What's the difference between "gay" and "lesbian," on the one hand, and "queer," on the other? Are these two groupings opposed to each other? Does one evolve from the other? How do the concepts and...

What's the difference between "gay" and "lesbian," on the one hand, and "queer," on the other? Are these two groupings opposed to each other? Does one evolve from the other? How do the concepts and theories like heteronormativity or homonormativity provide understandings of what the differences between the two might be?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Gay," "lesbian," and "queer" refer to classification of individuals who are homosexual. One can also place "transgendered" in this classification. Complexity arises from here. "Queer" had been initially used to describe homosexual individuals in a pejorative and derogatory light.  Arising from the Scottish meaning of "strange," or "peculiar" or "eccentric," the term became applied to homosexual classification in the 1920s.  A published example is in the U.S. Children’s Bureau’s Practical Value of Scientific Study of Juvenile  Delinquents of 1922 when it described homosexuality in a case study: “A young man, easily ascertainable to be unusually fine in other characteristics, is probably ‘queer’ in sex tendency.” The idea of homosexuality being linked to "strange" "sex tendencies" began to take hold in American society.

As time passed,"gay" replaced "queer." Yet, it was used in the 1960s and 1970s as a way to stigmatize homosexuality.  Until the early 1970s, homosexuality was defined as a disease and disorder. "Queer" was used as a way to put down homosexuality and individuals who came out as homosexuals. Over time, though, the term became reappropriated by the gay community as a way of asserting power through linguistics:"Rather than being a sign of internalized  homophobia, queer highlights homophobia in order to fight it... [Queer] is a way of reminding us how we are perceived by the rest of the world.” In the midst of a time period where AIDS Awareness and homosexual understanding began to emerge, there was a defiance towards "queer bashing" and assaults against homosexual people.  Predominantly seen in younger people, the use of "queer" became a linguistic way to assert power where power and voice was once absent. Many who used the term saw "queer" as being more defiant and activating greater power than with the terms "gay" or "lesbian," terms that were seen as more assimilationist.  Through this, one sees how the use of linguistics carries with it socio-political connotations and generational differences.

Thus, "queer" can be seen as employing defiance against heteronormativity.  The use of the term "queer" comes from a resentment of the mores and ideas preached within heteronormativity. Borrowing from Leslie Feinberg's quote of "I demand the right to be complex," the use of "queer" is a way to defy the tenets of heteronormativity's assertion that the world should be appropriated through the lens of heterosexual identity: "Many heterosexuals don’t understand the closet because they’ve never been in it. Because heterosexuality is the order of things, many heterosexuals think they never discuss their sexuality. They say gays who come out are going too far, making an issue of their sexuality when heterosexuals don’t." In response to the dominance of heteronormativity, a case can be made that "queer" is employed over terms such as "gay" or "lesbian." Naturally, in the movement from outsider to insider, there can be a tendency to view "queer" in a homonormative tendency.  This would suggest that "queer" should be the only way to refer to homosexual identity, potentially viewing consciousness in only a homosexual light. From being relegated for so long to the outside, fervent linguistic advocates might replace heteronormativity with a homosexual version of it. It might be in this realm where a healthy discussion of power and language can take place in the use of terms such as "gay," "lesbian" and "queer."