Nuances of gay identities reflected in new language 'Homosexual'
First, there was the term "homosexual," then "gay" and "lesbian," then the once taboo "dyke" and "queer."
Now, all bets are off.
With the universe of gender and sexual identities expanding, a gay youth culture emerging, acceptance of gays rising and label loyalty falling, the gay lexicon has exploded with scores of new words and blended phrases that delineate every conceivable stop on the identity spectrum -- at least for this week.
Someone who is "genderqueer," for example, views the gender options as more than just male and female or doesn't fit into the binary male-female system. A "trannydyke" is a transgender person (whose gender is different than the one assigned at birth) attracted to people with a more feminine gender, while a "pansexual" is attracted to people of multiple genders. A "boi" describes a boyish gay guy or a biological female with a male presentation; and "heteroflexible" refers to a straight person with a queer mind-set.
The list of terms -- which have hotly contested definitions -- goes on: "FTM" for female to male, "MTF" for male to female, "boydyke," "trannyboy," "trannyfag," "multigendered," "polygendered," "queerboi," "transboi," "transguy," "transman," "half-dyke," "bi-dyke," "stud," "stem," "trisexual," "omnisexual," and "multisexual."
"The language thing is tricky," said Thom Lynch, the director of the San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center. "I feel sorry for straight people."
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Tricky, maybe, but also healthy and empowering, said Carolyn Laub, the director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, which links gay and lesbian student clubs in the state.
"We in society and in our generation are developing new understandings of sexual orientation and gender identities and what that means to us," she said. "We don't really have enough language to describe that; therefore, we have to create new words."
For those back in the linguistic dark ages still wondering what's wrong with "homosexual," the evolution of queer identity language has progressed something like this: "Homosexual" sounded pathological and clinical, so activists went about creating their own words, starting with "gay" and "lesbian." That was well and good, but terms like "dyke" and "queer" had an appealing spikiness and served double-duty by stripping the sting from words that had heretofore been considered unspeakably nasty.
The adjustment took time for some: As recently as 2002, visitors at the San Francisco community center routinely complained about a sign proudly pronouncing it "the queerest place on earth," Lynch said. But in the Bay Area, in the age of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," that sort of sensitivity is beginning to seem almost quaint. Even some straight people have adopted the word because they have gay parents or an affinity for gay culture.
These days, "queer" is especially handy because it's vague enough to encompass just about everyone. The word and its newfangled linguistic cousins have become indispensable as the transgender population in the Bay Area has grown exponentially -- into the tens of thousands, advocates say -- and sexual identities have become increasingly complicated.
"If you're not a man or woman, words like 'gay' or 'lesbian' don't fit you anymore," said Sam Davis, founder of United Genders of The Universe, a support group and speakers bureau. "The words from just a few years ago aren't adequate to talk about who we are, where we're coming from and who we like."
Dee Braur, a 17-year-old with a tuft of greenish hair, calls herself "half-dyke." "I'm bisexual but I lean more toward women than men," she said. Men, she added, annoy her.
"Trisexual" also works, she said with a snicker: "I'll try anything once and if I like it, I'll try it again and again and again."
Andy Duran, 19, said: "People are feeling like, what's the point of labeling? If I must label, let me create my own."
That said, Duran uses "queer" -- among others -- because "it's the one that leaves the most for discovery. ... It's not really limiting. I can date a woman or a man. I can date someone who's transgender or genderqueer."
Tiffany Solomon, who is 19 and technically a lesbian, is put off by the word "lesbian."
"I think of a shorthaired woman who wears flannel. It's bad to a degree, but it's something that becomes embedded when you're young and queer and look on TV and you only have stereotypes to go on," she said. She calls herself a "metrosexual" -- the word used to describe straight men who have a gay sensibility when it comes to fashion and grooming -- because she also identifies with gay male culture.
Justin, who is 19 and didn't want to use his last name because he's not out to his family as transgender, calls himself a "boi" -- with an "i" -- because he feels like a boy -- with a "y" -- but "I don't have the boy parts, as much I wish I did."
"I'm still learning the ropes of just being me," he added.
Lynn Breedlove, a musician and author, spent years as a "butch dyke," but nowadays, he prefers to interchange pronouns and, depending on his mood, goes back and forth between the old label and "trannyboy." "Because I'm like Peter Pan -- eternally youthful but I'm always played by a girl," Breedlove said. "It's more a faggy aesthetic thing. I don't want hair on my face and chest. Ooh, I don't want to be transman -- that sounds really furry."
While Breedlove is old enough to have an age complex -- he explained his refusal to divulge his age as a "rock star thing" -- a lot of the identity fluidity, name mania and word invention is bubbling up from the next generation of queer youth.
"Now that community resources are in place and public acceptance has increased, it's more feasible for adolescents to come out during adolescence," said Caitlin Ryan, a researcher at San Francisco State University who has studied lesbian, gay and bisexual youth. "What we're getting in the LGBT community is the power of youth. It's their expression and exuberance and energy and also their contribution to the culture."
It makes sense that youth, in particular, are coming up with new words and trying them on, considering that "identity development is one of the most important developmental tasks of adolescence," she said.
Growing acceptance of gays and lesbians has also encouraged idiosyncrasy, Ryan said. "Identities are very personal. That was much less true 20 years ago, when identity was more around community. Now that there's a community, a vibrant one with resources, there's more room for personal identity. Before, the tribe was so much more important," she said.
To further complicate matters, race and ethnicity affect who is using which words. Some people of color prefer the word "stud" to "butch," meaning a masculine-identified lesbian. Which makes someone who falls between a stud and a femme -- a more "feminine" lesbian -- a "stem."
And genderbending and genderqueerness aren't as prevalent among people of color, said Mateo Cruz, who's Latino and a staff member at the Pacific Center, Berkeley's LGBT center.
In these communities, "queer" and the terms it spawned have a reputation of being "white," so some shy away from them in favor of "same-gender-loving people" or "men who sleep with men," or -- among Spanish-speakers -- "homosexual," which is also a Spanish word.
"A lot of the stereotypes of what a 'queer' person is supposed to be, especially in mainstream media, is always a white person," said Solomon, who is African American. "A lot of issues people of color have with their families is their parents are saying, 'If you're gay, then you want to be white.' Because that's all they see. So yeah, 'queer' is not a word that a lot of people of color use."
No wonder Cruz sometimes grows frustrated when he leads discussions about appropriate language in anti-homophobia workshops. It can take an hour for his savviest students to list the "hundreds" of words they know for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Then the discussion about what the words mean, who can use them and whether they're polite, often drags on ad nauseam.
When Cruz's coding system -- circles, big X's and dotted lines to connote cool, uncool, and sometimes-cool terms -- inevitably breaks down, he throws up his hands.
"However people self-identify," he tells students, "we have to respect."
* Rona Marech, Chronicle Staff Writer (Sunday, February 8, 2004)
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