1« Bi, Gay, Open Minded, Lesbian, Drag, Fetish, Shemale, Glitz and Glamor… Total You. Total Mix. Total Fun. Darlink, you’re most welcome. Your hostess »1.
2Funny and provocative as it may seem, this message posted on Kinks & Queens, a gay Swedish website, not only reveals a visibility and culture that the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community was long compelled to hush, but it also confirms the existence of a lexicon not quite like standard English. From the darker ages when homosexuality was at its best a sin and/or a perversion until the present environment of rainbow flags and gay prides, gayspeak has been used to transgress social norms, articulate particular needs and emotions, as well as reconstruct, or re-interpret, reality. Giving voice to new perceptions of gender identity while reclaiming offensive terms and a lifestyle of their own, gayspeakers are deliberately asserting cultural and, to some extent, militant ambitions. When it comes to elaborate politically correct definitions of the « queer » universe, pink talk displays an extraordinary complexity of sexual orientations and subcultures, a possible means to compensate for linguistic deficiency and to claim a gay space on the social spectrum.
- 2 Publisher’s Review of Homophobia, A History.
- 3 Norton, « Queer Language ».
- 4 Systematic crackdowns on homosexuals were common
- 5 Baker & Tropiano, 86.
- 6 Haggerty, under the entry « camp ». Recorded in print for the first time in A Dictionary of Victori (...)
- 7 Clubs in 18th-century London, where homosexual men, « in addition to sex, came together for gossip, (...)
- 8 Norton, « Queer Language ».
- 9 See Murphy for full definition, under « Boston Marriages ».
- 10 Such « marriages » were formed by Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, or Jeannette Marks and Mary W (...)
- 11 Norton, « Political Definitions of the Lesbian ».
3In the Victorian era, « confess’d sodomytes » were punished with « forfeiture of all rights, including procreation »—in other words, castration, as related by Byrne R. Fone in Homophobia, A History (2001)2. Most male homosexuals therefore kept their sexual orientations very much in the closet unless amidst their kin when they called each other female names—« Miss Kitten », « China Mary », « Primrose Mary », and « Dip-Candle Mary »3—, a practice still familiar among contemporary gay men. Until World War Two, research on what was then labeled the « language of homosexuality » focused on gender inversion, with homosexuality being regarded as a pathology characterized as sexual deviance or perversion : whereas heterosexual language equated with the appropriate gender, homosexual language displayed frequent inadequacies between the physical gender and the linguistic gender of the speaker. In the repressive and security-concerned Cold War environment4, to talk about themselves, most gays and lesbians relied upon euphemisms such as « friends of Dorothy(‘s) », (after The Wizard of Oz, 1939, a classic musical popular with gay audiences), « whoopsies », « (s)he’s is a little... you know, or ‘that way’ », « one of them », or again « (s)he plays for the other team ». Until the advent of gay rights in the 1950s-60s, homosexuality meant being subjected to a life of secret codes, special rules, and specific passwords to access private clubs. Passing women (19th century cross-dressing women who « passed » as men) were often recognized as such only at their deaths or during illness5. In his essay A Critique of Social Constructionism and Post Modern Queer Theory, Rictor Norton explained that « all of the camp6 talk of the eighteenth-century mollies7, for example, was overheard by police constables who had infiltrated the molly houses ; such talk was virtually unknown outside the confines of a molly house »8. The term « Boston marriage » was one of those appellations which, as Rebecca James puts it, avoided the « derogatory medical diagnosis »9. Used in late 19th century New England, it was then a fashionable and « polite » phrase to qualify long-term relationships between two (high social status) women10. Yet, quoting Emma Donoghue’s Passions Between Women : British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801 (1993), Norton sustains that these « romantic friendships » have often been « invoked to neutralize and de-sexualize evidence »11.
- 12 Haggerty, under « gay language ». « Polari, an aggregate of gay varieties found in Great Britain, w (...)
- 13 Gill.
- 14 Baker, « Polari ».
- 15 Baker, « Polari ».
- 16 McLennan.
- 17 This acronym will be used throughout this study, although the « Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transge (...)
- 18 Norton, « Queer Language ».
4In the 1950s and early 60s, British (especially London) gay men spoke Polari12, a coded lexicon which allowed them to express their homosexuality publicly. Whereas few gays were acquainted with the glossary’s 500 words, all knew that bona meant « good », camp « effeminate, outrageous », and cod « awful »13. In his analysis of Polari, which he classifies « as a language variety, a sociolect, or an anti-language »14, Paul Baker, professor in the Department of Linguistics and Modern English Language at Lancaster University, UK, explains that men used Polari « as a form of protection and secrecy. It excluded outsiders who wouldn’t be able to tell what you were talking about, and allowed gay people to conceal their sexuality. It could be used to talk about other people while they were present, and was particularly useful when cruising with friends »15. Despite the achievements of gay rights, the stigma attached to a « love that dare not [always] speak its name », to quote Oscar Wilde, occasionally lingers in the way some gays use « them » to refer to their partners and « carefully word speech to hide explicit gender references »16. For many Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender—or LGBT17—people today, pink talk works as a cohesive force against discrimination, although they also admit that gay expressions have actually shifted from the physical confinement of the 18th century molly houses to a linguistic confinement. Whereas gayspeak displays limited cross-community use, it is not « a strategy for coping with or undermining straight culture » but rather « having cultural values for its own sake. The vast bulk of queer slang is created by queers to communicate with one another »18.
- 19 « Since the nineteenth century, lavender has been linked to homosexuality, sometimes seen as a blen (...)
