What is Queer?


Sometimes it seems like any conversation about queer politics can get very technical and wordy very quickly and be quite alienating for those who are unfamiliar with it all. Below are a few definitions that we hope will help.



Attempts to precisely pin-down ‘queer’ can get controversial but broadly speaking, people who suffer oppression from wider society because of their sexuality and/or gender identity may choose to identify as queer. This would include transgender people, lesbians, genderqueer and non-binary and agender people, bisexual or pansexual people, and gay people. Queer is sometimes used as a short, snappy ‘umbrella’ term for everyone within the LGBTQIA+ acronym. It is also often used to imply that sexuality and gender cannot be easily labelled, and/or that sexuality and gender can be fluid, changing over time.

Queer’ can be a controversial word, as it is a reclaimed term – although we can find joy and power and self-identity in calling ourselves QUEER the word has been widely used for a long time as an insult, particularly aimed towards gay men. Some in the LGBTQIA+ community don’t call themselves queer because the word is associated with their experiences of homophobic abuse. Some prefer to call themselves queer as it is confrontational, politicised, and implies a commitment to radical left politics and a rejection of all that is considered ‘normal’ by society. Queer can show an individual’s refusal to be labelled by society, as queer anarchists Bash Back! wrote, “Queer is the refusal of fixed identities. It is a war on all identity.”

We respect the decisions of individual people to call themselves ‘queer’ or to refuse the term.



What kinds of people you are generally physically attracted to and what kinds of sex you enjoy. Descriptions are often better than single words, no two people find exactly the same sets of people and objects and activities equally erotic.


Gender Identity

As a queer community we believe in the freedom of all individuals to choose and define their own gender. The gender identities we have as autonomous adults or young people do not have to be defined by what we have between our legs, which hormones are dominant in our bodies, whether the doctor said “it’s a girl” or “it’s a boy” when we were born. There are a huge variety of gender identities in the world, it’s not a simple gender binary.



A person who does not identify as the gender they were assigned at birth, and may take steps such as changing their name, changing how they typically dress, taking hormones or having surgery (known as “gender affirmation” or “gender confirmation” surgery) to help their physical body match up with the gender they really are. Some individuals who have already taken these steps may consider themselves people with a trans history rather than trans people. Not all trans people identify as men or women – people can be trans and non-binary. It is important to remember that not all trans people want medical or surgical intervention – and equally important to recognise that poverty, classism, ablism, racism and bigoted ‘gatekeeper’ attitudes from doctors can make access to hormones and surgery impossible for many who do want them.

There’s a really useful glossary of loads of terms associated with trans lives here.



The opposite of trans! A person who still identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth, though they may still be critical of or uncomfortable with normative gender expectations and express this through their behaviour and appearance (eg. butch women, men who wear make-up, women who don’t remove body hair). Pronounced with a soft c, “siss-gender”.



a term for people who are not men or women, or are both men and women, or who are something else entirely, or are some combination of these things, or some of these things some of the time.” — Ask A Non-Binary



A term for people who identify as being of no gender, having no gender identity.



Another word for people who don’t identify as male or female. Sometimes used more widely, as an umbrella term to mean any gender identity or presentation that cannot be easily identified as either feminine or masculine.



(Assigned Male At Birth/ Assigned Female At Birth)

Almost everybody will be assigned male or female at birth depending on what kind of genitals they have. This decision will then have a massively powerful effect on how that child is treated by their family and by our sexist society, which privileges men and encourages them to assert power and control over women. However, the child themself may not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, and may choose to change their gender later in life.

The terms AFAB or AMAB are often used to indicate similarities in the lived experiences of people who have different gender identities, but were assigned the same gender at birth. For example, a cis woman and a non-binary AFAB person will both have experienced growing up and being socialised as female-assigned children, and the non-binary person may be ‘read’ as female by the general public. So they may have many similar experiences and similar needs from queer and feminist communities.

Some trans and intersex people prefer the acronyms CAFAB/CAMAB, Coercively Assigned, to indicate that a baby has no choice over its assigned gender, and to remind us of the horrific injustice that intersex babies are frequently operated on soon after birth to make their genitals more ‘normal’, surgery which they obviously cannot refuse.



Intersex people are individuals whose anatomy or physiology differ from contemporary cultural stereotypes of what constitute typical male and female. Being Intersex is not a disease, it is not a “disorder”, it is a perfectly normal – and actually quite common – variation within human development.” – UK Intersex Association

Not all intersex people identify as queer or see themselves as part of the queer/LGBTQ+ community; but the queer community has a responsibility to support intersex people.



Written texts, particularly online, sometimes use these to indicate that their definition of “woman” or “man” is broader and more flexible than a typical definition, in order to include non-binary people. For example the phrase “the sexism experienced by women*” indicates that the writer is including AFAB people who do not identify as women but are assumed by society to be female and so suffer from sexism. This could be seen as continuing the tendency of liberation movements to play with words and vary the spelling of words to indicate how language can reproduce oppression, like how the women’s movement used “womyn” and “herstory”.


