By Charles Layton
I think I first started hearing the word gay in the very early 1960s.
Until then, the only neutral, non-insulting word I knew was homosexual, and that wasn’t completely non-insulting, especially in its shortened form, homo. Since homosexual was so dadgum polysyllabic, I reluctantly converted to saying gay.
Reluctantly, because the word seemed a misnomer. Gay had traditionally meant happy and exuberant. In my experience homosexuals weren’t any happier than straight people. Exuberant some of them were, but that emphasized a caricature – the flaming, lisping, San Francisco Halloween party aspect. Whereas most of the gay people I actually knew (and I didn’t know all that many) were rather serious types.
Anyway, gay really caught on. Within a few years it was impossible to sing “don we now our gay apparel” at Christmas time without thinking of the double entendre. Therefore, in some versions of “Deck the Halls” that line has now been changed to “Fill the mead-cup, drain the barrel.” If you look up gay in a dictionary these days, you’ll find that the first definition given is the homosexual one.
I don’t recall hearing the phrase “the gay and lesbian community” back then. The relationship between gay men and lesbians was often tense, partly because many lesbian feminists were aggrieved toward male power regardless of sexual orientation.
But in recent years the genders have formed a closer union because they share a common desire for equality under the law. And this is where the nomenclature gets complicated.
First there was the gay and lesbian community. Then the issue of bisexuals arose, and that group was included. “LGB” became the shorthand term for lesbian, gay and bisexual.
Sometime in the 1990s the term “LGBT” began to appear – the T standing for transgender, which pertains more to gender identity than sexual preference.
I found these initials hard to remember at first. I still have to pause and think before I say LGBT. But just as I’m starting to master this, along comes another component: people who are intersexual. The word intersex is used in place of the older term hermaphrodite. So now we sometimes see references to “the LGBTI community.”
But that’s not all. If you Google “LGBTIQ” you will find that this term stands for lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/intersexed/questioning. And if you add “asexuals” to the list, you get LGBTQIA.
This is at least a couple of bridges too far.
Partly, it’s just an effort to make everyone feel at home. According to an article on the “Sexual Orientation and the Law Blog,” this massing of initials — a rainbow coalition, you might say — seeks “to achieve a high degree of political unity among groups with diverse, potentially conflicting legal and policy issues. In principle, LGBTIQ activists wish to respect varied experiences of prejudice and discrimination resulting from non-conformity in terms of sexuality and gender expression. In practice, such activists recognize the strength of numbers and hope to attract all potential participants and supporters into a mostly unified social movement.”
That makes some sense, I suppose, legally and politically, although I’ve never heard of “questioning” people being discriminated against. I’m not sure I know what that designation means.
From a linguistic point of view, I wish we could fall back on gay as the general term. Sometimes we do. When people talk about “gay marriage” they mean same-sex marriage of either gender. When high school or college students form a “Gay-Straight Alliance” it is meant to include lesbians. Using gay in the all-inclusive sense is a simple solution. It’s what most of us do in conversation.
I predict that the alphabet soup approach will eventually die out. In the long run, language tends toward simplicity.