- 20 See their website homepage at http://www.american.edu/cas/anthro/lavenderlanguages/ (...)
- 21 Betsch.
- 22 Macmillan Dictionary, « Lavender Language ».
- 23 Betsch.
- 24 Stein, under the entry « language ».
5Since 1993 [,] the American University in Washington DC has been home to annual conferences on Lavender Language and Linguistics, with Lavender19 Language being defined as the way « lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgendered persons and queers use language in everyday life »20. According to Bill Leap, the co-coordinator of the 2003 conference, homosexuals communicate with each other in ways that are « different from the linguistic practices of non-lesbian/gay-identified persons »21. Macmillan English dictionary explains that « Lavender language functions as a kind of homosexual code, characterized by acronyms, plays on words and double meanings only intended to be understood by the gay community »22. Leap gives the example of « top », the active partner in active/receptive relationships, which gays post in personal ads. « To talk about a person as a ‘top’ immediately would label the speaker as lesbian or gay for anyone who knows lesbian or gay culture ». Leap mentioned two other « beautiful examples » : whereas in gay speech « pitcher » identifies the sexually active individual and « catcher » the receptive person, « If we say pitcher or we say catcher, in an ordinary conversation, I think it’s unlikely that [straight people] would read anything else into it. […] You see it says ‘pitcher’ on somebody’s T-shirt, and I bet you straight folks in Omaha will think this [homosexual] guy is on a baseball team ».23 As these examples tend to prove, not only is there a lingo called lavender, but like any other idiom, it is also coded. Language-wise, LGTB speakers do not differ from non-LGTB speakers, thus gayspeak is not per se a system which works on a grammar, syntax, and sounds different from English. It is, however, a lexicon, a collection of words and phrases expressing specific identities « in covert ways recognized by the like-minded »24.
- 25 See note 6.
- 26 Baker, « Polari ».
6Conceived to express the needs of a socially repressed group, Polari was also, as Professor Baker explains, « a form of humour and camp25 performance, … a way of initiating people into the gay or theatre subculture »26. Norton confirms the view that,
- 27 A « dreary and dull » heterosexual.
- 28 Norton, « Queer language ».
Polari was never designed to escape notice, but was often confrontative : ‘Even when travelling in the singular, we weren’t averse to shrieking a quick get you, girl at some menacing naff27… We flaunted our homosexuality. We were pleased to be different28.
- 29 Stein, under « language ».
- 30 Flamespeak.
7Apart from a specific lexicon, gayspeak reveals itself every time qualifiers like « adorable », « fab(ulous) », « glam(orous) », and « so cute », are employed by both gay men and women. Whereas some lesbians tend to speak at a lower pitch than straight women—and their range of pitches is lesser than that of straight women29—the typical high pitched discourse and adorned talks of some gay men, not necessarily of the effeminate type, is another frequent give-away. As Flamespeak, an on-line dictionary describing « lingo used by LBGT people » explains, drama queens are well-known as they « dramatically proclaim that [their] life is full of drama and acts as though they are in a soap opera full of heartbreak, affairs, and treachery ; [they] can usually make a routine trip to the car wash sound more traumatic than the Argentine revolution »30.
- 31 Flamespeak.
- 32 Zimmerman, under « crossdressing » and « drag kings ». An older term would be male impersonator, a (...)
- 33 Stein, under « drag queens and kings ». « Not all men who dress as women are drag queens. Other cat (...)
- 34 « Queer Slang in the Gay 90’s ».
- 35 Herbst, under « lipstick lesbian ». They first emerged on the West Coast in the 1990s, breaking the (...)
- 36 http://www.answers.com. « Chapstick Lesbian ». « The phrase gained some currency following an episo (...)
- 37 The references in this paragraph are to be found in the different online gay dictionaries and gloss (...)
8The LGBT community indeed revels in describing its members, depending on their respective attitudes, as divas, « club boys wearing expensive clothing, jewelry, and glitter »31, drag kings, women who impersonate men onstage or wear men’s clothing32, and drag queens/drags, their male counterparts33. Femme fatales, « queeny queens », granola lesbians, « wholesome, health-conscious lesbians ; sometimes referred to as crunchy dykes », soft butches, « butch lesbians with a soft side and gentle demeanor », and sugar daddies, « older men who financially support younger partners »34, are names and definitions which evidence a certain sense of belonging. They also testify to the community’s variety of lifestyles. Food metaphors are not uncommon, such as seafood (gay sailors) and related sailor queens (men whose primary interest is sailors), tuna (young gay sailors), jam (younger men), angel food (gay men in the air force), rice queens (men attracted to Asians), government inspected meat (a gay man in the armed forces) to be found in meat racks (gay male cruising areas). Animal images include studs (mostly, although not necessarily, African-Americans butches), (kissing) fish (young gay women), bears (hairy and overweight men), and chicken hawks (older men looking for younger men). Adepts of the Scene (the gay club circuit) attend white parties, where Amy-Johns (after Amazons), lipstick lesbians35 (stylishly dressed in a traditionally feminine way), and chapstick lesbians (who do not wear make-up and are very much into sports)36 meet with leather dykes, tomboys, and lemons (lesbians). As for gym bunnies/queens (gay men who work out in a gym), and muscle Maries (more effeminate gym queens) who are a hit among muscle queens (men who prefer muscular men), they will join flamers (effeminate gay men), baby Crocketts (pseudo-cowboys), and label queens (designers’ fashion victims)37.
- 38 Stanley, 45-59.
