Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A little LGBTQ lexicon

Considering how popular a conversational topic we are these days, I thought it might be fun to develop a little LGBTQ lexicon, principally as a guide for folks who aren't. But those of us who are get a little confused about terminology, too, sometimes, so you never know who might find it handy. Language is fluid, so one person's interpretation or preferred usage won't be shared by all.

The basic rule is good manners, and yo mama should have taught you those. Just refer to people as they wish to be referred to and you'll be fine.

This nomenclature business began to flower during the late 19th century when scientists started to think  about a phenomenon around, so far as anyone knows, since the beginning of time: While the majority of the human population is attracted romantically and sexually to people of the opposite sex, a minority is attracted to people of the same sex.

The terms "heterosexual" to signify opposite-sex attraction and "homosexual" to signify same-sex attraction were invented about 1870 as a conversational convenience. Heterosexual remains broadly applicable. Those who aren't, however, sometimes refer to heterosexuals as "straight." If really cross, we might use the term "breeder." That would be bad manners.


People described as homosexual began fairly soon to move toward naming themselves, in part because "homosexual" seemed too clincial and to focus too exclusively on sexual acts --- and there's quite a bit more to it than that.

Today, homosexual remains a useful clinical term, but most of those to whom it is applied prefer in non-clincial discussions to use the terms "gay," "lesbian" or "LGBT," an acronym --- Lesbian plus Gay plus Bisexual plus Transgender with a "Q" often tagged on the end to represent "Queer," occasionally "Questioning."

Studious, pointed use of the word "homosexual" and avoidance of "gay" and other gay-preferred terms these days is a mark of fundamentalist, evangelical or other conservative Christians and/or right-wing politicians, a way of disrespecting those being talked about. However, if gay, your grandmother or the church lady next door also might refer to you as "homosexual" with no disrespect intended.

Here's a breakdown of the acronym "LGBT," slightly out of order.

GAY: Generally the descriptor preferred by men. Gay also is used universally in a more general sense to refer to both gay men and women, who when referred to as individuals tend to prefer the term "lesbian." Gay  is understood to be inclusive and can cover the entire LGBT spectrum.

LESBIAN: Generally the descriptor preferred by women, the word is derived from Lesbos, the name of the Greek island that was home to the poet Sappho.

BISEXUAL: Bisexual people, who as the term implies are attracted to and likely to fall in love with people of either sex, have challenges. Gay people historically have contended that bisexual people are just gay people in denial; heterosexuals, that bisexual people are just straight people in denial. The polite thing to do here is to allow bisexuals the courtesy of self-identification and not fuss about it.

TRANSGENDER: Transgender people's gender self-identity does not match the gender assigned by physical characteristics and/or assigned by others. Many transgender people prefer to live the gender they identify with and, when possible, physically transition to it through hormone therapy and/or reassignment surgery. The term is independent of sexual orientation; transgender people may identify as gay, straight or bisexual.

The key here again is good manners. Allow transgender people the courtesy of respecting their self-identify. It also is extremely rude, unless invited to do so, to inquire about the state or mechanics of an individual's transition process.

Transgender people, by the way are not "transvestites," a descriptor derived from the Latin "trans," or "across," and "vestitus," or dressed. Transvestites are people who enjoy dressing and acting in the style of the opposite sex, but are not necessarily gay or transgender.

Back when I was a pup, for example, many small-town fire departments and other male-dominated organizations included transvestites (or drag queens) who enjoyed dressing up in women's gear and performing at variety shows. There seems to be less of that going around these days.

Drag queens are males who dress as and adopt the perceived mannerisms of women in order to perform. Most are gay men; some are not. They are not, as a rule, transgender and live and appear otherwise as men.

QUEER: An initially derogatory term applied by heterosexual people with bad manners to gay people, then claimed by gay people to describe themselves. "Queer" also is used by people who prefer not to categorize themselves or who wish to exhibit solidarity with more than one orientation-related category.

It is a term best left to gay people these days. It would be fine, for example, for Michael Sam to call himself "queer," if he wished to do so. Should you decided to refer to the defensive lineman as "queer," however, it would be good to remember that are 260 pounds of muscle behind his fist.


Norm Prince said...

Thank you for the clarification of the terms best used today as I had a question about several of the 'labels' used. BUT coming from an older generation I continue to wonder why and am still a bit miffed as to why the word gay was appropriated to describe the males? I learned that word as another form of happy, cheerful, ecstatic, etc.

Frank D. Myers said...

I wish I knew why the term was appropriated, but I just don't. It's also caused folks with the surname "Gay" some consternation (some have gone so far as to undergo a name change). Lucas County has a "Gay Cemetery," named for the family; and its sign used to be stolen frequently. Something about "Gay Cemetery" was found amusing.