After the National Equality March wended its way through the nation’s capital this past October, the New York Times ran coverage of the event under the headline “Gay Rights Marchers Press Cause in Washington.” A year earlier, in the midst of California’s Prop 8 battle, American Apparel debuted its “Legalize Gay” t-shirts, which were scooped up by supporters of gay rights, gay marriage, gay adoption, and gays in the military. After Prop 8 passed, comedienne Wanda Sykes came out. She was very proud, she said, to be “gay.”
At the risk of seeming pedantic or quibbling, one might pause to wonder what ever happened to the word that once seemed to march so firmly hand-in-hand with “gay.” Whither “lesbian”?
It makes sense that the straight public and mass media have latched onto “gay” as their go-to term; it’s short, largely inoffensive, and widely understood, making it ideal for headlines, soundbites, and voluble public discourse. While “homosexual” is overly formal (not to mention long) and “queer” strikes some as harsh, “gay” is perky, conveniently monosyllabic, purportedly gender-neutral, and certainly less racy-sounding than “lesbian,” with its silky “zzz” sound. But why exactly has the nonstraight population allowed “gay” to slide so comfortably into ubiquity? Surely the lesbian—scratch that—gay female community could put up a fight if it wanted to. But it doesn’t seem to want to. Are women bored with the word? Do they dislike it? Have labels simply become less relevant?
Consult the sapphic elite, and you’ll hardly get a clear consensus on the issue. Asking women to reflect on the word “lesbian” is a bit like administering a smeary Rorschach test: You get little sense of the literal blob in question, but a good sense of where the blob-watcher is coming from. Many agree, however, that women’s increasing use of the word “gay” is in part a reflection of the lgbt population’s efforts to present a united, palatable front as they make the case that they’re “normal” enough to merit the freedoms taken for granted by the hetero mainstream. Buy into a widely accepted term, the thinking seems to go, and things will go a lot more smoothly.
As cultural critic Camille Paglia observes, “There’s been a real suppression of anything that makes gays different…. The new thing is normalcy.” Paglia, notorious for her acclaimed (and often contentious) writing on feminism, queerness, and sexuality, stands firm on this particular linguistic issue: Despite the word’s ebbing popularity, she’s a self-described lesbian.
Speculating on reasons for the ascension of “gay,” Paglia cites the streamlining of interests within the queer community. She recalls the radical activism and lesbian separatism of the 1970s, the aggressive partying and aids crisis of the ’80s, and the New York drag scene of the ’90s, all of which frequently placed LGBT men and women at odds, if not with each other, then certainly with social norms. Now, though, “We’re kind of post-aids, post-hedonism, post-everything, and I think it could be that gay men and lesbians have more common ground.”
And the past four decades have witnessed a shifting in terms as well as politics. In 1970, for instance, the New York Times reported on “Thousands of Homosexuals” gathering for Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day on the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots. In the mid-’70s, womyn-lovin’ folksinger Alix Dobkin was dropping tracks like “The Lesbian Power Authority” around the same time that women were leaving the Gay Liberation Front to found the Lavender Menace (later the Radicalesbians), which famously issued the document “The Woman-Identified Woman.” In 1983, cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s “Dykes To Watch Out For” debuted, and in 1987, the category listing homosexuality as a psychological disorder was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In 1997, Ellen DeGeneres appeared on the cover of Time, announcing, “Yep, I’m Gay.”
So now “gay” is the umbrella word, the common ground. Candace Walsh, editor of the forthcoming Seal Press anthology Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write About Leaving Men for Women, views that common ground as tremendously important. “The party line,” Walsh says, “has been that we all need to identify with the word ‘lesbian’ because there is strength in numbers. There are more numbers, however, if we identify as ‘gay,’ or ‘queer,’ and throw in our lot with gay men.”
But by throwing in one’s lot with the group one runs the risk of sacrificing individual concerns, as prominent queer theorist Judith “Jack” Halberstam points out. A professor at the University of Southern California, Halberstam recalls that in decades past, “you had to say ‘gay and lesbian’ just to recognize that women had different issues [than] men. But when everyone is just ‘gay,’ all the issues surrounding feminism in gay and lesbian communities go out the window.”
As does race. With its strong connection to (and history of usage by) the white male community, “gay” glosses over gender and race differences. Does its growing popularity signal an implicit waning of sensitivity to those differences? And what is the queer community based on, if not difference?
