Monday, May 19, 2003

Is it time for a new word?

Gay can be a noun "The gays were over there" or an adjective. "The gay men." I think most people agree that the noun use is a bit objectifying - to define someone as just "a gay" is like saying they're "a dog" or "a chair". It's all they are. And people are much more than their sexuality. An adjective allows room for scope. It says, that's one trait a person has, but there could be others.

Si why is lesbian usually only a noun? We don't say "The lesbian ladies" because female is encoded implicitly in "lesbian". I think this shows up a bit of an imbalance. "Gay" is supposed to apply equally to men and women, but in practice it's mostly used on men. So we get acronyms like GLB (Gay, lesbian, bisexual) which really mean "Gay (adjective) men, lesbians (noun) and bisexual (adjective) people".

I think the imbalance stems back to before the 1970s when lesbian and homosexual were the two mainly used terms. Since "gay" was generally adopted in the early 1970s, the word "homosexual" has tended to get used less. But "gay" hasn't replaced "lesbian", because there's still a need to differentiate between men and women.

The switch in terminology in the 1970s was important because on the whole gay describes an identity, whereas homosexual describes a behaviour.

However, for me - neither of these two words are ideal. "Homosexual" is too pre-occupied with sexual acts. You can have a gay identity without having sex.

And the opposite is true of "gay". There are plenty of men who have "gay sex", but don't consider themselves to have a gay identity or live a gay lifestyle. And then there's the implication that there's one way to live a gay life, or "be" gay.

Moving the concept away from behaviour (homosexual) and towards identity (gay) has been useful in terms of giving people a notion of shared community, which has helped us gain acceptance. But "gay" has its limitations too. I keep coming across people who don't want to identify as gay - they don't like the "gay scene" but they fancy men. They want to be open and proud about it, but don't want to change their friends or fashion sense. They feel the concept of "gay" is too narrow for them - has too many identity connotations that put it beyond fancying people, and into areas to do with audience demographics, advertising campaigns, holidays, music, fashion etc.

So I'd like to see the invention of a new word which isn't based on what people do in bed, OR in terms of a specific identity (which seems to be based on what they're expected to wear, listen to, and where they go on holiday.) Such a word would acknowledge that the one thing we really have in common, collectively is who we desire - or fancying people of the same sex. It wouldn't be as wide a term as "queer" - which can mean any oppressed group, and wouldn't have the association with the closet as the term MSM seems to have (it generally refers to married men who don't consider themselves gay but have gay sex)

The new word would refer to just the concept of desire. Not sexual behaviour or lifestyle. It would mean men who fancy men or women who fancy women. It would hold no other assumptions, wouldn't sound like a medical condition, and it would have a positive connotation. It would also apply to men and women equally - allowing us to dispense with "lesbian". Any suggestions? I've thought of homodesirable but it sounds too clinical.

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