- 39 « Unofficial Gay Dictionary ».
- 40 McLennan.
9Probably more self-consciousness than provocation, today’s gay lexicon not only defines an identity different from the norm but also proves the aspiration of homosexuals to be visible within a larger straight society. Gayspeak thus intends to promote community cohesion while exhorting « to accept who you are ». Often playing with taboo phrases, for fun, social, and political communication, it enhances identification among members who are conscious of sharing experiences and values, what some call the « LGBT culture ». As Julia Stanley contended in 1970 in her article « Homosexual Slang »38, it was a way to celebrate group bonding through a common—and dynamic—way of speaking, even though few members of the community spoke it. The yearly gay prides which take place in most American cities, in the midst of ribbons, colorful parades, and musical shows, are a clear signal, as the name indicate, that there is pride in being members of the « family », a term the gay community sometimes applies to itself39. As Sean McLennan wrote in « Gay on the Vocabulary Vanguard » in February 2001, « Be proud of the fact that every word you say helps enact social change. And whether or not the straight world wants to admit it, we’re cultural innovators—fashion and language speak louder than actions sometimes ! And imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all »40.
- 41 They had assembled on the night of Judy Garland’s funeral at Stonewall Inn, NY.
- 42 Full references are listed in the bibliography.
- 43 A few major dictionaries are listed in the bibliography
- 44 Full references can be found in the bibliography.
10In New York City on June 28, 1969, gay people fought back against police repression41 in what was going to be known as the Stonewall riots. This episode sent the signal that time was ripe for promoting gay rights in the United States. Many pejorative labels that had been used against LGBT people then began to be openly questioned by the community, leaving room for a renewed and re-interpreted gay speech. In the 1970’s, research on language and homosexuality likewise became more focused on how and by whom this specialized lexicon was used, a differentiation the pre-Stonewall era had hardly promoted. In this ebullience, Bruce Rodger’s landmark The Queen’s Vernacular was released (1972), followed, to mention just a few, by Joseph Hayes’s « Gayspeak » (1976) and « Language and Language Behavior of Lesbian and Gay Men » (1978‑1979), Leonard R. N Ashley’s « Kinks and Queens : Linguistic and Cultural Aspects of the Terminology for Gays » (1979) and « Dyke Diction : The Language of Lesbians » (1982), as well as Wayne R. Dynes’s Homolexis : A Historical and Cultural Lexicon of Homosexuality (1985) and Encyclopaedia of Homosexuality (1990), a compilation and analysis of numerous gay expressions. Paul Baker himself, who has conducted interviews among the British LGTB population, researched gay archives and decoded gay and lesbian chats on the internet, released Fantabulosa : A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang in 200242, with 1,700 entries derived from interviews, archives, and gay and lesbian web chats43. The internet has its share, upon which the present study has been partially based, such as the online Dictionary of Gay Slang and Historical Terms, Flamespeak, Queer Slang in the Gay 90, Rebecca Scott’s A Brief Dictionary of Queer Slang and Culture (1997), Matt & Andrej Koymasky’s GLTB Slang Dictionary (last updated in 2005), and Robert Owen Scott’s comprehensive Wizard Gay Slang Dictionary (last updated in 2003)44.
- 45 Baker, « Polari ».
- 46 Stein, under « language ».
11Yet, despite a growing interest for queer studies, the progress of gay speech has not been steadily supported. Whereas in the 1960s gay and lesbian scholars took a stake in the political advancement of homosexuals, indirectly encouraging the older generation to use the Lavender language, gay youths decided to avoid what they considered a relic of the past (in England, some claimed Polari to be « silly, feminising and outdated »45). What is more, the (partial) decriminalization of homosexuality challenged the necessity of a secret language. In the mid-1970s and 1980s, however, the divisions between homosexuals deflated, strengthening the cohesion of the community as well as a new approach of homosexuality which was defined in terms of oppressed minority identity : after the manner of African-Americans who promoted Black English vernacular, LGBT people found it logical to adopt a specific language, although as we noted before, gayspeak has always been more a lexicon than a language with its proper grammatical and phonological rules. Simultaneously, this new cohesive attitude encouraged the development of the modern queer theory movement, part of which attempted to analyze the secreted content of the gay and lesbian language. Since the late 1980s, the identity-based model of homosexuality has been in its turn challenged, for being excessively focused on respectability, thus excluding some marginal lifestyles—sadomasochists, working-class femme lesbians, African-American drag queens, and bisexuals—within the gay community itself. « Queerspeak », as it is also called, was going to « valorize general nonconformity beyond identification with homosexuality »46, an attempt at keeping politics in gay talk. Not just straight but gay mentalities, too, had matured and time had come to define and reclaim what it meant to be « queer ».
- 47 Haggerty, under « Queer Nation ».
- 48 Although it did not officially break up, Queer Nation no longer exists.
- 49 Haggerty, under « gay ».
- 50 « reeuQ yhW, Queer! » Queer Nation Manifestos.
- 51 McLennan.
- 52 One of Butler’s most significant contributions is her interpretation of gender roles, « in which th (...)
