One of the big issues in the LGBT community at the moment is the whole issue of language, labels, and identity. So I figured I’d do yet another post that takes an historical perspective on this issue. I’m gonna paint in some broad strokes and I fully admit that I’m not equally well-versed in the history of every term and every group I’m going to discuss, so please forgive any lack of nuance or small errors (but feel free to correct any major errors).
Historically, Western society possessed very few words to describe men and women who engaged in same-sex sexual activities. None of these words applied to the people’s identities, only their sexual activities. In the Early Modern period, ‘ganymede’ (a reference to Greek mythology, where Zeus kidnaps the beautiful young Trojan prince to make him his cupbearer) was a poetic way to refer to men who had sex with men; ‘catamite’ was a more derogatory term for the same thing (growing up, I remember looking up the word in a dictionary and finding the rather vague definition “a boy kept for unnatural purposes”). Women who had sex with women might be called ‘tribades'(from a Greek word meaning ‘to rub’). In the 18th century, ‘Molly’ was used in English to describe men who dressed as women, and less commonly to suggest a very masculine woman. ‘Molly’ might also have included modern trans women in a vague way. The only other word related at all to trans identity was ‘hermaphrodite’, designating people today termed ‘intersex’, but these were regarded as rare freaks of nature to be wondered at, not as an identity one might claim.
In the 19th century, with the rediscovery of the poetry of Sappho of Lesbos and the realization that she was writing love poetry to women, ‘sapphic’ and ‘Lesbian’ became common euphemisms for such women, and ‘tribade’ fell into obscurity. This word has endured in part because it’s less inherently derogatory than many other early words for gays and lesbians. Gay men were euphemistically referred to as “backgammon players” and “gentlemen of the back door” (which is NOT a reference to anal sex; it means that they are so disreputable that they sneak into and out of buildings by the back door).
The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the emergence of the scientific study of sexuality, and with it there was an effort to develop more clinic terms for those who had same-sex desires. ‘Homosexual’ was coined for both men and women, as was the more technical term ‘invert’, although ‘lesbian’ continued in use for women. ‘Transvestite’ and ‘transsexual’ emerged in the same period to describe trans people. These terms were beginning to signify identities more than specific acts; a person could now say “I am a homosexual” and mean that their desire was an inherent part of them and not simply a sex act they engaged in. This same period gave us clinical words for sex acts, such as ‘fellatio’ and ‘cunnilingus’. ‘Bisexual’ was coined to refer to those with both sets of genitals, while ‘ambisexual’ was proposed for what is today called ‘bisexuality’. Ultimately, though, by the 1920s ‘bisexual’ had come to primarily mean ‘attracted to both genders’, although as late as the 1960s, Star Trek’s Dr McCoy described tribbles as ‘bisexual’ when he probably should have said ‘hermamphroditic’.
Many of the early sexologists were themselves men who engaged in sex with men, so while these terms were clinical and antiseptic, they were an attempt by members of the community to label themselves. But these more clinical terms were not very satisfactory as identity labels and only ”homosexual’ slowly caught on. ‘Gay’ (which earlier had a meaning of ‘joyful’ or sometimes ‘promiscuous’) was becoming a derogatory term for homosexual men by the 1940s. ‘Dyke’ and the related ‘bulldyke’ and ‘bulldagger’ had emerged by the 1920s, from obscure origins. These slang terms were all used occasionally as self-identifications, but they were fairly vulgar, so their use was comparable to someone saying “I’m a cocksucker” or “I’m a carpet-muncher”.
In the 1950s and 60s, the language used within the community focused a bit more on gender presentation. Men with a conventionally masculine presentation were ‘butches’ while more effeminate men were ‘queens’. Men who wore women’s clothing were ‘drags’, a term that could be used of both today’s drag queens and trans women. What we call drag queens today were more likely to be called ‘female impersonators’. Gay men were also widely ridiculed for lacking the masculinity that was required of mid-century men; terms like ‘sissy’, ‘fairy’, ‘nellie’, ‘swish’, ‘Nancy boy’, ‘pansy’, and ‘limp-wrist’ all emphasized the idea of gay men as failed, effeminate men. ‘Queer’,’fag’ and ‘faggot’ were more general-purpose insults. Organizations that pushed for gay rights, such as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis favored the more respectable-sounding ‘homophile’, but that term faded out in the early 1970s.
