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Last month, the new president of the human rights advocacy group, Kelley Robinson, posted a six and a half minute video to introduce herself and frame the mission of her organization, founded 40 years ago by gay activist Steve Endean to help fund political campaigns for candidates for gay rights. In the video, Robinson talked about voting rights. He talked about transgender kids at school. He talked about access to abortion and workers’ rights. He said many things, including arriving “in a world where we are free and set free without exception, without exception, without anyone being left behind.”
Not once, however, has he uttered the word “gay” or “lesbian” or “bisexual”.
It is not the only one. The word “gay” is increasingly being replaced by “queer” or, more generally, “L.G.B.T.Q.”, which relate to gender as much as – and perhaps more – to sexual orientation. The word “queer” is increasing in frequency and can be used interchangeably with “gay”, which in turn replaced the sombre and vaguely judicious “homosexual” not long ago.
The change has been particularly dramatic in some influential spheres: academia, cultural institutions and the media, from Teen Vogue to The Hollywood Reporter to this newspaper. Just 10 years ago, for example, “queer” only appeared 85 times in the New York Times. As of Friday, it was used 632 times in 2022, and the year isn’t over. Over the same periods, the use of “gay” dropped from 2,228 to 1,531 – even more commonly used, but it is impossible to lose the direction of evolution. Meanwhile, the generic term “L.G.B.T.Q.” increased from two mentions to 714.
“It’s often a generational problem, where young people, millennials, are more comfortable with it. Generation X members like me somehow agree. Some you might find in every category, “Jason DeRose, who oversees L.G.B.T.Q. reporting at NPR, said of the news outlet’s movement toward queer.” And then older people or boomers, perhaps, who find it problematic. “
But it’s not just older people who get irritated. “The mainstream media and the” LGBTQ “mainstream media treat the word” lesbian “as if it were the plague,” noted Julia Diana Robertson in the lesbian publication The Velvet Chronicle.
Let’s be clear: many lesbians and gays are fine with this change. They may also prefer generic terms like “L.G.B.T.Q.” and “queer” because they include people who identify themselves on the basis of expression or gender identity, as well as sexual orientation. But let’s consider those who don’t, and why. For one thing, “gay” and “queer” are not synonymous, as they are increasingly being treated, particularly between Gen Z and millennials. Likewise, the term “L.G.B.T.Q.”, which sometimes includes additional symbols and letters, represents so many identities unrelated to sexual orientation that gays and lesbians can feel left out.
Last week on CBS News Sunday Morning, writer David Sedaris said he had finished “fighting the word ‘queer'”. He continued: “Like the term ‘Latinx’, ‘queer’ was started by a professor of humanities and slowly picked up steam. Then the well-meaning radio producers and magazine editors thought, ‘Well, I guess that’s how they want it. be called now! ‘ But I don’t remember it being voted on. “
This raises a question for me, a language obsessed and someone interested in the ways in which word choices reflect and guide culture: Why change the word for same-sex orientation? And to echo Sedaris: who decides these things anyway?
Let’s start with the basic dictionary meaning differences between words. “Gay” has a clear and specific meaning that applies to both men and women: “homosexual”, which is the first entry in most dictionaries. “Lesbian”, of course, has the same meaning, but strictly for women.
While the first definition of “queer”, according to Oxford and Dictionary.com, is “strange, strange”. Another definition refers not only to gay people, but also to “a person whose sexual orientation or gender identity does not fall into the heterosexual mainstream or gender binary,” according to Dictionary.com. This could mean “transgender”, “gender neutral”, “non-binary”, “agender”, “pangender”, “genderqueer”, “demisexual”, “asexual”, “two spirits”, “third gender” or all, none or some combination of the above. Being queer, as Bell Hooks once said, is not “who you are having sex with – this may be a dimension of it – but it is queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create.” and find a place to talk, thrive and live ”.
While we’re here, the Q in “L.G.B.T.Q.” currently it can represent both “queer” and “domanding”.