12« We’re here. We’re queer. We’re fabulous »47. Such was the slogan of Queer Nation founded in New York City, in March 1990, by activists from ACT-UP, the organization created in the mid-1980s to fight the spread of AIDS48. In an effort to reawaken the spirit of activism from the post-Stonewall era, Queer Nation adopted a somewhat confrontational approach and purposely used the word queer for its shock value while rejecting the term gay, which for some had become too mainstream49. Until Queer Nation reclaimed the term queer, it had been used offensively for an openly homosexual (the semantic shift from « unusual » to « unusual sexual orientation » occurred in the 1920s). « Yeah, QUEER can be a rough word but it is also a sly and ironic weapon we can steal from the homophobe’s hands and use against him »50. As Sean McLennan wrote, « Through usage and the activist process of « reclaiming » the words that define us, […] we alter their meanings and dissolve their power to denigrate us. Although such subtle shifts don’t usually have an obvious effect on individuals, collectively and given time, that’s how language changes51. Once popularized by the activist Queer Nation, the word was reclaimed by gays and scholars in « queer theory ». The author of Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies That Matter (1994), Judith Butler52 also declared that
‘Queer’ derives its force precisely through the repeated invocation by which it has become linked to accusation, pathologization, insult. […] The interpellation echoes past interpellations, and binds the speakers, as if they spoke in unison across time. In this sense, it is always an imaginary chorus that taunts ‘queer’53.
13The term queer has since entered Academia, which is host to queer activists, Queer Theory, Queer (and/or) Gender Studies, queer movements, Queer Alliances, queer and queer-friendly spaces, queer events, queer resource centers, queer faculty, Queers of color, etc. As Eric, a student at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, said to PlanetOut, a gay website which investigated on the « Queer Fifty » American universities in 2001,
The surrounding town isn’t that big, so it doesn’t have any bars, but there is always tons going on on campus, and there are queer parties during the queer holidays like National Coming Out Day, and Pride Week, and stuff like that. Plus, there is an annual Queer Prom that I was lucky enough to be on campus for as a prefrosh. Already I’ve seen gay couples dancing at « straight » parties. There are gay houses on campus that have parties a lot, too. There is definitely no lack of social activities for queer people or any student on campus54.
- 55 First broadcast on British television in 1999, « Queer as Folk » was later adapted by American TV n (...)
- 56 A weekly show where five gay men transform « a style-deficient and culture-deprived straight man fr (...)
- 57 Marech.
14While a metamorphed queer has become a hit in the academic world, a broader non-queer yet queer-positive society has made room to queer culture, adopting phrases like « coming out (of the closet) » which also applies in other contexts such as talking about a closet smoker, to qualify someone who smokes on the sly, or coming out as a NYPD fan, for somebody whose addiction to the series has just been « exposed ». As Showtime’s series makes it clear, it is all « Queer as Folk »55. In a February 9, 2004 interview in the San Francisco Chronicle, Tom Lynch, director of the San Francisco LGBT Community Center, said that visitors to the center complained about a sign proudly claiming San Francisco « the queerest place on Earth ». He nonetheless added, « In the Bay Area, in the age of ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,’56 that sort of sensitivity is beginning to seem almost quaint. Even some straight people have adopted the word because they have gay parents or an affinity for gay culture »57.
- 58 « Queer Slang in the Gay 90s ».
- 59 Koymasky.
- 60 Haggerty, under the entry « faggot ».
- 61 « Camp ». Take Our Words for It.
- 62 Norton, « The Term Homosexual ».
- 63 Haggerty, under « gay ».
15Although—following the example of queer—other terms such as fairy have been reclaimed, their success did not equate with that of queer. First used to describe the participants in New York drag balls in the 1890s, fa(i)ry became a common deprecating term in the 20th century used to qualify effeminate gays (in the mid-1900’s fairy ladies was applied to femme lesbians)58. Today, the word has taken on a positive label, especially among radical fairies/faeries who assert their pride in challenging traditional male roles59. The term Fag or faggot has been retrieved by gay men in a defiant or self-mocking way60. It was possibly derived from the French fagot, a bundle of sticks and twigs bound together, used for burning heretics and witches at the stake, or from an abusive term for women, or in reference to younger boys who performed duties for seniors in British public schools, where homosexuality was viewed as endemic. A term like camp, which characterized an effeminate man, was also recaptured in 1964 by the American writer Susan Sontag who coined two new phrases, high camp (sophisticated, tongue-in-cheek wit, and self-aware) and low camp (showing a lack of sophistication and self-awareness)61. As this reclaimed terminology evidences, there is a continuous need to define the complex identities and sexual categories of the LGBT community. « The label ‘homosexual’ », Norton explains, « instead of being generated by society to control people, was self-generated by gay (or gay-friendly) men to empower individuals and set them on the road to freedom rather than enslavement »62. Since then, as an adjective, it has yielded to same-sex(-oriented) because of the stigma related to it ; sexual orientation is likewise replacing sexual preference/inclination, because of the implication that same-sex orientation is a choice—which is not the current theory. While searching to free themselves, representatives of all sexualities have actually been liberating themselves from a language of oppression. It is this desire to « re-open the nature of identity politics »63 that challenges the heterosexual/homosexual division.
- 64 Haggerty, under « homosexuality ». It was not until eleven years later that the phrase heterosexual (...)
16In 1869 the word Homosexualität was coined by the German-Hungarian Károly Kertbeny, a closeted gay man who—unsuccessfully—contested the reproval of sexual relations between men64. Yet, although Kertbeny coined Homosexualisten for gay men, and Homosexualistinnen for gay women, homosexuality was primarily understood as a male, rather than female phenomenon. Even today, people tend to use the word homosexuality when thinking about male same-sex relationships. The existence of the term lesbian probably accounts for such perception, as does the deep-rooted belief that homosexuality was mostly a male phenomenon (studies and repressive legislations have been mostly about gay men). Homosexuality is therefore identified as a female phenomenon when qualified as such, i.e. when specifically labeled as female homosexuality.