The Stonewall Riots, however, touched off a wave of efforts articulate a positive identity for homosexuals by ‘reclaiming’ the main words that existed for gays and lesbians. Reclaiming focused (and still does) on taking words that had been insults and using them as positive terms for identity, thereby robbing the words of their power to hurt. The first word reclaimed was ‘gay’, as seen in 1970s’ slogans such as “Gay is Good” and “Gay Pride”. In this period, ‘gay’ more specifically applied to men than women, but it could also be used to refer to everyone that we would today consider LGBT. Thus lesbians often called themselves gay. (We can still see vestiges of this in terms like ‘gay rights’ and ‘gay marriage’, which are understood to include both men and women). As a child of the 70s, I often still use the word this way in my head. ‘Lesbian’, however, continued to be used and by the end of the 70s the term ‘gays and lesbians’ was often short-hand for the whole community. Trans people were often not seen as being a separate identity, with many assuming that trans women were just extremely effeminate gay men and trans men extremely butch lesbians. Modern ‘drag queens’ were emerging by this point, further confusing the boundary between gay man and trans woman.
But there were other efforts to reclaim hateful words. Harry Hay’s Radical Fairies group sought to reclaim a ‘lost’ feminine sensibility among men and destigmatize the notion that gay men can be effeminate. Many lesbians reclaimed ‘dyke’ and groups such as Dykes on Bikes celebrated butch lesbian identity and presentation. ‘Butch’ emerged as a common term for lesbians with a more masculine presentation, while ‘lipstick lesbians’ were more traditionally feminine. Radical feminists both straight and lesbian sought to ‘reclaim’ the word ‘woman’ by changing it into ‘womyn’ to ‘take the man out of it’. By the late 80s, the radical AIDS organization ACT-UP was defiantly embracing ‘queer’ as an identifier with slogans like “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!”, which was chanted at protests and rallies. These helped forge a safer space for the LGBT community by weakening the power of hateful slurs. This project still continues, which a subset of submissive men seeking to reclaim ‘faggot’.
Despite all the reclaiming, however, in the period from the 70s in the early 2000s, most members of the community probably thought in terms of four major categories: gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transexuals, and may or may not have thought of ‘queer’ as an umbrella term (some older members of the community found ‘queer’ to be too hateful to be comfortable identifying that way and more assimilationist gays sought to separate themselves from the radicals who embraced it). Thus the term ‘LGBT’ took form by the end of the 90s, although the ‘alphabet soup’ continued to slowly expand in the 2000s with new groups coming forward and asking to be included such as ‘questioning’ (which in the 80s and 90s would have been called ‘bi-curious’), intersex (in place of the early ‘hermaphrodite’), ‘asexual’ and ‘agender’. (In the late 1990s, the Onion ran an article that poked fun at the string of letters by featuring a quote from the non-existent Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian and Bisexual and Transsexual and Transgender Alliance, or LAGALABATATA for short. I still cackle every time I think of that joke.) Thus ‘LGBT’ is often now ‘LGBTQIAA+’, although for some this raises questions about whether such an expansive definition is really a single community.
In the past decade or so, we’ve seen the development of a much more nuanced and precise categorization based around four axes of gender identity, gender presentation, sexual orientation, and romantic orientation, so that it is possible to identify, for example as a woman with a masculine presentation who is bi-sexual but hetero-romantic. Categories such as ‘gender-fluid’ , ‘pansexual’, and ‘non-binary’ have emerged. Trans people have gradually worked through a series of terms moving from ‘transvestite’ and ‘transsexual’ to ‘transgender’ and now more simply ‘trans’.
But the emergence of these new categories has led to some conflict and frustration within the community. Boomer and Get X members of the community generally came out at a time when there were a very limited number of identities to choose from, so that we generally sought out the category that most closely matched our feelings and then embraced that label. Thus I briefly identified as ‘bisexual’ before finally embracing ‘gay’, even though being ‘gay’ meant joining a category that included men whose gender presentation was far more effeminate than my own. Thus to me, ‘gay’ represents a wide range of possibilities: men who exclusively have sex with men, men who prefer sex with men but are married to women, men who are leather daddies, men who are drag queens, and so on. My 89-year-old mother identifies as a lesbian despite being married to a man for 20 years and having 4 sons before having two female partners but still admitting that she might theoretically be willing to have a relationship with a man. Thus she and I both ’rounded up’ into a broad category that fit us better than the other categories might have. The benefit of this approach is that it creates a broad, inclusive community, which is quite useful both for partner-seeking and for political activism, while the drawback is that it lumps me in with people whose own identity might sometimes feel very different from my own and therefore leaves me uncertain about how much we truly share.