But back to Halberstam: The author of Female Masculinity considers “gay” a “cop-out word” and speculates that the term has proven attractive to queer women for its associations with the glammier side of gay male nightlife and its distance from whatever images of Birkenstocked stridency the word “lesbian” conjures up. Still, Halberstam doesn’t rush to the defense of “lesbian,” either, pointing to the limited scope of the word and its exclusion of transgendered, transsexual, and genderqueer people.
Halberstam initially came out as a lesbian, but now identifies as “transgender butch.” Halberstam’s preferred all-inclusive term is “queer,” a word that the author admits might be difficult for a larger audience to understand, given its other, less-savory meanings. But Halberstam doesn’t mind those other meanings. “When I see [queer] used in literature, it doesn’t mean ‘perverse’ so much as ‘odd’ or ‘strange.’ And I don’t mind having that association. I prefer it to the associations that ‘lesbian’ has, which are always sort of dowdy and unsexy. ‘Odd’ and ‘strange’ seem appealing after that.”
“Lesbian” is a word with a lot of cultural baggage—lesbians as lumberjacks, lesbians as granola-eaters, lesbians as porn stars, Catholic schoolgirls, gym teachers, cat owners, commune dwellers, braless separatists, goddess worshippers. For some women, that’s been enough to turn them off the word entirely.
Trish Bendix, a writer for AfterEllen.com, identifies as a lesbian, though she’s careful to use more inclusive descriptors like “out” and “sapphic” when writing. Some AfterEllen readers, she says, object to the use of certain words that have a history of negative associations, like “queer” and “dyke” (the James Dean, one might say, of lesbian terminology—definitely troublesome but totally dishy).
“Because ‘lesbian’ has served as such a specific term over time, it has almost become a dirty word, following in the sad footsteps of how ‘feminism’ has garnered a negative connotation,” observes Bendix. “That’s why so many lgbt women—especially younger ones—prefer to give themselves a different label, or no label at all.”
Those who’ve stuck with “lesbian” despite its disadvantages are, it seems, attracted by the word’s clarity and origins, or even a sense of loyalty to its history. Paglia, for one, connects her embrace of the word to her age. When she first learned the word “lesbian”—a term she describes as having a gratifyingly “militant edge”—Paglia was a high-school student in 1960s Syracuse, New York, who’d managed to get her hands on some issues of The Ladder, a newsletter distributed by the nation’s first lesbian-rights group, the Daughters of Bilitis. Founded in California in 1955, the group took its name from Les Chansons de Bilitis, a collection of verse, first published in 1894, that was supposedly the long-lost work of a Greek poetess who’d been a lady-loving contemporary of Sappho. (It eventually transpired that the Chansons were competent fakes; Belgian poet Pierre Louÿs, who claimed to be the poems’ translator, was in fact their author.)
Paglia points out that the invocation of Greek names such as Lesbos, Sappho, and the faux-Greek Bilitis to describe same-sex attraction once served as a significant bid for legitimacy, a reminder that same-sex love was centuries old and had been practiced by some pretty illustrious folks. “I always loved the historical associations of the word ‘lesbian’ with Sappho and that whole circle, the highly cultivated artistic center of early Greece,” Paglia says. “So to me, there’s a great historical loss in [the word’s decline], but what can one do?”
But perhaps the aesthetic merits of, say, Sappho’s Fragment 31 aren’t enough to convince some women that “lesbian” is a label worth hanging on to. Not that labels seem to mean very much these days. Look at erstwhile gal pals Lindsay Lohan and Samantha Ronson—words weren’t too important to describe their relationship; people mostly wanted the tabloid pictures. Major media outlets blithely refer to Rachel Maddow as “gay” and move on to more pressing issues. When Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi got married, more ink was spent describing Ellen’s tux than on what the newlyweds called themselves. Marriage, authority, kids, coming out, breaking up—not language or diagnosis or imprisonment in Reading Gaol—seem to be (if media coverage is anything to judge by) the primary concerns of 21st-century queerness.
It remains to be seen whether “lesbian” will become as truly unfashionable and functionally dead as prior terms (“sex-variant,” anyone?). As femmes, bois, transmen, queers, gay ladies, and the like step forward into a new decade armed with fresh terms—or no terms at all—it’s understandable that many of us will mourn the faltering word and fading history. (Gertrude and Alice! The little Ladies of Llangollen! Rita Mae Brown!) But how much real loss will ensue? And are we forever doomed to be preoccupied with labels? After all, decades ago some verbophilic ladies may have wrung their hands about the death of the word “invert,” lamenting the loss of a word that certainly wasn’t perfect, but had meant so much to so many.
R.F. McCann has written for the Washington Post, the Village Voice, and TheRumpus.net. Radclyffe Hall continues to be her all-time favorite invert.
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