- 65 Herbst, under « gay ».
- 66 In the 1930s a gaycat was a younger man homosexual traveling with his « Daddy ». It was simultaneou (...)
- 67 See their website homepage at http://pages.zoom.co.uk/lgs/gw.html (...)
- 68 Lo.
17The current LGBT linguistic item itself—Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender—supports the idea that the term gay excludes lesbians. Yet, even though lesbian is the oldest and clearest term to designate female homosexuals, today a majority of them define themselves as gay as much as lesbians. Whereas in the nineteenth century gay designated male and female prostitutes65, it is now advantageously displaying LGBT flamboyance, with less technicality than the term homosexual and with an assuredly less explicit link between sexual activity and gay identity regardless of the gender66. Gay and bisexual women who chat on the Internet or post personal ads do it on sites with names such as Gay-Women.com. The Gay History of Planet Earth online itself has clearly specified that « the word ‘gay’ is used throughout [their] site in reference to women and men who form erotic same-sex relationships »67. In 1997, when Ellen DeGeneres became the first openly gay main character in a US television series, she made the cover of Time Magazine with the famous tag line « Yep, I’m Gay ». She also insisted in her interview with Time that she « never wanted to be ‘the lesbian actress’ »68, as she had never liked the term. ABC, which produced the sitcom in which the character Ellen Morgan, alias real life Ellen DeGeneres, was to make a « startling self-discovery », « apparently managed to make its intentions known without using that ever-so-sexual ‘L’ word. As PlanetOut, the online gay site, explained a few days before the public outing of DeGeneres,
- 69 « ABC : ‘Ellen’ Coming Out As a? ».
Over the millennia, gays and lesbians have come up with many ways to announce their sexual identities, from code words to pinkie rings, but darned few have issued press releases. But then, « Ellen’s » Ellen Morgan isn’t a person but a sitcom character, and there’s no precedent for a prime time network TV series’ lead character openly identifying as lesbian or gay. […] The official ABC press release read like ‘Ellen is coming out as a, well, you know’69.
- 70 Interestingly enough, gay women are presented as lovers, whereas relations between gay men seem to (...)
- 71 Norton, « Labelling Theory ».
18Women-only events, lesbian clubs, dyke bars, Girlz nites, gay women nights, women-to-women chat rooms, golden girls websites : terminology counts quite a few items to describe the lesbian world, not to mention those displaying the variety of lesbian identities. Whereas today they are regularly called « girls’ girls » or « women-loving-women » (WLW), the way gay men are called « men-who-have-sex-with-men » (MSM)70, « in mid-eighteenth-century discussions of lesbians », Norton noted, people used « abstract phrases such as ‘feminine congression’ » or euphemisms such as « vicious Irregularities », « unaccountable intimacies », « uncommon and preternatural Lust », « unnatural Appetites in both Sexes », and « abominable and unnatural pollutions »71.
- 72 Zimmerman, under « lesbian ».
- 73 Baker & Tropiano, 127
- 74 From Greek tribein, i.e. « to rub » in Baker & Tropiano, 137.
- 75 James.
- 76 Zimmerman, under « lesbian ».
19Such pseudo-scientific, normative, and disparaging definitions would eventually encourage the « unnaturally polluted » women to promote a less hostile and more appropriate glossary for themselves. Lesbian was one of them, derived from the Greek isle of Lesbos, where Sappho (620 BC-565 BC) celebrated love between women72. Although its first modern use was in William King’s satirical poetry collection, « The Toast » (1732)73, the expression did not make its first official entry in a medical dictionary before 1890 as « the practice of tribadism »74, another phrase to describe sex practice between two women75. In the early twenty-first century, to be a lesbian « typically means to embrace an identity and to participate in a lesbian culture »76. As a likely result of a generation divide, a younger group of women responded by reclaiming the phrase dyke for themselves, the way the LGBT community has retrieved the once-defamatory queer. This move was also partly triggered in reaction to the mainstreaming of this lesbian « culture » and its use by market forces, like the « lesbian chic » in the entertainment industry. As Carolyn Laub, the director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network in San Francisco, which links gay and lesbian student clubs in California said,
« Homosexual » sounded pathological and clinical, so activists went about creating their own words, starting with « gay » and « lesbian ». That was well and good, but terms like « dyke » and « queer » had an appealing spikiness and served double-duty by stripping the sting from words that had heretofore been considered unspeakably nasty77.
- 78 Herbst, under « bulldyke ».
- 79 « Queer Slang in the Gay 90s ».
- 80 Zimmerman, under « dyke ». In nineteenth-century slang dike (sic) referred to male clothing.
20Possibly derived from bull-diker (a 1920s black American slang that applied to lesbian lovers78), the word dyke (also spelled dike) came, rather derogatorily, to describe masculine-looking lesbians79. It was only in the not too distant past that it began to be used by lesbians as a token of pride to mean a strong, independent lesbian. Among heterosexuals, however, it has remained a pejorative qualifier80. In 1984 Judy Grahn gave a definition of the word in reference to the 1950s :
- 81 Norton, « Political Definitions of the Lesbian ».
For all our boyish clothes and mannerisms… we women did not pass as men or boys. … our point was not to be men… A dike (sic) learns much of her social function from other dykes. … Whether she ever has the chance to enter a Gay bar or not, she imitates dykes, not men. She may identify with traditionally dyke figures : Diana the Huntress, Beebo Brinker, Gertrude Stein, Bessie Smith, Natalie Barney, Queen Christina, Joan of Arc, Amy Lowell, Oya, St Barbara, modern athletes, and other leaders. … the social message she bears and is delivering is not ‘I am a man’ but rather ‘Here is another way to be a woman’81.
