What’s in a name? Whether you’re gay or straight, probably a lot more than you’ve ever considered.
By JOSH PARISH Special Edition Editor
As our asterisked title to this magazine suggests, labeling transgender, bisexual, lesbian and gay culture is more complicated than a college-level chemistry course and more detailed than the periodic table. When you’ve got a culture that crosses ethnic, class and gender lines, you’ve got a full party of identities to accommodate.
And since it’s kind of imperative that you use words when you write about something, I decided to go to an actual linguistics professor for some help.
William Leap, Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at American University in Washington D.C., is the founder of the Lavender Languages and Linguistics Conference, a forum that focuses on language pertaining to gay culture. Here’s what he had to say about some of the stickier sexual semantics:
Alternative Lifestyle __________________________________
“That’s a loaded term that turns up, isn’t it? Alternative to what? If a gay person says it, it could be a point of pride, but when a nonsympathetic person says it, it’s definitely not a compliment. It makes an assumption of choice.”
“This actually gets a lot of negative play within the gay community. It’s used as a form of derision. It supposedly refers to those who have sex with both sexes, but I also hear it being used by people who say they aren’t confined to labels.”
“This is actually more of an affirmative term for women and men. Which is ironic, because it assumes being more masculine is better. It probably sounds a little weird if your average housewife says it, but there’s nothing offensive by it.”
“Apparently not a negative term now. I don’t use it, but my students do.”
“We all know this from the high school locker room, and that’s why people usually avoid it. But I have a colleague who uses it in academic writing. I wouldn’t recommend it as a term that [straights] use with [gay] people if they were not very, very good friends.”
“One is never wrong using that term, specifically referring to men. Sometimes people use it as shorthand, appropriate for women and men, but it could be misunderstood it extends a masculine reference to women.”
“It should be purged from the language. It’s clinical, medical and just sounds negative.”
“Appropriate, though you might even find some women prefer to call themselves ‘a gay woman.’”
“This has two meanings:
In general, it can be anyone who is working against or cutting across conventional sex gender binaries. It can also be anyone who is not comfortably heterosexual, an effeminate boy, or anyone going against gender stereotypes.”
“Once derogatory, it became a term of identity in the 90s with people who didn’t identify with ‘gay,’ which had taken on a commercial club scene, lighthearted flavor. It’s not nearly as accepted outside of white circles as people might think. A National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce study in 2000 claimed 80 percent of African-American men and women reject it completely.”
“It’s a term that gets used a lot in lesbian gay circles. It’s much more polite than ‘het,’ which is a term of derision, but not a negative one. Lesbian gay folks seem more comfortable using that word.”