If you are a journalist and you want to write about queer people, you may do better to refer to a much more official source: the GLAAD Media Reference Guide. But here are my thoughts.
One of the worst things about language when it comes to the queer community, and why I think it is important to discuss, is this idea people have that queer people are easily offended, that we are always jumping down their throats when they say the wrong thing. Even the word “queer” is a slur that may have been used against older LGBT people, and for those and other reasons, some may object to it. However, I think that any and every word we ever use to describe ourselves, will be made into an insult in the mouths of others, will be used to cause some of us fear. Thus, there is no “right” way to talk about queer people; I use the word queer because it is best for me and others with whom I am beginning to find community. And it is never good when people are held back, by fear of using the wrong language, from having useful conversations about and with queer people.
So, whether you’re straight and cis or you’re queer like me (I am a cis woman and I date women), your use of words may offend people. It is because people have been hurt. It is not always your fault. If you want to mitigate this problem, though, make sure the emphasis is on the people you are talking about. Say “queer people” or “homosexual people” or “pansexual people”, rather than “queers” and “homos” and so on, even if you hear others using such words in casual conversation. Try to relate to queer people mentally, as well–if you can’t, talk to us and look for personal stories, I guarantee it will help.
The same goes if you’re cis, queer or not, when it comes to being a trans ally. Remember “trans” is an adjective too: say “trans woman” when you mean a woman who was assigned male at birth, and when you say “women” you should mean “cis or trans women”, and if you’re talking about people with certain genitals, you can say “assigned female at birth” or “AFAB”. When it comes to the meaning of my words, I usually agree with Natalie Reed’s glossary, though our usages of “queer” differ somewhat as explained. I have increasingly found her highly capable of helping many queer people understand our own experiences, giving us a place to talk without hostility, and giving respect to others she interacts with. Furthermore, her writing has empowered me to be a more active trans ally, rather than afraid of doing it wrong.
When someone objects to your words, say sorry; explain that it is the best word you have on hand; listen to them if they give alternative suggestions; try not to feel too paranoid and guilty, or invest all your self-worth into being a good person and having everyone see your good intents. I found this post by an anti-racist blogger, Talking the Tightrope, to be quite relevant in this case. It was sort of amazing to me, learning to be a trans ally, to realize that most (if not all) transgender people I talk to, who wanted to be part of a larger community of transgender people, have the same fears that I had, of offending others. But in retrospect, I should not have been surprised.
To me, the word “queer” is a statement of political alliance between people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, and/or transgender. It may also include some people who identify as intersex or asexual, and perhaps some other identities, because the word to me means anyone whose gender and sexuality does not conform to what society is telling us it should right now. However, I have heard intersex people raise objection to being lumped in with LGBT people; also, some asexual people may be hetero-romantic (that is take opposite-sex partners), and thus might or might not identify as queer. Also, when anyone says “queer”, they definitely include LGBT people under that term (unless they are failing to consider that transgender people exist, and they may do this even if they say LGBT). That is how I have used these words.
Furthermore, I don’t usually include straight cis people who are polyamorous or BDSM oriented, under queer. They may have reason to join the alliance, but the common thread of queerness I think is about gender nonconformity (and this includes sexual orientation as part of gender), not sexual nonconformity. Why? Because while queer people may be denigrated for our sexual practices, those among us who are most visibly gender-nonconforming are the biggest targets. It is for gender nonconformity that people must live in fear of violence, and that includes walking around with a partner presenting the same gender; nonstandard sexual practices get you marginalized and misunderstood in society, but as far as I know they don’t cause the kind of everyday fear that you get when you live under oppression. I’m not saying any individual can’t identify as queer. I am saying that when I talk to a straight cis person about coming out because I am a cis woman who prefers to date women (cis or trans! Obviously!), and they compare this to coming out as polyamorous, we are not talking about the same thing. Yes, there are people who accept same-sex couples but not polyamorous families. And I should have this conversation with many more people before prouncing definitively that poly people are not oppressed–don’t take my voice as an authority on that, it is just my thinking to date. But, just as I keep in mind that the “closet” means very different things to transsexual people than it does to me, I ask people in cis opposite-sex relationships to make sure they really are empathizing with the fears that queer people have, rather than trying to make our stories your own.
In summary, to me, “queer” is a political term. “LGBT” is the demographic term that I use to refer to people who are queer, because most queer people fall loosely under one or more of those labels. This post will probably expand as I need it to, and may change as my thinking changes. If it changes a lot, I’ll explain my previous articles that link to this.