Just out. (Portland, OR) 1983-2013, March 02, 1984, Page 6, Image 6

Below is the OCR text representation for this newspapers page. It is also available as plain text as well as XML.

    I N S I G H T
Labels: are lesbians gay?
“The learned m an hath got the lady gay."
— Shakespeare.
Pass. Pilgr.
by Dennis Peterson
Now that the new Steering C om m ittee is in
the process o f form ing, it is appropriate to
reexam ine the Lesbian and Gay Pride Week
vs. Gay Pride Week controversy. In 1982 I
w rote an article about the use o f lesbian/gay
in general. I disliked the usage on several
grounds. W hen I served on the LGP “83
S teering C om m ittee I was the only one to
vote fo r Gay Pride instead o f Lesbian and Gay
Pride. I w ould like to present the article again
in a slig htly altered form as a springboard for
discussion and close with an explanation of
why I now th in k LGP is preferable, although I
still shun the expression lesbian/gay.
As a struggling p o e t m ainly struggling to
be a good one, I rejoice when I find a person
w ho can pick ju st the rig ht w ord to express a
tho ug ht: no t w ords that are flowery, scholarly,
in, o r shocking, necessarily, but w ords that
m ake m e ask m yself, why did the person say
it ju st that way and no other? I have becom e
irked by that new hybrid beast, the lesbian/
gay, w hich rears h e r/h is androgynous head
w ith increasing frequency in activities,
organizations, and speech patterns. I would
like to share som e thoughts engendered by
th is phrase, w hich m ay be helpful in pro­
m o tin g greater exactness in the labels we
apply to o u r gay sisters and brothers.
G roup labels are m ore than words we coin
to identify: they have history, tone, and ex­
clusivity. The history o f a group label im posed
fro m w ith o u t is usually a m ixture o f insult and
m isunderstanding. “ C hretien” (French for
“ C h ristia n ") was o rigin ally an insulting pun
on "c re tin " (id iot). Because C olum bus blun­
dered on to th is con tine nt in search o f India,
he called the native population “ Indians.” The
ton e o f a g ro u p label sets a m ood: hom osex­
ual, lesbian, gay, fairy, queer, dyke, faggot —
the m ood shifts fro m clinical through hum an
to derogatory. Tone changes throug h history:
to call a person “ black" and not "co lo re d "
w ould have angered m ost m em bers o f that
g ro u p in earlier tim es. Tone changes with
speaker: a gay m ig h t call a fellow m em ber a
"q u e e r" in good hum or. Tone changes with
situation: a gay m ig h t alter tone o f voice and
show ho stility by saying “ queer." Tone is sub­
jective: one individual m ig h t prefer to be
called "he aring im p aired" to “ deaf," another
m ig h t feel ju s t the opposite. Som e group
labels have exclusivity, that is, they are used to
label all people that are not in “ th e " group:
barbarian (o rig in a lly m eaning non-Greek),
ge ntile (non-Jew ), infidel (non-M uslim ), or
stra ig h t (non-gay).
M inorities have adopted special labels for
them selves as part o f th e ir process o f libera­
tio n , let m e call them identity labels, finding
the labels applied to them by outsiders offen­
sive and inaccurate. Tone is im proved when
we speak o f “ native A m ericans" instead o f
“A m erican Indians" w hich when thoughtfully
considerd is a laughable hybrid.
A m ericans": history is appealed to, stressing
th a t they were here before us. "N ative
we are rem inded o f o u r exclusivity
since they have been given so little say in
de te rm in in g A m erica s policies. Identity
labels, w hen picked w ith care, can say a good
Let us consider "lesbian/gay" using the
criteria o f history, tone, exclusivity, and, a new
one, specificity, w hich we shall define when
the tim e com es.
H isto ry
“ Lesbian is derived from Sappho o f
Lesbos, a Greek lyric poet w ho lived about
600 BC and wrote about wom en with such
intensity o f em otion that it appears that she
was sexually involved with them . I have not
fou nd a w ork that traces the history o f the
w ord, but the O xford E nglish D ictionary gives
the first example o f its use by quoting a work
fro m 1870. The related term “ S apphism "
was also used, appearing in a work from
1 8 0 0 .1 have heard that the term was coined
because o f a m isunderstanding o f the term
hom osexual. “ H om o" in “ hom osexual"
com es fro m the Greek, where it means "the
sam e" (hence, "sexually attracted to the
sam e sex"), and not from the Latin, where it
m eans “ m an" (and consequently "attracted
to m e n” ). The latter m eaning would make
straight wom en "hom osexual." John Boswell
traces the history o f "hom osexual” and “ gay"
Despite echoes o f antiquity,
"hom osexual" was coined by a physician
nam ed Benkert in 1869. It was m eant to be a
clin ica l term to replace “ invert," w hich im plies
that such individuals invert the typical sexual
roles, m en “ playing" wom en, and vice versa.
M ost o f the term s com peting at the tim e were
even m ore grotesque. “ Gay," on the other
hand, in the form "gay" was used in Proven­
cal in the thirteenth century, to describe the
laid-back behavior o f fem ale
Christianity, Social Tolerance and
courtesans. "Le sbia n/g ay” links words o f a
very differe nt history.
The etym ology o f “ lesbian” gives it a !<ter-
ary if not clin ical tone. The tone o f “ gay” is
co llo q u ia l and im plies looseness, as in "gay
ba chelor” o r "gay Paris,” one o f the reasons
som e lesbians do not want to be labelled gay.
This does not m ean that “ gay" need have
only negative connotations. The lightness of
its tone cou ld im ply the loosening o f gender
roles seen in the hom osexual com m unity.
N ot ju st in sexual perform ance, but in
gestures, clo thin g, and speech patterns.
There is no term fo r gay m en that has the
sam e tone as "lesbian." At least a phrase like
“ d yke /fa g g o t" w ould be consistent in tone,
bu t perhaps to o inflam m atory. (I belonged to
a social g ro u p called DAFT: Dykes and Fag­
gots Together.)
"Le sbia n" has typically been used to
exclude anyone w ho is not a hom osexual
w om an. “ G ay" has been used to exclude any­
one w ho is not hom osexual, m an or woman.
"L e sb ia n /g a y" therefore has unbalanced ex­
clusivity. We can see this particularly in the
phrase “ lesbians and gay m en." W hy is it
necessary to specify m en if lesbians are not
gay? If a large num ber o f B lack w om en de­
cided to resurrect the term "Negress," a
parallel expression w ould be “ N egress/
Black." a m ore obvious m isbalance o f tone
and exclusivity, since a “ Negress' is Black,
ju st as a lesbian is gay. If a gay w om an
chooses to em phasize her double burden as
gay and as w om an by calling herself a lesbian
Just O ut. M arch 2-M arch 16