Summary of the Law (said at every Sunday Mass)

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Queer Identity, Part III: Label, Label, Label

I hadn't really thought about it before, but label is one of those words that stops sounding like a word at all if you say it enough times. (For that matter, I defy anyone to say it more than three times in succession without laughing.)

Given that what to call people who identify as gay -- or same-sex attracted -- or queer -- or homosexual -- or ... well, that need not detain us. I thought I would take a few of the more popular and/or important terms, and say a few things about how they each relate to gay identity, especially as viewed through a gay-identifying lens; and then also make some remarks about them from a specifically Catholic perspective. Do be warned that I'm discussing some of the more offensive terms here, too. (After thinking about it, I've decided not to treat of the words lesbian and dyke; not being a lesbian myself, and never having formally studied it to boot, I don't know how reliable my information on those words really is. For much the same reason, I haven't addressed the complicated terminologies that surround transgenderism and intersexuality, important though those topics are.)

I have a little label, I call myself a gay.
When I'm out and ready, then label I shall play.*

1. Gay. This is the best-known one, of course. It has a rather entertaining semantic history, if, like me, you are a criminally boring person; once upon a time, it was actually used of promiscuous heterosexual men, and also of prostitutes -- it wasn't adopted as a standard word for, uh, gay people until the middle of the twentieth century. It's therefore not to be wondered at that its meaning has proven fairly fluid: today, it indicates only orientation, but as recently as when my parents were reaching adulthood, it indicated behavior and even political stance. It's not off the cards that a new term or terms might supplant it as the most universal and neutral word for all-this-sort-of-thing.

This is part of why a lot of LGBT people really don't like the term, or even actively avoid it. It is the closest thing we have to common parlance; but its meaning and implications are not absolutely defined, and it tends to have, if not political, at any rate cultural baggage -- for instance, it tends to imply a certain degree of effeminacy and a certain amount of norm-flouting, even for those who aren't sexually active for whatever reason. I'm not specially fond of the word myself, and I've toyed with dropping it on a number of occasions. I still think of doing so now and again. But at least for the present, it's too widespread, and too mercifully succinct, to avoid -- brevity being (ironically) in short supply in these discussions.

My own thoughts on it as a Catholic specifically are, if it's good enough for the Vicar of Christ, it's good enough for Christians. But I admit I'm being a bit flippant there.

2. Same-sex attracted. This phrase raises a lot of hackles in the gay community. That's because it was employed, notably in the fifties, in psychological and psychiatric experiments aimed at curing gay people. The results were meager at best, and the techniques were sometimes downright barbaric, and/or ludicrous. (The slightly medical sound of the term homosexual sometimes has a milder version of the same effects, but I haven't observed this to be at all consistent -- it seems much more dictated by context for that word.)

Of course, based just on the literal meaning of each word, it ought to be a neutral term. That, I think, is a large part of why it's become PC-for-Catholics. But -- as many people, and not least those who advocate most strongly against the LGBT movement politically, point out -- the dictionary meaning of the term is not the only thing that counts. History, connotation, association -- in a word, baggage -- count too.

3. Queer. This is one of those words that was originally a slur, and was adopted by the community it was used to denigrate, as an act of defiance (not unlike nigger in some African American circles, although I have no idea whether the same applies outside of North America). For some people, queer is bidding fair to replace gay as the catch-all. It does have definite advantages: gay often implies homosexual men specifically, whereas queer applies equally to the L, the B, and the T, and any other letters one cares to add; it is somewhat older than the LGBT use of the term gay, going back to the nineteenth century; and, partly because of the circles in which it's been picked up, it has a more academic ring to it. (The faint suggestion of Latinity from the Q probably helps, too.)

The drawbacks are a little more subtle with this one. One of them is that it does sometimes indicate specifically some type of opposition to gender binaries as such, and a lot of LGBT people are totally fine with -- or even protective of -- such things. Gay men and lesbians who are socially pretty much the same as their straight friends, the (so-called) straight-acting types, may not identify with the idea of queerness at all. And some thinkers would specifically repudiate the gender-bending that queer terminology usually (though not always) implies. This leads into my next term.

