Gay Adjectives vs. Lesbian Nouns
The above quote from Wikipedia’s page describing the word “gay“epitomizes something that I’ve been wondering about for a while. Why is it that men can be, among other things, gay, but when a woman likes other women, she’s no longer a woman: She’s a lesbian? Why is it that in our language, among many others, the primary indicator for a man’s sexuality is an adjective, but for a woman it’s a noun?
This convention is codified by our friends over at GLAAD, who instruct members of the media on how to tell the stories of LGBT people “with fairness, integrity and respect” in their Media Reference Guide. In the section “Offensive Terminology to Avoid” the guide’s authors make the case for “gay” and “lesbian” over the overly clinical and presumed offensive term homosexual:
Offensive: “homosexual” (n. or adj.)
Preferred: “gay” (adj.); “gay man” or “lesbian” (n.)
Please use “lesbian” or “gay man” to describe people attracted to members of the same sex….
In the strictest interpretation of the convention, gay is an adjective you use to describe one of the many aspects of a man. He can be tall. He can be blond. He can be gay. But he’s still a man. Queer men are rarely referred to as “the gays“, and when they are it’s either reflecting a negative opinion about us gays or a straight person’s inability to communicate with queer people.
However, with that same strict interpretation, when a woman comes out of the closet, she turns into a different thing entirely, a lesbian. A les-being. Lesbian is often used as an adjective, but only to refer to gay-lady types of things, like “her lesbian relationships” or “that lesbian training camp.”
No one is assuming that “woman” and “lesbian” are mutually exclusive. Someone can be a woman and a lesbian. She can also be a professional basketball player or a brain surgeon. But why can’t we simply modify the words “woman” or “lady” with an adjective?
Why all the fuss? It’s my belief that, on some level, the noun “lesbian” displaces the notion of “woman” in people’s brains. (And replaces it with a notion that nearly rhymes with “alien.”) I imagine that when someone hears or reads the concept of a “gay man”, the idea of “man” fills a spot, and hanging off of it is a modifier “gay.” The modifier isn’t as strong as the noun, and can be ignored, forgotten or otherwise deemphasized. However, using the noun “lesbian” puts far too much focus on the sexual orientation of the person. It puts the carpet munching right up there in your face. And in my opinion, it prevents the beholder from separating the person (the body) from the sexual orientation.
This is similar to how I tell people that “I am vegetarian” and not that “I am a vegetarian.” I don’t want people to subconsciously portray me as some PETA-trained, guerilla, anti-meat activist who’s going to rip them a new asshole for having had bacon for breakfast. (The bacon will do that on its own, eventually.) My vegetarianism is only one aspect of my life, and I prefer to use adjectives to describe those aspects.
TNG Stephanie does a great job of making up lots of new terms for queer women that always crack me up: lady gay, lesbot, homa, etc. But all of them are still nouns. And all of them separate the “homas” from the “homos” by using different words for queers of different genders. (Actually, “homa” and “homo” doesn’t, and I think it’s pretty awesome.)
Lately, I’ve been using the word “queer” almost exclusively. It’s an adjective and can be applied to people, parties, music, sex, etc. It’s quite versatile that way. It’s also a good catch-all for those who don’t identify as straight but have a hard time carrying either the “gay male” or “lesbian” banners. And it unites all us non-straight-identified folks under one five-letter word that’s actually pronounceable, versus the alphabet soup that is LGBTQIXYZ…
What are your thoughts on the matter? Is “queer” the way to go? Are gay men and lesbians so different that we should have different terms? Are you wondering why a man is so interested in what lesbians are called? Your thoughts are always welcome.
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