What's the difference between lesbian and queer?
Lesbian is a specific identity that usually only refers to women who are exclusively attracted to women. Some people may use the term more broadly, i.e. some trans people who identify as having some affinity to womanhood or female identity (which can include both transfeminine and transmasculine people) and some people may use the term even if they're not strictly attracted only to women (i.e. if they're also attracted to nonbinary people or very rarely attracted to men.) but generally people who fall too far outside the "women attracted only to women" box don't use the term as much.
Queer is a broad term which refers to any person who is not cis, heterosexual, and "gender conforming". Queer can refer to sexuality, gender (genderqueer, which is closely related to nonbinary identity), and often is construed more broadly as to include people on the asexual spectrum and gender-non-conforming people who might not identify explicitly as trans or nonbinary.
Queer is particularly often used to refer to groups or aggregates of people ("I have a lot of queer people in my friend group.") or to refer to one's sexuality in the case that it doesn't fit into a box simple, such as a person who doesn't want to identify as gay, straight, or bisexual because these labels wouldn't communicate what the person wants to communicate. It's also frequently used by nonbinary people to describe their sexualities, because they identify as neither female nor male, so the reference points for "straight" and "gay" identities don't make sense for them and thus these labels may not feel comfortable for them.
Lastly, "queer" also can connote ways of experiencing or expressing sexuality or gender that deviate from norms, so for example, a gay man whose experience of sexuality deviates from that of most other gay men, anyone who is polyamorous, people who are into kink, and the like. These things alone usually don't lead to people identifying as queer, but in my experience people who experience more of these deviations are more likely to identify as queer.
Queer is a reclaimed slur, which means several things:
- Many people who might technically qualify as queer, don't necessarily want to identify that way.
- People can take offense at the word "queer", especially if it's used in a context that seems negative.
- The word can have somewhat of a political connotation. It is more likely to connote allegiance to left-wing politics than other words like "gay", "bi", or "trans".
When in doubt, *never* refer to a person as queer unless you are sure the person identifies that way and/or is comfortable being referred to in that way. And always be sure that, when you do use the word, it is in a context that would be interpreted as positive or supportive of queer people.