The Evolution of Queerness: A Short Lexical History (Pt. 3)

November 15, 2017 in inQueery

 

A Terminological Explosion

Last week, we saw how the word “queer” became an umbrella term for people who did not conform to conventional heterosexual behaviors.  However, the success of this one widely recognized label hasn’t resulted in the extinction of other epithets.

Consider the acronym “LGBT” (or should I say “LBGTQ”, or “LGBTQIA”?).  It’s easy to deride it as an alphabet soup.  Take Orange is the New Black actress Lea DeLaria.  Talking about her identity, she praised “queer” over “LGBT”, which she called “LGBTQQTY-whatever-LMNOP,” adding that the changeable acronym “tends to stress our differences.”

Yet, not only is the ever-changing acronym still very much a part of the conversation (I myself, use “LGBTQ” quite often), it is surrounded by a wealth of new adjectives, nouns and phrases.  Indeed, not everybody is satisfied with one universal appellation, many want pre-ci-sion.

So let’s take a minute to consider this prolific new glossary. My intent here, of course, is not to devise any kind of inventory, a task that would be nigh impossible. Instead, I will try and reflect on the context in which a profusion of new terms used to describe gender identity and sexual orientation have appeared: what has changed, and, in turn, what are the consequences of those changes?

 

Browsing the queer internet these days means constantly stumbling onto new, mysterious words.  Sure, I know everything about “intersectionality,” and the concept of “misgendering” is pretty self-explanatory.  But what the hell does the acronym “MOGAI” stand for?  What does being “allosexual” entail?  And what is the difference between “gender expansive” and “genderfluid?”  Sure, some well-meaning sources will attempt to codify the meaning of these words, but can they guarantee everyone agrees with their definition?

This can be either exhilarating or frustrating. If your identity and/or sexual orientation don’t align with heterosexual norms, or if you are an ally, you might be thrilled to discover new, helpful terms.  But for people who have some reservations when it comes to queer culture, this nebulousness might be the final blow.

Of course, toning down our rich queer vocabulary is not going to do anything for those people who are clearly homophobic, transphobic etc., but, as some activists have shown, using less obscure terms can be a good way to reach out to people who are novices in matters of queer culture but, with more knowledge, could become precious allies.  On this subject, a set of guidelines issued by the organization GLAAD provides the following justification:  “Understanding our audience — and meeting them where they’re at with the language and descriptions we use — is essential to connecting with those undecided Americans who can move from ambivalent to supportive when we reach out in terms they understand.”

However, not only should that not stop queer people from using new words to describe their identity and their everyday struggles in a more accurate way, but those terms might eventually enter the mainstream.  As we saw, that is what happened to “queer,” “gay” and “lesbian.”

In fact, queer vocabulary has already started making its way into the culture at large, notably via the actions of a crucial tastemaker: Facebook.

A few years ago, the mammoth social network added dozens of items to its custom gender options (meaning you have to select the custom bar and then start typing to see options appear).  The move was amply discussed in the press and prompted  many attempts at defining every single one of these options.  Facebook later also started allowing users to type in whatever they wanted in their gender bar (which inspired me to change my own gender to “sailor scout.”)

Here is a February 2015 post from the page “Facebook Diversity” explaining the move:

 

“Last year we were proud to add a custom gender option to help people better express their identities on Facebook. We collaborated with our Network of Support, a group of leading LGBT advocacy organizations, to offer an extensive list of gender identities that many people use to describe themselves. After a year of offering this feature, we have expanded it to include a free-form field.

Now, if you do not identify with the pre-populated list of gender identities, you are able to add your own. As before, you can add up to ten gender terms and also have the ability to control the audience with whom you would like to share your custom gender. We recognize that some people face challenges sharing their true gender identity with others, and this setting gives people the ability to express themselves in an authentic way.

The expanded custom gender option is available to everyone who uses Facebook in US English.

 

An inventory of Facebook’s custom gender options found on khanacademy.org

 

Not surprisingly, Facebook’s move provoked the ire of a bunch of morons who whined about special snowflakes needing special treatment, yada yada yada… No need to include a link.

Anyway, efforts like this one are becoming more and more common. Like feminism, queer culture has now become a selling point. More and more companies want us to know that they are not ableist, nor transphobic, nor cissexist etc., (and they’ll use the appropriate terms as credit to their “wokeness.”) We can rejoice over this while keeping in mind the dangers that come with corporate co-optation (Andi Zeisler’s recent book showed us what it did to feminism): Playboy may feature a transgender model in its pages,  but it’s still Playboy.

Before we wrap this up, I’d like to take a quick second to consider another way in which the queer community has been incredibly creative in the past years. Indeed, we have considered words, but images play an important part in every movement. Accordingly, queer people have come up with a number of symbols to express their individuality. In many ways, those symbols have met with the same challenges vocabulary has (after all, symbolism is a form of language too).

Still the image beneath shows how people have managed to circumvent those difficulties, notably by mix-and-matching symbols to help people who have multiple identities.

 

Gender identity symbols found on transgenderuniverse.com

 

I feel this was a very mildly successful foray into the incredibly diverse vocabulary the queer community has forged in recent (and less recent) years. Next week should help clarify what exactly is at stake in this lexical struggle. In particular, I want to  talk about “post-gay gender activists,” a newer generation of activists who think that the fight for gay rights has, in the past, relied on narrow conceptions of gender and sexuality. They, on the other hand, want to take into account a wider spectrum of non conforming sexual behaviors and gender identities. This should be a good way to introduce a discussion on the holy grail of gender activism: the suppression of gender binaries.

 

 

 

Anne Errelis is a Staff Contributor at InQueery.