Sunday, March 1, 2009

What's In a Name?

For some reason the word gay seems to upset a lot of people. Since the early 70s when the gay liberation movement made its presence known in the straight media, many straights have protested this act of cultural appropriation. “I can't say 'How gay I feel!' any more,” they complained. “And besides, homosexuals are miserable, not gay!” As late as 1999, news commentator Daniel Schorr digressed during an NPR tirade against the abuse of language by politicians to denounce gay as Orwellian doublespeak.

But it wasn’t only straights who objected to gay. Many older queers (of roughly my parents’ generation and older) disliked the word. From the 1970s I remember Christopher Isherwood, egged on by Dick Cavett, cackling, “Oh, fag, queer, anything but gay!” And Gore Vidal told Fag Rag at around the same time,
I prefer the word faggot which I tend to use myself. I have never allowed, actively, in my life the word “gay” to pass my lips. I don’t know why I hate that word ... Also, I mean, historically it meant a girl of easy virtue in the 17th century. They’d say: “Is she gay?” Which meant: “Is she available?” And this, I don’t think, is highly descriptive of anybody. It’s just a bad word. You see, I don’t think you have to have a word for it. This is what you have to evolve. These words have got to wither away in a true Hegelian cycle.
Okay, we all have our linguistic bugbears. (Mine is family, as in "Is he ... family?", which is used as ingroup code exactly as gay used to be before it went public.) Yet faggot, which historically means a bundle of sticks, doesn't seem that much more descriptive of anybody than gay. Whatever it meant in the 17th century (and a host of other words have also changed their meanings since then), gay hadn't meant a girl of easy virtue, especially in American English, for quite some time before we homosexuals recruited it. But something else occurred to me while I was rereading Vidal's Fag Rag interview: he's always insisted that homosexual is an adjective describing sexual acts, not a noun referring to a kind of person. So, given his position on the matter, how does Vidal justify using a noun like faggot? Not, you understand, because it's derogatory, but because it seems to refer to what Vidal usually called a "homosexualist" as a separate kind of person. But that's another issue, for (I hope) another day.

For now my point is that Vidal admitted himself that his dislike for the word had no rational or even conscious basis. And lately I've been noticing more and more queerfolk who object vehemently to the word gay. When I read Will Fellows' Farm Boys (Wisconsin, 1998), I thought at first that his informant Lon Mickelsen was a random blip. "I've never liked the word 'gay'," Mickelson said. "It doesn't bother me much now, but I used to choke on that word. It seemed like a derogatory term, like black people calling each other niggers." I've often heard gay men, especially of my generation, make exactly the same complaint about queer, so I thought at first that Mickelson had confused the two terms. But since then I've encountered other people who said essentially the same thing. Now that gay has become established as a schoolyard insult, I suppose we're going to see a generation of queer kids who first encountered it as a derogatory term, and can't understand why the gay movement chose such an awful, vulgar word. And because it's engraved that way in their brain paths, they'll probably never be able to hear it differently.

I'm not particularly wedded to gay myself, but I still see its advantages. (That's due to the historical moment in which I am encased, like a fly in amber.) As Edmund White wrote in 1980,
Many homosexuals object to gay on other grounds, arguing that it's too silly to designate a life-style, a minority or a political movement. But, as the critic Seymour Kleinberg has mentioned in his introduction to The Other Persuasion: Short Fiction About Gay Men and Women, "For all its limitations, 'gay' is the only unpompous, unpsychological term acceptable to most men and women, one already widely used and available to heterosexuals without suggesting something pejorative." Gay is, moreover, one of the few words that does not refer explicitly to sexual activity. One of the problems that has beleaguered gays is that their identity has always been linked to sexual activity rather than to affectional preference. The word (whatever its etymology) at least does not sound sexual.
To this I'd add that for me, part of its appeal was that gay was our word for ourselves, not one that had its origins as an epithet hurled at us by straights. I've long thought that this was a major reason for so many heterosexuals' fury at our use of the word: they were supposed to decide what we were called, dammit! That has changed, of course; straights took gay back and made it into an insult, which I suspect was inevitable in a homophobic world. I don't believe there can ever be a word for a stigmatized group that will remain free of negative connotations for long; that's why people of African descent in the US, for example, have kept changing their chosen terminology for themselves, to the parallel annoyance of many whites. ("What do I have to call Them this week? First it was 'Negro,' then it was 'black,' then it was 'Afro-American,' now it's 'African-American.' Why can't They choose one term and stick with it?" It's at least partly because changing labels is necessary to stay ahead of the protean ability of white racism to adapt to changing conditions.)

