It’s Pride Week this week, and this weekend sees a lot of Gay Pride events around the world. Here in Ireland there’s a Gay Pride Parade in Dublin today as a culmination of a week’s celebrations. It’s great that such an event is now a normal part of life here that people from all walks of life can get involved in and enjoy. It wasn’t too long ago that such a thing was inconceivable: homosexuality was only decriminalised here in 1993 after all. In line with the great strides many nations have made in dealing with sexual and gender identity in general, have been the developments in our language, as we learn to refer to ideas which were previously hidden, or which we’d never conceived of before. I’d like to take a look at a list of some of these terms and phrases:
Gay: As most people know, the word gay originally meant joyful or carefree. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the word become synonymous with promiscuity and prostitution, based on an association between the concept of being carefree, and having fewer sexual inhibitions. In the early 20th century, a gay cat was a young male apprenticed to an older hobo, often exchanging sex for training and protection. This seems to be the main origin of the use of gay to refer to a homosexual man.
Lesbian: comes from the Greek island of Lesbos, home of Sappho, an Ancient Greek poet who wrote love poetry celebrating the beauty of women and her love for them (hence also the adjective Sapphic). The word seems to be a little less common now, probably as people realise that having separate adjectives for homosexual men and women isn’t really necessary, and maintains gender divisions, when gay works fine as a unisex word. I think it’s also significant that lesbian is usually used as a noun, and gay as an adjective. Calling a woman a lesbian is like defining her only by that characteristic. Whereas a gay woman could also have many other adjectives, and is still primarily a woman first, not solely defined by her homosexuality.
LGBT: An initialism standing for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. It first came to be used in the 80s to replace the term gay community. Members of this community began to realise that the term gay community was insufficient to refer to the increasing number of people of various backgrounds who were all coming together in solidarity due to their shared gender and sexual identities that were considered outside of social norms. LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) is also sometimes used, as well as other variations such as LGBTI (I for intersex).
Queer: this word has long been a pejorative term for homosexuality, having first originally been a general adjective meaning strange or unusual. Now of course, the term has been embraced by much of the community against which it was used, as an act of defiance to remove the harmful power of the word by embracing it, and taking it out of the hands of bigots. Queer is now used as an umbrella term for all gender and sexual identities that are not heterosexual or cisgender (more on this term later).
Straight: still commonly used as a synonym for heterosexual, though I suspect it will become less common, as like queer, it assumes that not being heterosexual is a deviation from normality.
Gender and Sex: The basic distinction is between biological (sex) and cultural (gender). Sex refers to one’s reproductive system and secondary sexual characteristics, whereas gender is a broader term, still strongly related to sex, but referring more to cultural expectations and behaviour based on concepts of masculinity, femininity, or other gender identities or combinations. Most people’s gender and sexual identities seem to broadly align (e.g. being born with male sexual characteristics and feeling male), but of course this isn’t always the case, as someone’s assigned sex and gender identity might not align, and they are therefore transgender, non-binary, or gender non-conforming. And I never cease to be amazed at how people get angry over gender identity. Well, I think I can understand it a little. Most people grew up in societies in which there was no public expression of gender and sexual identities beyond a simple binary of male/masculine – female/feminine. Now though, we’re generally more aware and inclusive of the many people whose identity doesn’t neatly fit on one side or the other (and I think we’re all really a mix of different degrees of stereotypically male and female characteristics). And sadly, we’re not always very expecting of change. People were comfortable with a simple view of identity, even if that didn’t actually reflect the reality of the many people who had to suffer in silence because they didn’t match accepted gender or sexual conventions. Acknowledging that people have many different types of identity, and that’s ok because someone’s sexual or gender identity doesn’t affect you, seems like an obvious thing to do, based on basic human empathy. But obviously some people don’t like their idea of what men and women should be like being questioned (even if, and I can’t stress this enough, it doesn’t actually affect them in the slightest), and they pour scorn on any term, like transgender or intersex, used to refer to actual gender or sexual identities held by actual real people. Which brings me to…
Cisgender: this is the one that really makes people’s blood boil. Often shortened to cis, it refers to a correspondence between one’s gender identity and assigned sex. Basically, it’s the opposite of transgender. And when a lot of people hear the term, they get angry, crying Why do we need a made-up for being normal!!?? Well, first of all, it’s not a made-up, or even new term: it’s been used by medical academics since the 90s. And of course, it’s profoundly stupid to think that it’s synonymous with normal. You might say: Why not, most people are cisgender, so why not just say normal? But that’s being disingenuous, because most native speakers know that, though normal can technically be synonymous with common or usual, it’s a more loaded term. Common and usual are objective, referring basically to simple frequency and ubiquity, whereas normal carries a sense of this is how things should be. Referring to cisgender people as normal therefore assumes that not being cisgender is abnormal, that it’s not how things should be. And it’s not as though if you’re cisgender you have to declare it every time you meet someone for the first time. It’s a term that’s only ever used in discussions on gender identity, where it’s understandably useful.
I do kind of understand why people might get angry at the increased recognition of a variety of gender and sexual identities. A little bit anyway. People generally don’t like change, especially if involves replacing a simple perspective with a more complex one. Though it’s also important to remember of course that some people are just bigoted assholes.
And I think it’s important to consider as well that people resist change in language. You can see that in how many people hate contemporary slang, abbreviations, or giving words new meanings. So when people hear terms like intersex or cisgender, or people self-identifying as queer, they resist having to add to their vocabulary, or seeing a word’s power being taken from it. Because as much as we resist having our worldview challenged, we also often resist change in language, because that’s our primary expression of our worldview. And seeing language change might make us feel like our worldview is being changed. If a word becomes offensive (e.g. many pejorative terms for homosexual people which were socially acceptable not so long ago are rightfully frowned upon now), people feel like words are being taken from them, and that “society” is trying to forcibly change their perspective.
When of course what’s actually happening is the opposite process. Most people learn more about the variety of identities that exist, and then adapt their vocabulary accordingly; dropping offensive terms when they become aware of the damage they cause, and introducing new terms to refer to identities they’re now aware of. But for those who resist accepting that people are different from them, they see this as an attempt to forcibly change their language, and therefore their worldview.
But thankfully these people are increasingly in the minority, and I like to think that at heart most people are happy to accept that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and enjoy basic civil and human rights. And though there’s a lot of progress to be made, to varying degrees around the world, it’s comforting to live in a country where the gay prime minister can get married (and people still feel free to criticise him for his political views: it’s interesting to see the international reaction to Leo Varadkar’s election, when most people here are more concerned about his right-wing leanings than his personal life). And where people can have their self-identified gender identity officially recognised without any issue.
I like to think that things are getting better, overall. Having a Gay Pride Parade being a normal part of like in Dublin in June is a great example of this, so if you’re celebrating Pride this weekend, have fun!