continuous advocate for inclusivity, the word “queer” does not need to be exclusive to the LGBTQIA+ community. As history tells us, the word “queer” has already undergone several iterations. In the 1500s, the Scotts used it as an adjective to mean “strange, peculiar, eccentric, odd” which is still in use today. By 1740, it came to mean “open to suspicion”, and even slang for counterfeit money in the early to mid 1800s. It wasn’t until 1922 that “queer” came to be officially used to describe “homosexual”, but wasn’t a noun for the same until 1935. As a verb it was used to mean “to spoil or ruin” in 1812. Before that it was often used to mean “to puzzle, ridicule, deride, cheat”. And finally, Queer Theory/Studies was born in the 1990s. All of this information was found at etymonline.com.

What wasn’t mentioned on that website is how “queer” has been reclaimed since the 1990s as an identity marker by the LGBTQIA+ community itself, though on second thought, it should be implied to be an implicit part of Queer Theory/Studies.

“I see it as you can be neuroqueer, or genderqueer, or various flavors of queer. Isn’t the whole point of queer theory that being queer is an intentional subversion of cultural normativity?”

– a friend and fellow autism advocate, David Gray-Hammond of Emergent Divergence: Addiction, Mental Health, and The Autistic Experience

Not everyone agrees with this reclamation, mind you. Old school members of the community, and those who have experienced discrimination and harm from its use (young and old), wholeheartedly still consider it a harmful slur. In fact just the other day I was accused of being homophobic by a Facebook stranger, who appeared to be my age, because my blog is named “Queer Cult”. Clearly they’re missing the point of the name I chose, but it was an interesting experience to say the least.

When it comes to my membership of the LGBTQIA+ community, reclaiming “queer” as my own has been a very empowering experience. I’ve always been the weird kid, and as I’ve already discussed, “queer” is an easy descriptor for the peculiar. So when I finally figured out my sexuality and, ultimately, my gender identity, using “queer” was the simplest, most accessible way to communicate to others who I am. It just made sense, and felt safe to use because it described me even outside of my LGBTQIA+ identities.

That being said, listing all my identities within the community is cumbersome to say the least, and they don’t even fit all that well to begin with. While labels are liberatory and often connect people to each other, they are also limiting at a certain point. I only use “nonbinary” because that is the simplest, most accessible way to communicate that I don’t identify with being a man or woman, but it doesn’t exactly describe who I am either. To describe my gender would take pages, and all of those pages would be filled with nearly nonsensical analogies. “I am stardust. I am galaxies. I am water flowing with salmon swimming upstream,” that kind of stuff. “Queer” allows me to communicate that I am different, period. It’s vague enough to allow my identities breathing room, to stay fluid, to stay “me”.

Also the featured image on this post, it says: People seem to believe that allowing polyamorous people to use “coming out” admits them into the queer community. That’s a debate for another time, but I think a polyamorous person can use the term without being regarded as inherently queer.

According to hooks’ definition of “queer”, I am queer in multiple ways: I am multiply queer within the LGBTQIA + community, I am dynamically disabled, I am autistic/ADHD, and I am polyamorous. I’ve had to “come out” several times for all of these identities, and I will continue to “come out” as I meet more people for the rest of my life. This will be reality for most of us who don’t fit the status-quo until the status-quo shifts from a white, cis-heteronormative existence to one that is post gender, race, sexuality, etc. We will continue to be subject to “coming out” until our labels don’t actually matter outside of connecting to each other, where mainstream media is so diversified that all identities are just considered “normal” and laws accommodate for all differences—where all lives are considered worthy of dignity and respect.

So yes, I agree with Poly Philia that using the phrase “coming out” does not make polyamorous people inherently a part of the queer community, meaning the LGBTQIA+ community. But I don’t agree that being polyamorous can’t make you another kind of queer. I operate out of bell hooks’ definition of queer, and I do believe that my polyamory is a part of my queer identity, but that doesn’t mean it’s a part of my queer identity within the LGBTQIA+ community. We’re discussing two versions of “queer” here.

That’s the beauty of language. We can have phrases and words that mean one thing in one context, and another thing in another context. Of course it’s important to recognize people’s desires and boundaries for certain uses. For example, the shortening of “polyamorous” to “poly” has been strongly discouraged by the Polynesian population that uses “#poly” to connect to each other online and for advocacy. Polyamorous people who aren’t Polynesian use that term and flood social medias, disrupting that connection for Polynesian people. We should respect racially marginalized groups and their desires. Instead, we use “polyam”.

But just as women have reclaimed “slut” and “bitch”, and the Black community has reclaimed the n-word, queer people reclaiming “queer” is not inappropriate. And I think it’s okay, if not absolutely appropriate, to extrapolate that reclamation to other identities that make us queer, in light of hooks’ definition of “queer”.

Thanks for coming to my TED talk.


