Queer, before it was associated with the LGBT community, meant simply: strange, peculiar, unusual, out of the ordinary. Implicit in this meaning is the fact that most people, in most contexts, are not queer. Yet, it is also simultaneously true that most—or arguably all people—have at least one characteristic that deviates from the norm. Being ordinary in most ways is not synonymous with being ordinary in all ways. This means that logically, most or even all people are, in fact, queer in some respect.
Tailors owe their livelihoods to this fact. It is rare for off-the-rack clothes to fit anyone perfectly. Most of us are either taller or shorter than average, heavier or thinner, have broader or narrower shoulders, a thicker or thinner neck, longer or shorter arms or legs, etc. Even the rare person who is truly average in all of these respects could be left-handed (affecting which shirt sleeve is made shorter for a watch). A poetic sensibility might be inclined to see these peculiarities as the stuff of which humanity is made. How boring would life be if we were all the same?
Where emotions, passions, and resulting behaviours are involved, our peculiarities are amenable to social pressures. We might feel pressured, for instance, to hide our love of country music in the company of urbane critics, or to keep our appreciation for avant-garde hip-hop close to our chest in rural Louisiana. This doesn’t mean that we love those musical styles any less, only that we might feel inclined to keep these sentiments to ourselves. These quirks are what differentiate us from others and make us who we are.
This fact is equally true in the arena of sex and relationships. Most people may be heterosexual (or at least mainly so), while still differing from the norm in other respects. For example, an individual could be a stay-at-home dad, an enthusiast for BDSM, a polyamorous person, a foot fetishist, part of a couple that chooses to forgo having children, a chubby chaser or even the long-derided old maid.
Clearly, LGBT people don’t have a monopoly on possessing proclivities outside the norm. In the past, as a term of judgment or derision, queer was not reserved exclusively for LGBT people. Those with prudish attitudes used it to speak ill of women who enjoyed sex too much, of people who had premarital sex, of married couples who didn’t at least pretend to be monogamous, of interracial couples, of those who practised taboo sex acts, etc.
The use of the word queer to refer explicitly to LGBT people has also never been universally accepted by members of the community. Some activists, for example, reject its use, while others advocate for a broader use of the term. In academia, there is an ongoing discussion of whether to use queer solely to refer to LGBT people or to use it more generally to refer to all people who do not conform to arbitrary norms around sex and relationships.
In the developed world, tremendous progress has been made on LGBT rights. Same-sex marriage, decriminalization of homosexual sex, and protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity are becoming the norm in liberal democracies. In some places, the legal consequences of stigmas against BDSM or polyamory are more oppressive than those against the LGBT community. It is thus simply a fact that some straight people experience more legal discrimination than some LGBT people.
In less liberal parts of the world, legal discrimination against certain sexual or romantic choices is still not limited to the LGBT community. Practices privately enjoyed by most straight westerners are banned by many of the same illiberal countries that continue to outlaw consensual homosexuality or same-sex marriage. Prohibitions against anal and oral sex, extramarital sex, and marriage between different religious, ethnic or socioeconomic groups restrict the freedoms of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
It is therefore both ahistorical and reductive for the LGBT community to claim absolute ownership over the word queer. We are not the only group of people to whom it has been applied derogatorily, there is no universal agreement among activists and academics about who the term should be currently applied to, and we are not the only people wronged by prohibitions related to sex and relationships.
Regardless of our situation, we all have the moral imperative to preserve equality under the law. It does us no favours to alienate cis straight people with a divisive narrative. Our hard-won freedoms will be better preserved by telling a story about how everyone, including cis straight people, benefits from the protection of liberties around sex and relationships. In less liberal parts of the world, too, LGBT people have made common cause with cis straight men and women who are similarly oppressed by prohibitions around sex and relationships.
The need to preserve our liberties applies to all people—not just those belonging to the LGBT community. Our concerns are personal to us but not morally superior to those of anyone else. Equality under the law is a universal value of liberalism over which no one holds a monopoly. Even regarding those rights related to sex and relationships, LGBT people aren’t the only ones who know what it is like to be queer in one sense or another. For these reasons, it is acceptable, and arguably better rhetorical strategy, to use the word queer in a much broader manner—one that returns to the original meaning of the term and celebrates the fact that all people, not just those of the LGBT community, benefit from the tolerance of sexual and romantic diversity.