Confused? You should be! “Queer” can mean almost anything, and that’s the point. Queer theory is about the deliberate breaking down of normative categories around gender and sex, especially binary ones like men and women, straight and gay. Saying that you are homosexual could mean that you are gay; it could mean that you are straight; it could mean that you are undecided about your gender or that you prefer not to say it. Saying you’re gay might mean as little as kissing another girl your sophomore year in college. It could mean that you valiantly plowed through Judith Butler’s prose in a queerness course in the Elizabethan theater.
Given the wide spectrum of possibilities, it’s not surprising that many people, gay or straight, have no idea what it means when someone identifies themselves as queer.
But this is important: not all gays consider themselves queer. Many lesbian and gay people define themselves in terms of sexual orientation, not gender. There are gay men, for example, who grew up desperate to be reassured that they were as boys as any hyper-virile straight man. They had to sternly reject those who tried to tell them that their sexual orientation called their masculinity into question.
“Queer” has other connotations, not all of which are welcome or welcoming. While homosexuality is a sexual orientation you cannot choose, queerness is something you can, according to James Kirchick, the author of “Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington.” Queerness, he argues, is a fad and political statement that not all gay people adhere to. “Queerness is also knowingly and intentionally marginal,” he told me. “While the arc of the gay rights movement, and the individual life of most gay people, has been a struggle against marginalization. We want to be welcomed. We want to have equal rights. We want a place in our institutions ”.
Many gay people simply prefer the word “gay”. “Gay” has been a generally positive long term. The second definition of “gay” in most dictionaries is something along the lines of “happy”, “carefree” and “carefree”. While “queer” was, first of all, a pejorative. For a certain generation, “queer” is still what William F. Buckley, with the clenched jaw, called Gore Vidal on ABC in 1968 – “Listen, queer” – before threatening to “kick you in that damn face.”
What I hear most often from gay and lesbian friends about the word “queer” is something along the lines of what Sedaris pointed out: “Nobody consulted me!” This was not their choice.
So how did it happen? In part it is the strength of academic and institutional language that has permeated the influential worlds of the arts, Hollywood, publishing and fashion. Another part is generational: Gen Z – 21% of whom identify as “LGBT,” according to Gallup, a percentage that has nearly doubled in just four years – often uses social media to frame the conversation. As linguist Gretchen McCullough explained in her book “Because the Internet,” word changes are taking hold much faster these days.
“Queer” wandered the academy in semiotics and gender studies courses for decades before activists unleashed it with the help of social media in the last decade or so. “Queerness” and “queering” now materialize in all kinds of contexts, be it John Wesley queering, tarot queering or queering quinceañeras.
In recent years, other activist terms have followed lightning-fast trajectories. The term “Latinx” has overtaken academic institutions and briefly became fashionable in the media, still prevalent in some influential publications, such as The New Yorker, although only 3 percent of Hispanics (or Latinos, if you prefer) use it. Likewise, the word “fat”. As Sarai Walker, the author of “Dietland” wrote, “fat activists use the word with pride in an attempt to destigmatize not just the word but, by extension, the fat body.” For her, the word represents not only acceptance but also the promotion of body positivity.
To be clear: there’s nothing wrong with hugging a particular word to describe yourself. The problem arises when a new term is used in ways that misrepresent or misrepresent some of the same people it should include. This is especially true when people in the population in question openly reject the term trendy. Such is apparently the case with overweight people, who, according to a number of studies, rank “fat” among their least desirable descriptors. For many, the word “fat” remains a fourth grade way of putting someone to shame. The choice of a euphemism such as “curvy” should not be denounced as complicity or avoidance. Nor should a medical term like “overweight” be considered verboten, as it is by some activists, because it implies the existence of a regulatory burden.
Language is constantly evolving, but it shouldn’t become inflexible, especially when new terminologies, in the name of inclusion, sometimes end up making others feel excluded. In the case of “queer,” it is particularly concerning and not only because it replaces widely accepted and understood terms, but also because the successes of the gay rights movement have historically hinged on inclusion efforts.
Gays, lesbians and bisexuals have long fought to be open and clear about who they were. That’s why they call it pride.