LGBTQIA+ Acronym 

There are a huge number of different acronyms in use across the world. Two of the more common ones are GSM (Gender & Sexual Minorities – a bit outdated now but still in use, often in healthcare & some social justice activism) and LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender – the most ‘mainstream’ acronym, even the Tories have started saying LGBT nowadays). In recent years, many activists have been using longer acronyms, to include people who are oppressed due to their gender or sexuality but are not L G B or T. It is becoming more common to add Q for queer, I for intersex, and/or A for asexual. The longest version we know is QUILTBAG: Queer or Questioning, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Trans, Bisexual, Asexual, Gay.


Gender pronouns

Not everyone is comfortable being referred to as “she” or “he”. Many people prefer to use gender-neutral pronouns – “they” seems to be the most common one on the London queer scene, with “zie” and “it” also in use. There’s a list of a few different gender-neutral pronouns and a table explaining how to use them here. PLEASE DO NOT ASSUME YOU CAN GUESS WHAT SOMEONE’S PRONOUN IS BY LOOKING AT THEM! It is totally ok to ask “what pronoun do you use?”


Gender binary

The idea that gender is composed exclusively of two rigidly defined categories (ie. woman & man).


Liberation & Oppression

Queer liberation is a hypothetical social state in which people’s lives are not impacted by their gender, sex, sexuality or relationship status. Currently, queer people experience oppression manifested by higher rates of assault, rape, poverty, bullying at school, discrimination in the workplace, mockery in the media, police/state violence, a complex of ingrained wide-spread language that serves to encourage self-hate (eg. the use of ‘gay’ as an insult often makes gay kids feel ashamed of their sexuality and unable to open up to anybody about their sexuality). Our individual experiences of queerphobic oppression will also be affected by the other ways in which we are socially oppressed or privileged, eg. in terms of class, race, disability, gender… (see intersectionality).



Privilege is a label for material and symbolic benefits experienced by some groups of people at the expense of other groups of people. The effects of privilege/oppression can be blatant (eg. massive differences in lifestyle and opportunities depending on how much money people have) or can operate subtly in many small instances of plausible deniability. For example, men are socially conditioned to consider their opinion to be of central importance whilst women are conditioned to be supportive. One every-day effect of this is that men can usually talk louder and longer in meetings and be taken more seriously than women. Furthermore, if a woman bucks the trend and is assertive or more domineering then she is much more likely to be dismissed as ‘bossy’ than a man indulging in similar behaviour. The systemic nature of these mechanisms can become clear, either through the testimonies of oppressed people (the internet contains many articles and blogs, go search!) or sometimes, through statistical reviews (for example, stats show that people of colour in the UK are disproportionately affected by poverty and unemployment due to racist oppression).



The word “intersectionality” was invented by Black feminist professor and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw. She was looking for a way to explore and explain how people can be oppressed in multiple ways, and how the experience of multiple oppressions is a new form of oppression in itself – eg. that Black women are oppressed by both racism and sexism and also experience a form of oppression unique to Black women, that neither Black men nor white women suffer. Activist movements influenced by Crenshaw’s essay strive to keep an intersectional focus. Queer communities need to recognise intersectionality so that we support each other to fight against homophobia & transphobia AND the other oppressions that we face eg. as poor and working-class queers, as queer women, as disabled queers, as queer people of colour.


We want to make these resources as useful and accessible as possible, is any of the above unclear? Are we missing some important words? Let us know in the comments or email: house.of.brag@gmail.com


2 Responses to What is Queer?

  1. Rosa Luxemburg's Ilk says:

    Social Centre looks epic! Also great blog!

    Here’s my one critical contribution, for what it’s worth:
    Explaining the sex/gender distinction (body vs. mind) and then (by introducing the concept) questioning the ‘gender binary’ seems to leave the category of ‘sex’ unchallenged. It’s not like people’s *bodies* fall ‘naturally’ or without violence into the categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’, or like bodies are not moulded by the mental and vice versa (intentionally or unintentionally, but always in ways shaped by power). I know you’re explaining concepts here, and it’s true that the concepts of sex and gender often are distinguished in the way you describe. But of course your presentation of these concepts is supposed to have an educative and self-defining function: there is an implicit endorsement of these as (at least) *useful* concepts (that is, useful to current liberation struggles; useful ways of describing/analysing/challenging processes of oppression). I guess generally I worry that uncritical use of the sex/gender distinction really works against a queer analysis and hence against liberation.

  2. I think it’s worth talking about normativity as something to oppose queerness to, which links to discussions in the space which had acknowledged that people may be queer while living primarily as heterosexual, and this may mean opposing heterosexual norms in how they approach all relationships in life (including that any future sexual relationships might be with person of any gender). I’m coming to this off the back of this article http://www.salon.com/2012/01/22/the_invention_of_the_heterosexual/

    Heteronormativity is the belief that people fall into distinct and complementary genders (man and woman) with natural roles in life. It asserts heterosexuality as the norm, and can expect relationships which are not between opposite gender partners to be modelled on heterosexual traditions, such as marriage.

    Gender Normativity is expecting people to conform to gender norms, in particular the gender binary.

    Homonormativity is normativity applied to LGBT communities (queer people are excluded by this)

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