There’s a Name

What’s in a name?  Two years before Stonewall, in 1967, the news program CBS Reports broadcast a documentary anchored by Mike Wallace called “The Homosexuals,” which, for better or for worse, baked that name into the cake; although this was the first network documentary, airing on March 7, 1967, dealing with the topic of homosexuality, it was not the first televised in the United States — that distinction goes to a program called The Rejected, produced and aired in 1961 by San Francisco PBS affiliate KQED.

Descriptive (and accurate) though Mike Wallace’s name for his titular characters was, the June 1969 Stonewall Riots instilled a sense of pride in the members of this minority and oppressed community coming into its own in the midst of America’s civil rights era, and homosexual, with its clinical connotations in terms of mental health (it would be another four years before this “condition” was removed from the American Psychiatric Association's list of mental disorders), was replaced by the word “gay” to express our happy embrace of our identity.  The struggle for civil rights in the community thus became known as “gay liberation,” and the community “the gay community.”  This unintentionally focused on men exclusively, to the exclusion of women with same-sex attraction, so by the time I came out in the early 80’s, we were calling ourselves the gay (men) and lesbian (women) community.  In fact, many of my formative years as a gay man were spent at the “Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center” (which, given our need to hide in plain sight, we always referred to as the “GLCSC” so as not to “out” ourselves or anyone else).

Today, most people default to LGBT (or GLBT, with a slight majority favoring the L-first version).  As names go, it’s fairly effective, recognizing the spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity in four simple letters.  However, it can’t please everyone, and like most compromises, leaves plenty of people feeling unheard; it has also been criticized as impersonal and more reflective of a political coalition which obscures individual groups’ identities and unique traits.

Many people opt simply for “gay.”  Unfortunately, that leaves out any aspect of the community that doesn’t identify explicitly with same-sex attraction; and it also traditionally applies to men, resulting in sexist language, however unintended.

Some have reclaimed the word “queer” as a preferred descriptor, co-opting the word from the bullies who used it against us when we were younger and less comfortable in our own skin as a way to defang it.  This is much like Bitch magazine appropriating an offensive slur against women as a way to empower feminism in a kindof “sticks-and-stones-may-break-my-bones-but-words-will-never-hurt-me” philosophy.  I like queer for another reason; first, it deemphasizes sexual activity, allowing one to identify as more than simply who they are attracted to and/or want to sleep with, and as I often say, “you don’t have to be gay to be queer” — in other words, it connotes different or outside the mainstream.  I readily admit, however, that the scars from being called a queer are too often very raw and thinly scabbed over for some to choose it as an identity, and it remains a controversial choice.

Over time, a number of other additions have been added to the LGBT acronym, the most common of these being ‘Q,’  but there is widespread disagreement as to just what it stands for.   Of course, many hold it to mean “queer” (see previous paragraph); just as many insist it means “questioning” to recognize that people who are uncertain about their sexual orientation or gender identity (or both) may want to explore (test drive?) the community before taking it on as an identity.  I have seen the unwieldy LGBTQQIP2SAA used for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and...

  • Two Q’s to cover queer and questioning
  • I for Intersex, people with two sets of genitalia or various chromosomal differences
  • P for Pansexual, people who refuse to be pinned down on the Kinsey scale (differs from bisexual in that they are refusing the label, though in practice they are bisexual — P’s:  please send your angry cards and letters to the usual address)
  • 2S for Two-Spirit, a tradition in many Native American/First Nations communities that considers sexual minorities to have both male and female spirits
  • A for Asexual, people who do not identify themselves by sexual (genital) attraction but may experience aesthetic attraction
  • A for Allies, recognizing that the community is comprised of many who support us and our rights, although they are not really part of the community itself

That is an extreme example, and it’s tempting to dismiss it as simply ridiculous, but if you are a member of any of those 11 groups, ask yourself which other group you would feel comfortable identifying as, then imagine someone telling you that is how you MUST identify yourself.  "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Juliet says of her beloved Romeo; and this is true, no doubt.  But in a world that barely recognizes our existence, let alone our “right” to exist, acknowledging queers only to condemn us, having a name and declaring it proudly, without reservation or shame, is essential to living.

Those of you outside the LGBTQ+ community may think we are all of one mind, that we speak with one voice.  Gather a group of us together, and we are all singing from the same hymnal, a chorus made of many parts, but beautifully arranged and blended to create a single, unified, melodic, harmonious whole. You’d be wrong.  And what’s more, if you think that you obviously know nothing of human nature.  Lock ten gay guys in a room and four will be arguing about who was a better actress, Joan Crawford or Bette Davis, three will be talking behind the host’s back about how cheap the Prosecco is and how it's probably "Kirkland Signature" brand and came in bulk from Costco, two will be admiring the physique of one of the Joan Crawford fans, and one will be trying the door to see if it’s really locked and whether he can escape.  There are even gay Republicans!  I know, I know, I couldn’t believe it either.  And some gays get really excited about sports in general and football in particular; personally, I think they just have a thing for men in tight, form-fitting spandex trousers patting each other on the butt and having a cuddle, er I mean huddle, but who am I to judge?  The point is, the constituents who make up the LGBTQ+ community are as different as its acronymic name suggests.  Add in all the other seasonings that make people who they are, like generational differences, the influence of religious upbringings, ethnicity, and race, not to mention national origin, and you are bound to have differences of opinion.  You aren’t “bound to,” you do!

The colors and richness of the tapestry that is the gay community notwithstanding, when I first came out, someone took me to a very “famous” (at least among gays) gay Mexican restaurant on Hyperion Avenue in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles.  I can still see my 18 year-old self taking tentative and apprehensive, but somehow excited, steps into what I thought would be akin to an alternate universe — mirroring what I had known my whole life up to that point, but somehow decidedly “different.”  To my surprise, it wasn’t different at all!  I have a lifelong addiction to chips and salsa.  In fact, if I was stranded on a desert island, I could get by with chips and salsa, and a couple of Pet Shop Boys CDs.  Casita del Campo’s chips and salsa were as good as any I’d had up to that point, no better and certainly no worse than other restaurants featuring “Mexican” cuisine.  And so, budding philosopher that I was, I posed a question to my host: “what makes this a ‘gay’ restaurant?”  As far as I could tell, it was just like any other restaurant, well any other featuring Mexican food.  It was a question permutations of which I would ask many times over the intervening years since.  Someone might say, “let’s go get a drink at a gay bar,” and invariably they’d get my smart-alecky response, “a gay bar?  there’s such a thing as gay alcohol?”  Surely I don’t need to belabor the point, it is self evident.

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