Despite my preference for gay, though, I've answered to and claimed most of the older words, including the pejoratives. There's a term in contemporary critical theory, "interpellation," which means roughly "hailing," as in "Hey, you! Yes, you!" When a 'phobe yells faggot, fairy, pansy, queer, cocksucker, et cetera (and now gay as well), I am being interpellated, hailed. I see no point in pretending that he's not talking to me; by acknowledging the hail, I'm enabled to talk back, and goodness me, but bigots do squirm and whine when I interpellate them in return. A lot of queers try to evade stigma by defining such words narrowly, so that they refer only to a bad, despicable subset of the GLBTQ+π community -- dirty, promiscuous, low-class people who gyrate drunkenly on Pride parade floats -- not to respectable Homo-Americans like themselves. Even if they do gyrate drunkenly on a Pride parade float once a year, they're different from Those Others.

What I've been seeing lately has not been much concerned with what straights think, though. This is typical:
Yet despite my same-sex proclivities, I still hesitate to embrace the "gay" identity. What does "gay" even mean? My dictionary says it means happy, exuberant, y'know, gay. Well, I'm not exactly known as being Mr. Sunshine, especially not in a recession. Does being gay mean rainbows, wigs, drag, the latest anorexic fashions from Milan, Adonis-worship, behaving "effeminately" or (God forbid) voting Democrat? Margaret Cho once did a hilarious bit on a gay friend of hers who'd squeal with disdain at the mere thought of vagina - "Ewwwww...I don't want none of that! Ha ha...girl, I'm allergic!" I've had male friends of mine express similar sentiments. Well, that’s not me.
I wonder what dictionary this writer was using -- something from the 19th century, mayhap? A more up-to-date one would have informed him that in addition to happy and exuberant, gay means
3: given to social pleasures ; also : licentious
4 a: homosexual <gay men> b: of, relating to, or used by homosexuals gay rights movement> gay bar>
There's nothing there about effeminacy, or voting Democratic, or palling around with Margaret Cho. Indeed, today's well-informed Homo-American ought to be aware of the existence of Gay Republicans, don't you think? As for "effeminacy," gay men have been trying for decades to put this stereotype to rest, with the result that it requires real tunnel vision to ignore the existence of men who call themselves gay but are fully gender-compliant according to the National Bureau of Standards. If I were going to be charitable, I would have to posit that this writer has spent the past three or four decades sealed in a barrel, with his meals shoved in through the bunghole. But I'm not feeling particularly charitable, and I think it's more probable that he's simply refused to see the variety of homosexual people that was right in front of his face all along. Which is one of the defining qualities of a bigot, isn't it -- a person who watches a Pride parade and can only see the leathermen, the shirtless lesbians, the drag queens, while missing entirely the marching bands, the gay Catholics and Methodists, the gay Tech Geeks, the PFLAG contingent, the full range of people who comprise the GLBTQ population. Granted that there are many gay people who do try to narrow the definition of gay to one or another subgroup's real or imagined traits, my response has always been to insist on the variety that is there for anyone who cares to see it.

Not that this guy, or anyone else, has to "embrace the 'gay' identity." Just don't misrepresent it, okay? As I've written before, it seems to me the real complaint is not that gay is too narrow -- it's that it's too broad and all-embracing, and might embrace him if he's not careful.