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What does it mean to be queer? Let these college athletes explain

Young LGBTQ athletes are reclaiming the word “queer,” and pushing back against labels.

Kamal Craig-Golaube is the founder of Colorado State University’s LGBTQ Athlete Ally group.
Photo provided

Kamal-Craig Golaube began his journey as an out Black man with three simple words: “Kamal, you’re gay.”

At the time, Golaube was unfamiliar with most terminology within the LGBTQ community, and since he was attracted to men, labeled himself as gay. What else would he be?

Well, how about queer?

As Golaube continued his personal evolution, he decided there was no reason to put himself in a box. He came out to experience sexual freedom. It seemed counterintuitive to stringently define his budding identity.

That’s why the Colorado State track standout now calls himself queer.

“I can identify as whoever I want to identify as,” he told me on the phone. “There’s no specific box I need to check off.”

The number of Americans who identify as queer is rapidly increasing — and the vast majority of them are young. Last year, a report from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law found nearly 6 percent of sexual minorities call themselves queer, and of that total, 98 percent are younger than 45.

Delving further into the numbers, 76 percent of people who identify as queer are ages 18 to 25. This is a Generation Z-led revolution. They are reclaiming the word.

The complicated history of “queer”

The origins of the word “queer” date back to the 16th century, when it began showing up in the English language to describe something peculiar, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.

During the early 20th century, the adjective started to be applied to homosexuals, mostly in derogatory fashion. The 1965 printing of Webster’s Dictionary lists “queer” as slang for homosexual, though it doesn’t specify the connotation (keep in mind, the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as mental illness until 1973).

When discussing the evolution of “queer,” it’s important to remember the word’s ugly history, says Jason Rafferty, an LGBTQ researcher at Brown University.

“The term can really hit people of different generations in very different ways, and I think there has to be a lot of respect for that,” he said. “For somebody who grew up in a time where we didn’t have as much along the lines of rights and recognition and public respect, queer can carry a lot of trauma.”

Megan Duthart knows the history all too well. The British-born Washington State rower came out in high school, and with her peers, identifies as queer. But to her parents, she’s bi. She says they didn’t grow up in the most inclusive environments, and associate the word “queer” with derision, as in: “Oh my God, the queers are coming.”

Megan Duthart has started an LGBTQ group for athletes at Washington State University.
Photo provided

But as we know, the definitions of words can change over time. That’s exactly what’s happening with “queer.”

Taking back the word

It’s hard to pinpoint when “queer” began to be self-adopted by members of the LGBTQ community on a sizable scale. In the early 1990s, the group Queer Nation was founded to combat violence against LGBTQ people, and used the word as a positive self-label. “By co-opting the word ‘queer,’ QN claims, they have disarmed homophobes,” Newsweek wrote at the time.

Today, NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists says “queer” was “originally a pejorative term,” but has now been reclaimed by some LGBTQ people.” Still, the NLGJA cautions readers the word is still “extremely offensive when used as an epithet and still offensive to many LGBTQ people regardless of intent.”

With that in mind, Rafferty says the push to normalize “queer” has occurred at the grassroots within the community. It highlights our growing understanding of gender and sexuality as fluid constructs.

“A term like ‘queer’ or ‘genderqueer’ or ‘gender-fluid,’ it can really be a celebration of the complexity of gender and even a statement that challenges some of the old notions of how we thought about labeling identity,” he said.

Isaac Gotterer is challenging those traditional ideas every day. As a club soccer player at Wesleyan University, they identified as genderqueer, coming out with a brilliant high-femme gym photo shoot. Today, Gotterer calls themself trans along with genderqueer. Their evolving self-identification pushes back against our gendered culture.

“Sexuality and gender are in cahoots with each other, and something that’s forever changing,” Gotterer said. “The culture of sports is so gendered. Even in my dreams, I have to be this revolutionary voice. Gender is so inherent in everything.”

But young people are pushing back against that rigid structure. Queer college soccer player Henry Bethell attributes positive connotations to the label, because it signifies a nuanced understanding of sexual orientation.

He says his friends feel similarly.

“Having that word is an easy way to signal that you believe certain things about sexuality — that sexuality is fluid; you could be questioning,” he said. “It signals to other queer people that you have these certain beliefs and understandings of sexuality, which is nice, because you can also feel understood.”