- 82 Scott, Rebecca.
- 83 Albert. Also known as « truck drivers ».
- 84 Bianca’s Lesbian Dictionary.
- 85 Scott, Rebecca.
- 86 Herbst, under « dyke ».
- 87 The rather recent grrl describes a soft butch who is too old (yet still young) to be a baby dyke. ( (...)
- 88 Bianca’s Lesbian Dictionary.
- 89 Zimmerman, under « Butch/Femme ».
- 90 Scott, Rebecca.
- 91 Stein, under « language ».
21Modern « dyke figures », presently called dykons (from dyke + icons), would more likely count personalities like KD Lang, Melissa Etheridge, or Ellen DeGeneres82. As for the more « ordinary » dykes, they come in such assortments as bull dykes or diesel dykes, « lesbians who dress and behave in a masculine fashion »83, PC dykes (politically correct dykes), « Rush Limbaugh’s wet-dream feminazi ; come in several varieties, from mild to hard-headed »84, andro dykes, identified as neither masculine nor feminine85, root dykes, whose dress reflect ethnic roots86, sex-positive dykes, « feminist dykes who also read lesbian porn, dress for effect and don’t think enjoying penetration is a sign of being a male-identified dupe. Probably grew up with Queer Nation, ACT-UP and Riot grrrls87 for role models »88. Masculine lesbians proudly identify themselves as butches, a label that dates back to the 1950s. Yet, after the low-profile both the term and lifestyle adopted in the late 1960s and 1970s—a consequence of lesbian-feminists who viewed butches and their soul fem(me) mates as a retrograde legacy of patriarchy and heterosexual roles—, butches have recovered their place within a larger lesbian culture89. The revival of butch/femme couples gives room to a renewed interpretation of role-playing, such as « butch in the streets, femme in the sheets », or with couples as « butch-on-butch and femme-on-femme »90, relationships sometimes referred to as homogender (butch-butch).91 Bianca’s Lesbian Lexicon gives an interesting historical definition,
- 92 Passive, a role not expected from a butch.
- 93 Sexually provocative.
- 94 Active, not an expected femme role.
- 95 In gay talk, a lesbian is Fish, as in Go Fish, a Rose Troche’s (romantic) comedy on multicultural C (...)
- 96 This final reference to vegetarians obviously challenges role inversion among « fish » women.
- 97 Bianca’s Lesbian Dictionary.
Butch/Femme : A necessary self-definition in the ‘50s, if you wanted to get laid. It was out of style and vilified through the ‘70s as being male-identified (butch too male, femme a response to straight male desire). Revived in the ‘90s by the younger set as another fun way for sexual and verbal role-playing. Results in such personals-ad phrases as, « I’m a soft butch bottom92, looking for a bitchy93 total femme top94 for some fishing95 fun. Vegans96 only »97.
- 98 Cooper.
- 99 See their website site at http://www.michfest.com (...)
- 100 The Lesbian Herstory Archives online at http://www.lesbianherstoryarchives.org (...)
- 101 A major American TV network.
- 102 The soap has been broadcast since January 2004.
- 103 Baker & Tropiano, 214. See Showtime Online at http://www.sho.com/site/lword/home.do or a fan’s sit (...)
22The fluctuating roles within the gay female community somehow outdates the strict separatist politics of the 1970s, when feminists started using words like wimmin and womyn in lieu of a patriarchal wo-men98 (as for the summer Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival99), or when they founded the New York Lesbian Herstory Archives.100 Whatever the controversy such decisions have generated within the lesbian community, the diversity of appellations gay women use and invent for themselves are sound evidence that they can also be enfranchised from imposed categorizations. Yesterday’s « Lovers of their own Sex » and Sapphists have come a long way and can now send their soul mates e-cards via the grrl.com site. A long way, indeed, with Showtime’s101 successful broadcasting102 of the glossy, groundbreaking, prime time The L Word, the first lesbian soap opera devoted to the lives and loves of « a cast full of gorgeous dykes, the L standing for ladies, love, Los Angeles, and most importantly, you know what »103.
- 104 Murphy, at the entry « gender theory ».
- 105 The Free Dictionary, « Transgender/Transsexual ». « Whereas transgender (coined in the early 1970s (...)
- 106 Stein, under the entry ‘intersexuals »
- 107 PrideToronto.
- 108 Zimmerman, under ‘two-spirit ».
23« Gender theory begins with the premise that what society commonly recognizes as the static, oppositional binary of gender—male or female—does not derive from a series of natural, inevitable, or essential components of an individual’s biological sex »104. Adopted by the majority of gay community centers in most English-speaking countries in 2004, the term LGBT actually includes more subtle subcultures than just « lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered/trans(s)exual »105. Probably less controversial than queer or lesbigay, the acronym LGBT—or GLBT (permutations are frequent)—can develop into LGBTQ or LGBTQQ, with one Q for queer and another for questioning. LGBTI counts intersexuals106, individuals born with « ambiguous genitalia » or features of both sexes (an older term, now considered pejorative and inaccurate, being hermaphrodite). While LGBTA indicates straight—or str8—Allies among their ranks, an extremely rare LGBTTTIQQA represents the community in its fullest, with the final A being interpreted as Androgynous. Canada’s 2007 Pride Toronto clearly expressed its commitment to « celebrate the history, courage, diversity and future of Toronto’s LGBTTIQQ2S* »107 community. LGBTTIQQ2S* stands for « Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer, Questioning, 2-Spirited ». Used by late twentieth century LGBT Native Americans to define themselves, as they possess a female and a male spirit, two-spirit indicates « a spiritual and communal orientation, not just sexual and affectional ones »108. Some, however, argue that the scientific, almost technical character of these acronyms make them resemble life-devoid linguistic automatons whose austerity is so unlike the gay spirit. Yet, for all their flaws, these designations promote a visibility and a better understanding of the GLBT population, correcting past hurtful medical and psychological definitions of homosexuality.
