LAMBDA Volume 27: Issue 1
When Dealing With Identity
Politics, Proper Word Choice is Important
by Nick Shepard
What words do we (or should
we) use to describe ourselves and our communities? Does LGBTQ cover
all the bases? Where did "gay" and "lesbian" come from? And most
importantly, why does it matter? These were the questions on the minds
of LAMBDA writers when we revamped this publication last fall. We
found that before we could decide what term to use to describe
ourselves, we had to take a look at how sexual and gender minorities
have been labeled in the past. These labels at times have been
confusing, verbose, imprecise, contradictory and downright ridiculous.
In the late 19th century,
sexologists began to categorize human beings as distinct groups based
on their sexual behavior and desires. This new separation, couched in
medical and psychological terms, created a need for a semantic way to
distinguish these sexual outcasts. The people who nowadays are often
referred to as "gay" or "lesbian" at different times have been known
as inverts, sexual intermediates, Uranians, fairies, the third sex,
Urnings, and a host of other bizarre appellations. As the first sexual
minority organizations in the U.S. arose in the 1950s and 60s, most
members self-identified as homosexuals, a term coined by German
writer Karl Maria Kertbeny in 1868. Doctors and psychologists had
begun using the term decades earlier as a means of describing same-sex
desire and behavior as a pathology or disturbance.
During the 1960s, activists
were searching for a new vocabulary with which to define themselves.
Many turned to the term gay, a common slang for homosexuals for
decades, though largely unknown to the public. Charles Thorpe, one of
the founders of the Gay Liberation Front, offered the following
explanation for his chosen label: "Homosexual is a straight concept of
us as sexual. Therefore, we are in a sexual category and become a
sexual minority, rather than an ethnic group, a people! But the word
gay has come to mean (in its street usage) a life style in which we
are not just sex machines."
In the early 1970s, female gay activists inspired by the feminist
movement began speaking out against marginalization in gay rights
groups. Many dropped the common label "gay women" in favor of lesbian,
a more female-specific word derived from the Mediterranean isle of
Lesbos, home of the legendary woman-loving poet Sappho in the seventh
century B.C. As "gay" came to be seen less and less as a
gender-neutral term, U.S. organizations began to shift their names;
for example, UNC's first student group was founded in 1974 as the
Carolina Gay Association, but in early 1985 students changed the name
to the Carolina Gay and Lesbian Association.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, bisexual people began vocally
demanding inclusion into the gay and lesbian movement. In 1992, the
CGLA became Bisexuals, Gay men, Lesbians, and Allies for Diversity (BGLAD).
Also, transvestites, pre- and post-operative transsexuals,
cross-dressers, and others were uniting under the label transgender,
coined by activists in the 1970's as an umbrella term for
gender-variant people. Concurrently, "queer theory," a new academic
discipline theorizing sexuality as fluid and socially constructed gave
rise to the label queer, signifying a dynamic and unstable sexual
identity that operates outside of restrictive binaries. Queer,
originally meaning odd or different, has also come to be used as an
umbrella term for all those outside of the heteronormative framework.
In 2000, BGLAD changed its name to the Queer Network for Change in
most common term today used to describe our community is the acronym
LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender). LGBTQ is
sometimes used to include queer or questioning, and in this
publication and elsewhere LGBTIQ is used to include intersex
persons, born with "sex chromosomes, external genitalia, or an
internal reproductive system that is not considered 'standard' for
either males or females."
Some activists view LGBT(Q) as
ethnocentric, excluding especially persons of color who identify with
no label at all or indigenous conceptions, such as the Native American
Two-Spirit, mati (an African woman-loving female), or
countless others. Gender-queer (people with unstable or fluid
gender expressions), pansexual (people with the potential to be
attracted to all people, outside of a gender binary system), and
countless other labels have been claimed by individuals attempting to
navigate the turbulent waters of identity.
In a culture in which identity
politics still matter, the words we choose can exclude, reflect
phobias, and even reinforce oppressive hierarchies. Although our
choice proved difficult, LAMBDA has chosen to use LGBTIQ throughout
this publication in an effort to recognize the diversity in sexuality,
gender identity, sex designation and gender expression.