“Queer” means freedom

All of the six athletes interviewed for this story provided one prevailing reason for why they identify as queer: It gives them freedom.

When Bethell first came out — in a provocative op-ed challenging the police presence at Pride events — he didn’t want to label himself. The exercise seemed fruitless, since he came out to explore new feelings and attractions.

But he still wanted to signify his place in the LGBTQ community. He settled on “queer.”

“I didn’t really like the idea that sexuality could be labeled, and that I would only be one thing for the rest of my life,” he said. “But at the same time, I knew that I was not straight, and it was really important to me to signal to the world that I wasn’t straight — especially for kids who come behind me.”

Couper Gunn, a college soccer captain, says he also identifies as queer to highlight his homosexuality, while leaving him room for self-discovery.

“To me, it’s a way to identify as not straight without putting myself into a box or putting a label on myself that I don’t feel quite fits me,” he said. “It’s a way to put myself on the sexuality spectrum in a way that feels comfortable to me without defining myself more than I need to.”

KC Cross, a former college basketball player, didn’t start fully exploring their queer identity until they were 26 or 27 years old. They credit young people with pushing them to engage in deeper introspection. As a therapist, Cross, who’s now in their early 30’s, was working with students who were active on Tumblr and other nascent social media platforms. The kids opened Cross’ eyes to new ideas.

“The thing I promised myself was I want to continue exploring who I am for the rest of my life,” Cross said. “I think that’s where it came from me — talking to more and more people. Reading a lot. I was like: ‘queer.’ That word doesn’t offend me at all. It feels right. It feels good. I feel like that’s a word I can take back for myself.”

KC Cross recently proposed to their fiancee, Megan Pearson.
Photo Provided

For Golaube, the label “queer” encompasses all of his qualities. “I embrace both my masculinity and femininity,” he said. “(Queer) puts the two pieces together, and it’s kind of how I live my life.”

The relationship between queerness and bisexuality

Last month, I spoke with an array of young bisexual athletes who are fighting against bi-erasure. Duthart was one of them. While she embraces the word “queer,” she also admits to using it out of necessity.

Oftentimes, she feels judged when describing herself as bisexual to other members of the LGBTQ community. In her experience, it plays better to be queer.

“I’ve struggled a little bit with being identity as an ‘other’ in the community with the term ‘bisexuality,’” she said. “So I think it fits me a little more nicely and allows me to be a little bit more involved.”

Gunn feels similarly. He says he feels safer calling himself “queer” rather than bi in queer spaces.

“There is pretty significant biphobia, and I almost feel like, not afraid, but even when I mention it to people, they look at me differently,” he said. “When I mentioned it to queer people, they’re like, ‘he’s not queer queer. He’s bi.’ I’m like, ‘No, that’s not how that works.’”

Duthart’s and Gunn’s stories are a reminder that progress isn’t linear. There remain gross prejudices and biases within our own community that must be eradicated.

The good news is, the kids are in position to do it.

It’s a queer future

In recent years, Rafferty has seen an increasing number of patients at his pediatrician practice who don’t ascribe themselves to one particular label. Generation Z is challenging our preconceived notions about gender and sex.

“Kids and teens are coming in and really pushing our conceptualization around the labels that we use,” he said. “I think more and more, we will continue to see an increasing trend in people who don’t want to be labeled.”

Calling oneself “queer” is a way to be labeled without being labeled. That’s what Bethell likes the most about the word: Its meaning is ambiguous.

“I just know that I’m queer, I’m myself, and I can accept that and not have to worry about it so much,” he said. “That’s what I love about the word. It’s just one thing, it’s easy, and nobody really knows what it means, so it just allows me to be myself.”

“Queer” is all-encompassing. Cross says it covers their identities as Black and nonbinary, and leaves room for evolution. “Queer just takes care of everything, and if people want more details of what that means, I’ll go into it,” Cross said.

Ditto for Duthart.

“I have this attraction to men, women, nonbinary, it doesn’t really matter to me,” she said. “I probably can be described as someone who’s under that pansexual umbrella, but ‘queer’ is, like, super everything to me.”

A lot of young people agree — “queer” fits just right. The queers are here, and they aren’t going anywhere.

Get used to them.