The recent article by William Safire in the New York Times (magazine section, 11/6/05) on “homolexicology” adds nothing really new to the discussion of cultural identifiers in our texts except for some interesting historical notes. For example, the word “gay” originally meant “lighthearted” and was a slang term in British English for “a loose woman” in 1825. The term was then used to refer to a “homosexual boy” in 1935.
Later, of course, it was generalized to include all those who had an affectional orientation to same-sex others. [As I write this I notice that Microsoft Word underlines “affectional,” indicating that it’s not in its dictionary.] Although technically the term “gay” can be used to refer to both homosexual men and homosexual women, gay women are increasingly preferring the term “lesbian” since “gay” has become so identified with homosexual men and implies in some way that women are a subset of men. It’s similar in some ways to our elimination of such terms as “poetess” and “actress” which imply that the unmarked “poet” and “actor” are male. The word “queer” can be used to refer to both homosexual men and women but, because of its still negative connotation, it’s almost universally resented when used by “outsiders,” much like other “negatively” nuanced cultural identifiers. This is just a specific instance of the general rule that the linguistic privilege to use terms that may have negative connotations—whether referring to nationalities, races, or affectional orientations—is limited to insiders (i.e., members of the group in question). Safire correctly notes (as I do in the texts) that the term “homosexual” is generally inappropriate when referring to a gay man or lesbian largely because of its almost exclusive emphasis on sexuality and also because it does not include the social and cultural dimensions of same-sex orientation which “lesbian” and “gay” do.
Relevant to this little lexicology post are the titles of the two volumes written by NCA members of the GLBT division and caucus. The first, published in 1981, was called Gayspeak: Gay Male and Lesbian Communication (Pilgrim Press) and the second, published in 1994, was called Queer Words, Queer Images: Communication and the Construction of Homosexuality (NYU Press). GLBT or LGBT, btw, stands for “gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender” or “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender” and seems to be gaining acceptance as the most inclusive designation, though not without political ramifications.
And, just to make matters a bit more confusing, the NCA caucus is named the “Caucus on Gay and Lesbian Concerns” but the NCA Division is called the Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender Communication Studies Division.