In contrast, Millennials and iGens have increasingly done something different. Instead of settling for ’rounding up’ into a broad category, these younger generations have shown a tendency to craft very precise categories that reflect the nuances of their self-identity by charting them on multiple axes, so that whereas I identify as gay, a younger man might specify that he is homosexual but heteroromantic with a masculine presentation or something like that. The benefit of this approach is that it is precise and highly nuanced, while the drawback is that it puts the user in a much smaller category than ‘gay’, which may lead the person to feel alienated from others who don’t fit into the same precise category. A Millennial friend of mine who does sex education work once joked that “My sexuality is Purple. Why can’t I find any other Purples?”
The result is that older and younger members of the community often have trouble around the use of various terms. Older LGBTs sometimes feel that younger LGBTs are fussy, prone to taking offense about terminology, and ignorant of LGBT history, while younger LGBTs sometimes accuse older LGBTs of using offensive language and not respecting their identities. A case in point is the evolution of the word ‘tranny’. The term originated in Australia in the late 1980s and was originally coined as a word that could include both male-identifying drag queens and trans women. Its use spread to the United States and in the 1990s it was a very common and endearing term intended to foster a sense of community. However, in the past decade or so, the term has come to seen as a slur, in part because Christian Seriano used the term a great deal while he was on Project Runway‘s 4th season (where he sometimes described things as a “hot tranny mess” or the like); his use of the term seems to have brought it into the wider straight community and it started being directed toward trans people in a more derogatory fashions, with the result that younger trans people came to see it as offense. In 2014, drag queen RuPaul’s use of the word (and the word ‘she-male’) were criticized as transphobic, an accusation that seemed shocking to older LGBTs considering the work RuPaul had done to popularize drag as an art form and to deconstruct the rigid gender binary of 20th century culture. A similar dispute is the argument over whether ‘queer’ is an insult or a valid identity.
The problem here is that older LGBTs took a very different approach to language than younger ones have. Boomer and Gen X members of the community lacked a vocabulary and therefore tended to repurpose existing words through reclamation. We lived through a period when all the terms available to us were negative and therefore reclaiming was a way to assert control and to carve out a sense of pride in the face of a hostile culture. Younger members of the community grew up in a society that had more space for alternative sexualities and gender identities and therefore had the space to craft a more nuanced and complex approach to those issues. They often lack the awareness of the history of the terminology they criticize.
Both approaches have a lot of value. The practice of ’rounding up’ in a few broad categories allowed LGBT people to pull together for solidarity, political organizing, and protection, and made it easy to find kindred spirits in a pre-internet world. It allowed the community to speak with a unified voice as it fought to legal rights, AIDS research, and social acceptance. The ‘nuanced identity’ approach allows the user to craft a custom suit instead of having to choose something off the rack. Language matters, and having a vocabulary that reflects your internal feelings matters enormously, especially to those who are early in the process of crafting a sexual identity. Older gays had to develop thick skins to turn slurs into terms of pride, and while I sometimes worry that younger LGBTs aren’t tough enough, at the same time, they shouldn’t have to be tough. They deserve a world that values them as much as it values straight people, even if my cold, cynical Gen X heart doubts they will ever get that.
The lesson here is for older LGBTs is that the younger generations grew up in a different environment than we did and their worldview is in some ways simpler and in other ways more complex than ours, which means they have different concerns and need different language to express those concerns. They are living in the world we fought for them to have, so let them enjoy the acceptance we often didn’t get. The lesson for younger LGBTs is that just as the old language doesn’t suit your needs, in twenty years your language will probably not suit the needs of the next generation, so don’t tear down the previous generations or else you risk being torn down in turn when you’re the ‘out of touch’ ones. Learn the history of your community and don’t expect your elders to always reflect your sensibilities. Demanding acceptance requires you to give acceptance.