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“Are transgender and nonbinary synonymous?”

Short answer, yes. Long answer, no.

Well that’s confusing, so let’s dive deeper shall we?

Transgender is an umbrella term. What’s an umbrella term?

“An umbrella term, or a hypernym, is a word or phrase used to generally, rather than specifically, describe a group of varying but identifiably related subjects.”

Alicia Sparks at infobloom.com

Under the umbrella that is “transgender” we have the gender spectrum. Cisgender people exist on the polar ends of said spectrum, outside the transgender umbrella, though even this is being reworked a little (more on this in a bit). As the photo above depicts, there are two small umbrellas underneath the larger transgender umbrella, and those are “binary” and “nonbinary.”

In the binary category, we have transgender men and women. They are under the binary umbrella because trans men and women are just that, men and women. That’s the classic binary code of gender, 1 or 0.

In the nonbinary category, we have genderfluid, genderqueer, bigender, agender, demigirl, demiboy, neutrois, and more. The more people explore what gender means to them outside of the binary, the more terms we find to be fitting. This does not lessen the validity of binary genders (cis or trans), but instead expands our understanding of what gender is at large. Gender is a spectrum, after all (and it gets less linear everyday). The one thing I will point out in disagreement with the picture above, is that genderqueer is more of a synonym for transgender than it is an identity under the nonbinary umbrella. Genderqueer is often used as its own umbrella term, describing people’s “non-normative experience with their gender,” which can encompass anyone under the transgender umbrella, binary or nonbinary. In saying this, however, one can and many do use genderqueer as a stand-alone identity, often depicting their nonbinary gender.

To me, ‘genderqueer’ represents a queering of gender, so to speak. It’s a deliberate playing with gender in a very political sense, and being provocative around gender norms to highlight the gender stereotypes of our culture.

– Laura A. Jacobs, an LGBTQ+ psychotherapist in an interview with VICE

Are Nonbinary and Transgender Interchangeable?

They can be! Because transgender begets nonbinary (as in the umbrella model), many nonbinary folx use trans and nonbinary interchangeably, myself included. But many nonbinary people do not identify as trans, and that’s okay. It all comes down to individual preferences.

I am also now learning that “nonbinary” can be used to further qualify cisgender identity as in “I am a nonbinary woman,” which is where my aside from before comes back into the conversation. Despite normative rhetoric, we CAN be multiple genders. Us humans are beautiful in our complexity! When it comes to being nonbinary, an individual who identifies as such can also identify as bigender, poly-gender, or some other multiple-gender concept that includes their assigned gender at birth (AGAB) to be at least one of those identities, as is the case for the aforementioned nonbinary woman.

Many nonbinary folks may not be bothered by their assigned gender at birth and feel like it still describes them in some way so they don’t want to fully adopt the trans label.

– a queer Facebook commenter
  • Some nonbinary people will not claim trans for themselves because of internalized transphobia (whether they realize it or not).
  • Some nonbinary people will not claim trans for themselves due to not feeling “trans enough” (which, let me be clear, if you’re gender non-conforming in identity, and you want to be a part of the trans community, you ARE trans enough).
  • Some nonbinary people will not claim trans for themselves because they still identify with their AGAB as the quote above describes. This can be conflated with demigirl/boy identities.

For me, it depends on the situation. Sometimes it’s just easier to use trans as a shorthand, as I can feel vulnerable in getting specific about my gender identity. Sometimes I use trans for the shock value, as most people misgender me. “Trans” empowers me to stand in my identity because I feel the support of the whole community behind me when I use it (not that nonbinary doesn’t do that too, but most people know what trans is, whereas not everyone knows with nonbinary is). Other times nonbinary is more fitting because I feel too vulnerable saying trans in fear of being the recipient of transphobia, as if nonbinary is less in-your-face trans? That definitely plays into my own internalized transphobia, but the fear of external transphobia is real, and this is how my brain rationalizes things in order to deal with them.

Nonbinary is under the trans umbrella because it is rejecting the binary as we traditionally know it.

– Me, in my post Nonbinary and Me

I’ll admit now that “rejecting the binary” was not the best way to phrase things. Not all nonbinary people reject the binary, as bigender people exist, as well as genderqueer/genderfluid folx who play with gender within the binary. This is only amplified more when we consider nonbinary cisgendered people. To be transgender, then, is to participate within the gender binary in untraditional, counter-normative ways, with the possibility to reject the binary altogether.

Humans are WAY too complex for us to say anything in our lives is a paradox. “We contain multitudes.”

– same queer Facebook commenter

There is so much nuance when it comes to human identity and the words we use to describe ourselves. As time progresses, we’re relearning just how expansive humanity can be. We do not fit neatly into the same few boxes! And even when we do, those boxes are often subjected to change or overlap, over time.

So are transgender and nonbinary synonymous? It all comes down to the individual at hand, so always ask before you assume!