- 109 Marech. See note 60 for Laub.
- 110 Marech.
- 111 Marech.
- 112 Marech.
24As Carolyn Laub said, « We […] are developing new understandings of sexual orientation and gender identities and what that means to us. We don’t really have enough language to describe that ; therefore, we have to create new words »109. In an interview published in the San Francisco Chronicle (Feb. 8, 2004), Andy Duran, then 19, explained, « People are feeling like, what’s the point of labeling ? If I must label, let me create my own »110. Why stick to the commonplace transgender/transsexual when more accurate descriptions can be suggested by she-male or transwoman, i.e. a transgender born as a man who identifies as a woman, post-op, a transgendered person who has had either an operation or hormone treatments, pre-op, who has not had any, F2M or FTM, « a female-to-male transsexual », or transman, or again a M2F or MTF, « a male-to-female transsexual, or transwoman, the last two acronyms not to be confounded with M2M (« male-to-male » relationships) and F2F (its female equivalent) ? While crossdressers or X-dressers/XDers (a term preferred to transvestite generally applying to straight people) dress in the clothes of the opposite sex, genderqueer view gender other than the binary male-female option. Whereas a trannydyke is a F2M or M2F attracted to people with a more feminine gender, and a tryke [trans + dyke] is a M2F who identifies as a lesbian, pomosexuals (derived from postmodern-sexuals) do not identify with any label, pansexuals are attracted to people of multiple genders, and omnisexuals and multisexuals to almost anybody. In the San Francisco Chronicle interview, Justin, then 19, called himself a boi—with an ‘i’—because he felt like a boy (with a ‘y’), but did not have « the boy parts, as much as [he] wish[ed] [he] did »111. Lynn Breedlove had exclusively identified him/herself as a butch dyke for years, until (s)he also called her/himself a trannyboy, a word referring to her/his desire to be transgender although not a transman (too hairy). Today, Lynn, depending on her/his mood, goes back and forth between the old label and the new one, « Because I’m like Peter Pan— eternally youthful but I’m always played by a girl »112. Asked what his favorite terms in his Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang were, Paul Baker answered that he
- 113 Baker, « Fantabulosa ».
liked the term homovestite—someone who wears the clothing of their own sex. It’s interesting because it sounds like something that’s very sexually exotic—like a combination of homosexual and transvestite. However, it refers to « ordinary » people. […] It’s a good word to use because it gives « normal » people an obscure scientific label that makes them sound weird too !113
- 114 « FtF : Female-To-Femme ». « As the title of our film, FtF, is meant to suggest, people can be born (...)
25Since one’s physiological sex does not necessarily determine one’s gender role, a distinction needs to be made between « men » and « women » who were respectively assigned a female and male gender at birth (not per se anatomical men and women), and bio-men or bio-women, « biological » men or women who were assigned a male or female gender at birth. Likewise, the radical, queer, and feminist FTF, « Female-to-Femme », challenges assumptions about gender, femininity, and identity114 and uses the language of gender to talk about femme identity. In the same way, a MTM is an intersexual who considers himself transitioning from « Male-to-Male » : he has always been male, yet not in the way it is traditionally defined. FTX, MTX and F/MTU, « Female/Male to ‘Unknown’ », and F/MTT, « Female/Male to Trans », similarly question notions of gender normativity.
26In addition to these technical, somewhat pragmatic acronyms and labels that confirm a desire to define every conceivable position on the queer spectrum, there is a wide range of creatively picturesque and bubblier expressions the LGBT community refers to for itself. Whereas most LGBT people are clear (100% gay) or as pink ink (very obviously gay, a mid-90s coinage), some are eyeballing the back of the closet door (not quite out of the closet)115, straight acting/appearing (or s/a, s/a/a), and even yestergays (identifying as gay in the past, but no longer so). Bisexuals, indeed, range from bi-possible (who could be persuaded to be bisexual), bicurious (heterosexuals who wish to « experiment » with their sexuality), LUG, GUG or BUG (« Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual Until Graduation », i.e. experimenting while in college), hasbyterians (« has been lesbian »), and heteroflexible (bisexuals with a straight dominance), to Gillette blades (bisexual women), bi-serious (bisexuals who are very committed to it), and poly(gamous/amorous) (preferring to have two or more partners/lovers at once).
- 116 Herbst, under « bisexual ».
- 117 Haggerty, under « bisexuality ». As a distinct identity category, bisexuals did not begin to be rec (...)
- 118 In reference to the red ribbon worn to increase visibility for HIV and AIDS.
- 119 See note 88.
