Alex Blaze

Language gap

Filed By Alex Blaze | March 12, 2008 3:54 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: France, language, queer

Here's a letter to the editor printed in the Arizona Republic from someone who I'm sure is sweet:

Call me of the older generation, but I remember a time when to be identified as gay was to be identified as a happy, outgoing guy. Let's Be Happy Let's Be Gay Let's Declare a Holiday was a popular song.

I feel disenfranchised. I cannot say in mixed company that I am feeling gay. I would get looks.

I have nothing against the people who are of that genetic disposition. But please, come up with another widely approved description!

Well, it's a little too late to ask for "gay" to stop referring to homos. But what's interesting is this seems a lot to me like some in the community who ask us to stop using the word "queer," still believing that there's really much of a debate over the word.

What exactly should replace "gay"? Andrew Belonsky ponders:

Hmmm, "faggot" is probably out, as is the truncated "fag". Many people may find "Poofta" objectionable and "butt-fucker" far too crude. We've always been a fan of "homo," but have a feeling people won't agree.

I've been trying to figure out the words for queers out here in France. They use "homo" and it's the generally-used word, not offensive at all, but since they usually refer to "les homos et les lesbiennes," I'm guessing it's just the boys.

There's no "queen" out here, but there is "pédé." When I was visiting a boy up over winter break, he was reading something I wrote here and translated my use of the word "queer" as "pédé," but it also gets translated as "faggot." Not the same thing at all to me, although my kids call each other "pédé" sometimes and then the others tell on them.

I've seen "gay" and "gai" around here since so much gay slang in this country comes from America (a magazine I bought listed 50 essential gay words, almost all were from English, like "bear," "lipstick lesbian," and "metrosexual"). But then I was reading a column in which a homo said that he was "gai," not "gay," but he didn't explain the difference and he sounded kind of angry so I let it go. The magazine cover used the word "gay" 4 times.

Then there's the language for the T-folk; the word I see most often is "travesti." I'm guessing it's related to "transvestite," not at all the same as "transgender" or "transsexual." But am I the only one who thinks it looks a lot like "travesty" (which, incidentally, my dictionary says is "travestissement")?

Oh, and there are "drag queens" here. But say "size queen" and people will think you're shopping for a bed.

Then I realized that I was once again looking for word-for-word translations, a way of expressing the exact thoughts I think in English in French, just pop in new words. I ought to know better than that after a year and a half living in this country, but I can't help sometimes thinking that others' thought patterns are the same as mine, just with different knowledges and experiences but the same fundamental ways of processing information.

What I'm beginning to see is that there are things in this language that are different not because they're just different languages, but because people are actually thinking of these issues differently. Could it be that the gap between the people who oppose the word "queer" are actually thinking about sexuality in a notably different way than I am, that the difference runs deeper than the word itself?

I think that the letter above shows that deep disconnect. He doesn't suggest going back to the word "homosexual," probably because the baggage associated with that term is very different from the baggage associated with "gay." He doesn't have a replacement in mind in much the same way I can't think of another word that captures the meaning of the word "queer."

His asking that we stop using the word "gay" to refer to homos 40 years after "Gay is good" makes for an interesting language argument in much the same way arguing the word "queer" shouldn't catch on 15 years after it did. But the fact that I don't really know of a good replacement that expresses what "queer" gets at means that I'm stuck using it.

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Michael Bedwell | March 12, 2008 5:49 PM

I’ve had the same problem verifying a “neutral” equivalent of “gay” with German friends. But your assertion vis-a-vis the US.....” still believing that there's really much of a debate over the word”.... is myopic to say the least unless you meant “the debate over ‘queer’ is over....some people, particularly many simply young and many in academic bubbles, think it’s cool while the majority of gays and lesbians think it’s silly ‘linguistic chic’ that will pass in time.”

“The Advocate” raised the question “Is Gay Over?” in 2006. The answer, and I use the term lightly, was that both self-concepts and accepted terminology for them are in flux.

“Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, is a bit more sanguine when asked about this quandary. ‘We as a movement’, he says, ‘can take real pride that we opened this door for young people to be much more fluid about sexuality, gender, gender roles, orientation [and] sexual behavior than any other generation in history. That's what the gay movement has contributed to society, and that's a tremendously good thing ... That said, our legal culture and our rhetorical culture has not at all caught up with that. ... gay is the word. Sometimes it's gay and lesbian, but gay is not going to leave the lexicon in my lifetime’." “The Advocate,” June 20, 2006.

