What is queer?

Last month Jules Scheele‘s and my new comic book – Sexuality: A Graphic Guide – came out. I’m also thinking and planning towards a fourth book in the series, on mental health, particularly after having such a tough couple of years with my own mental health, and continuing to learn so much through that process.

Thanks to an invitation by colleagues at the Scottish Parliament, I was recently drawn back to the question that started me working on this series of graphic guides back in 2014. That is how we can understand the word queer. You can check out our discussion here and I’ve written a few more thoughts below.

One of the reasons that my editor at Icon approached me to write Queer: A Graphic History, was that she came across presentation I’d once been asked to give about what the word queer meant. In that talk – and in the book that followed – I began by unpacking all the different meanings that the word can have, how these have shifted over time and location, and how the different meanings can co-exist as well as being contradictory in places.

While the Sexuality, Gender, and (hopefully) Mental Health and Love graphic guides don’t have the word queer in the title, they all take a queer approach, and they all dig deeper into themes and topics that were touched on in the first book. The word queer is often taken as a catch-all reclaimed word for marginalised sexualities and genders, but queer activism and queer theory have generally had a wider remit: to challenge any cultural ideals around what is ‘normal’, to reveal where they come from, and the systems of power these serve.

Queer approaches also question whether a person can have any kind of individual identity separate from the systems, structures, and cultural messages around them, and the impact that the sense that they do has on us. Like intersectional feminism, queer approaches recognise that the ways in which we experience ourselves are inevitably impacted by how we’re positioned in relation to gender, sexuality, race, class, disability, age, and much more – and that these aspects cannot be disentangled.

For these reasons it makes sense to me to be equally queer when it comes to writing about mental health and love as about gender and sexuality, and hopefully other writers in this series will take a similar approach to some of those other interconnected themes.

For example, the idea – and ideal – of being normal is pivotal to the way we’ve come to understand what is mentally healthy. Also we’re impacted by the legacy of the individualising of struggles which are due to social injustice or toxic cultures. Similarly, cultural norms of what love should look and feel like impact which relationships are, and aren’t, seen as acceptable and afforded legitimacy, and these are deeply connected to colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy. This is something that I explored a while back in my queer relationships zine which takes each different meaning of queer and applies it to relationships.

There’s more in this recent blog post about how we might question the cultural separation of gender, sexuality, mental health, and spirituality (as well as race, class, disability, ways of doing relationships, and so much more, of course). This one tackled how queerness can apply to creativity. Perhaps we can benefit from considering all aspects of identity and experience a little more queerly.

You can check out more of my posts, vids, and podcasts about queerness here, here, and here.

Patreon link: If you liked this, please feel free to support my Patreon.

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).


  1. stephen

    16 March

    meg-john says: ‘if you’re wondering about whether you’re queer enough… then you ARE queer enough’
    queer is a wonderfully inclusive and unbounded way of thinking about and being in the world

  2. stephen

    16 March

    ‘if you’re wondering about whether you’re queer enough… then you ARE queer enough’
    a wonderfully inclusive and unbounded way of thinking about and being in the world

  3. Miranda Jo

    25 May

    It’s great that more and more awareness is given to gender identity! Definitely helps the younger generation, even the older ones 🙂