27The sometimes derogatory slang epithets applying to bisexuals, such as AC-DC (for « alternating/direct current ») by heterosexuals, or fence-sitters or double-gaited by gays and lesbians, connotes a « betrayal » of one’s hetero- or homosexual identity, as well as a reluctance to commit oneself to a sexual orientation116. With the 1990s came the advent of bisexual political power. Giving way to an enhanced visibility, such perceptions and labelling might, eventually, be history117. Unless the person drops a hairpin (gives a clue they are gay), he or she might just be a breeder (a heterosexual), which the unfortunate gay will call scenery, since the only thing they can do is « Sit back and enjoy the scenery ». Heterosexuals, then, come in such variety as metrosexuals (fashionable urban heterosexual men), who share a gay aesthetic for their hip appearance with guppies and luppies (gay/lesbian urban professionals), or, conversely, beige (insipid, anti-fab) and naff (« Normal As Fuck », i.e. dreary and dull) dudes (bland straight people). Heterosexual women socializing extensively with gay men are called WLMLM (« Women who Love Men who Love Men »), fag hags, fruit flies, or ribbon clerks118, and if attracted to them, fag magnets. Gay or straight men who hang around lesbians (Dutch girls) are nicknamed Dutch boys or Sappho Daddy-Os119.
28On the Internet, gays use acronyms such as MOTSS, « Members Of The Same Sex », or SGL, « Same Gender Loving ». Undecided individuals can still go for MOTAS, « Members Of The Appropriate Sex », whom bisexuals might also identify as MOTOS, « Members Of The Opposite Sex ». Looking for a SO, « Significant Other », or LJBF, « Let’s Just Be Friends », the decisive choice is DAYP, « Do As You Please »120. Cyber Pink talk, like other Internet languages, is highly coded. In other words, the lexicon used by gays who chat or post personal ads on the Internet does not escape a drift towards abstraction. This dehumanization therefore relegates the older bathhouses, Y’s, or other French embassies (places where gay sex is available) far behind chat rooms and cyber sex. Yet, it is not uncommon for logged-on chatters to meet actually with members of the Union (gay men or women).
- 121 « Recent studies have shown that, on average, lesbian and gay youth first become aware of their sam (...)
- 122 Ryan & Futterman.
29The complexity of gender and sexual identities as well as new understandings of sexual orientation prove that there is much more than gays, lesbians, and queers. The way queers define themselves might be puzzling for many heterosexuals and even older homosexuals. Apart from Lynn Breedlove who is not what can be called a young individual, most respondents of the San Francisco Chronicle interview are youths who are both experimenting with their sexual identities and questioning their elders’ social norms. In the United States the presence of increasingly conspicuous LGBT communities has also encouraged the younger generations to reflect on communal as well as personal identities121. As Caitlin Ryan, a researcher at San Francisco State University who has studied lesbian, gay and bisexual youth, said, « Before, the tribe was so much more important. [… ] What we’re getting in the LGBT community is the power of youth. It’s their expression and exuberance and energy and also their contribution to the culture »122.
- 123 Betsch.
- 124 « I’m shocked and appalled that they’re using university time to sponsor what amounts to promotion (...)
- 125 Zimmerman, under « slang ».
30As gender identities have increased in complexity (as the gay lexicon reflects), the challenge now exists for more « ordinary » straight people to grasp the realities of queer culture. Heterosexuals might be « lost in translation », caught in the midst of genuine, enthusiastic, occasionally exotic expressions and more political, provocative, norm-challenging phrases coined by a community whose existence and lifestyle are getting, if not accepted, at least recognized. Yet, the question remains as to whether gayspeak is meant to be shared by society at large. If the answer is yes, it will be a slow process of linguistic acquisition through books, TV shows, and the web. As Leap, the organizer of the 2003 Conference on Lavender Language, said, « Just being a speaker of English does not prepare you to be a speaker of this gay language. You’ve got to learn a lot of it yourself »123. With NBC’s Will & Grace, HBO’s Six Feet Under, and Showtime’s Queer as Folk and The L Word now accessible to mainstream audiences, heterosexuals might learn the basics of communicating with, or understanding homosexual « speakers ». If gay speech is not to be shared with the dominant population, it then remains a coded idiom only accessible to initiates, leaving homophobic reactions to prosper (human nature hates not to understand)124. Given its marginality, the LGBT community has developed an imaginative lexicon that perches itself on the fringe of heterosexual values and cultures. It is no wonder, then, that—as with any other culture—this language is used as « a tool of communication, as a tool of inclusion, and as tool of exclusion »125.
31Approximately two-thirds of the linguistic items found in gay lexicons have a heavy sexual content. Probably because this specific part of the community life had been—and to some extent still is—condemned by society, gays have consistently relied upon specific vocabulary to express the « unspeakable ». From the repressive times when homosexuality was considered a felony to the present variety of gender identities and queer subcultures, hundreds of expressions—puns, euphemisms, metaphors, word-coinage, and semantic shifts—have been used and are now listed in specific dictionaries, evidence of how LGBT people assert their distinctiveness and communicate in creative ways. For some members of the community, this pink talk (or queer lexicon, queer/queenspeak, lavender language, or gayspeak—whatever the name) works as a coded communication centered mostly on sex-related issues as well as sexual categorization. It is something like a glossary or a slang which does not display any self-conscious political resistance. In its broader version, however, it is a language inspired both by the sufferings of a long ostracized group and the desire to overcome past and present misunderstandings of different, non-normative, alternative (sub)cultures—an innovative disobedience combining gender identity, protection, self mockery, defiance, and subcultural bonds. Whether this lingo enables the LGBT community to reach beyond its own borders, obviously, remains a challenge. The social relations that minorities have maintained with mainstream societies have always implied some sort of survival and risk-taking. Gayspeak somehow confirms the rule.