As I recall, the article’s accompanying poll reinforced Foreman’s perception in spades with only 4% of respondents saying they called themselves “queer.”

Everyone raise his/her hand who’s ever said, “Mom, Dad, I’m queer.”

And I’ll pay $100 to anyone who can find a copy for me of the ancient “TV Guide” containing a letter to the editor complaining about how any gay male character on TV always seemed to be named “Bruce.” The non-Sodomite/pederast/Uranian/Urning/homosexual/gay/queer author was himself named Bruce and was concerned about potential mistreatment of his son, Bruce Jr.

I wasn't saying that everyone self-identifies as queer. I was saying that debate as to whether the sky would fall if we start calling ourselves that, or the debate over whether the word could be used to describe something different than gay or lesbian do, has gone to one side. Sure there are still people who discuss the issue, just like the guy in the paper who didn't like the fact that homos use the term "gay."

Everyone raise his/her hand who’s ever said, “Mom, Dad, I’m queer.”

My point exactly. Queer isn't a sexual identity, or at least that's not how I see it, it's a social/political identity. So, as I asked above, where's the replacement for that?

truth be told, who needs labels? i wouldn't mind dropping black or african american, either. they aren't correct. why not just people? i happen to be attracted to other men or women or identify as masculine or feminine - why do we need these definitions and names that we can call ourselves and each other...

**Raises hand**

Except it was more like, "Honey, do you think you might be bisexual?"

"Well, mom, and mom, actually I'm queer."

I'm not looking for queer to replace the term gay. While sometimes queer is used as an umbrella term, in most cases it has a very different meaning than the word gay. I have a hard enough time calling myself bisexual or lesbian (as opposed to pansexual and a dyke), but I don't think that I could ever call myself gay -- it just doesn't connect with my identity and who I am.

Sure not everyone in the wider LGBT community identifies as queer, but not everyone in the wider LGBT community identifies as trans either. That doesn't make my identification as either any less valid. Do you know that commonly experienced ah-hah moment when you first hear the word 'gay' explained and you think "Wow that's me! There must be others like me too"? Well, it never worked out that way for me with the term 'gay', (or lesbian or bi), but it did for 'queer'.

I don't need other people to give up their labels and become queer, but I do need people to respectfully acknowledge that I am and that folks like me deserve a place in this movement (and perhaps in the acronym). I'm happy to say that in many places we're already a part of both.

Why does it have to be one way of speaking about our community? While we lump "asian" together, it includes many different groups that seem to be broken down by nationality and some major differences in lifestyle/nationalism/group think. Put a Muslim Malaysian next to a Hindu Indiana next to a Shinto Japanese next to a Buddhist Tibetan and see if you can guess who's who based on something as petty as "Asian." They are fabulously diverse and just glossing over the diversity with one generic term seems rather silly. I think the same thing of our community while realizing we want it for the same reasons "Asian" came to be. We like to generalize.


how about if we generalize with the word "people"? as you pointed out, the diversity of the asian population makes the term mean almost nothing. a samurai warrior has little in common with the buddhist monk. certainly, they are all people. some have a chinese heritage, some have a japanese heritage. which in turn could mean a million different things. all of the divisions which we create are false. except one. our common humanity. i think here in america, the melting pot, we all call ourselves americans. and things go downhill from there. maybe our minds just aren't big enough to grasp how small we are - and how unique just being human can be.

Well, I have always identified myself as queer, that is when I finally started being me. Before I was just "me".

When I first went to my psychitrist, she asked me if I was gay, and since I liked women, I said yes. So she says, 'so you date guys?'
I said 'No, I am a lesbian, I date women.'.
'I don't understand?'.
'Well, you are thinking of me as a guy, but I'm not a guy.'.

She had trouble getting her mind around a gender identity that did not match the birth gender. To her, how could a 'guy' who liked women, be gay?

Which brings up the point that, gay means a couple of things, it can be an umbrella term, used to denote any homosexual, or it can be a term to denote a male homosexual. Language is pretty fluid, and in many cases, contextual. To me, queer covers who I am, a non-gender and non-sexual conformming person.