4. Androphile. This one, on purely linguistic grounds, is actually my favorite. Unlike the word homosexual, which is a compound of Greek and Latin roots, this one is drawn from the Greek correctly, and I like the sound of it, too. However, words ending in -phile tend not to be nice ones in English, and it's not off the cards that if I adopted androphile instead of gay, I'd have to spend a good 40% of my waking hours explaining that, yes, I am also an Anglophile, but that isn't what I was talking about.

Moments of overlap between the two just make it worse.

I understand -- though my information on the subject is patchy -- that the word entered the LGBT conversation, so to speak, chiefly through the writings of Jack Donovan, who is a homosexual himself but highly critical of many aspects of gay culture, including the term gay, its traditional alliances with feminism and the Left, and the gender-bending that often characterizes it. Without being thoroughly acquainted with his views, I'm extremely leery of adopting the word.

5. Sodomite. This one has a long history of being associated with homosexuality, and, additionally, of being concerned more specifically with actions and not taking an interest in orientation as such. It is, however, less common than (I gather) it used to be, though I was once addressed by a street preacher as "Hey sodomite, get back here." It is derived, of course, from the judgment of Sodom, and can therefore claim a Biblical pedigree that same-sex attracted does not share. Even so, I doubt this will replace that as the new PC-for-Catholics term in the foreseeable future. If nothing else, there is the problem that Scripture itself does not unambiguously support assigning this meaning to the word sodomite.**

6. Faggot. This is a volatile, jagged sort of word. Its chief aim -- that of abusing and demeaning someone -- is too well-known to need further explanation. But there are some people who not only use it of themselves, but prefer it; I met Dan Savage once, and he introduced himself to the little group I was part of with "I'm a fag." I put this down to the same defiance that led to the adoption of words like queer; and, having used the word faggot of myself, I gotta say there can be something liberating about it. The sensation of taking up and controlling something that, in the past, has been used in order to damage you, is kind of exhilarating.

But it can equally be an expression of self-hatred -- and no less so when that self-hatred is disguised as (or mixed with) self-deprecation, exaggerated gayness, or bravado. Faggot is rather a dangerous word. Now, I'm extremely fond of offensive humor,*** so dangerous things are fine with me. But consideration of other people has to come first, and I rarely use it either of myself or others.

7. Friends of Jesus. This is what Blessed Mother Teresa referred to us as once in an interview, explaining to the interviewer, who had asked her for her views on the subject, that she did not like the word homosexual, and asking him to speak of them instead under this phrase. I've always found it difficult not to be completely charmed by everything she did, and it is most certainly a welcome change for some other attitudes I've encountered. However, I admit it's not terribly practical: Jesus does have other friends, so to speak, and it doesn't make its meaning clear from the get-go.

The fundamental problem with every label is that it's incomplete. That is a shortcoming of every kind of label, not just those dealing with sexual orientation and identity, but it does affect these areas just as much. And, more than that, the ideas that these labels signify are themselves incomplete, and very largely culturally constructed. Gay people went right ahead and existed without necessarily having any sensation of gay identity in the Classical, Mediaeval, and Enlightenment worlds -- or rather, that is how we would articulate it, because the point is that they probably wouldn't feel the need to articulate it, or would do so differently if the occasion arose.

I was going to put a picture of Humpty Dumpty here in homage to 
Alice, but the search results creeped me out and I changed my mind.

And the same is true looking forward: if, one day, the notion of gay identity is jettisoned, we'll still be here, not because gayness is some transcendent thing that "finds a way," but because it is the people who are primary here, not the categories. The categories are things we've made to help us understand the people, and they justify their existence solely by that usefulness. If and when that usefulness ceases, we'll be none the worse for scrapping them.

So what's the best word? Well, gay is probably the safest, if you have to gamble. But if you're talking to someone who actually is gay, I really advise you to just ask them what they prefer. They're not likely to be offended, and it's much easier and safer than guessing.

*I feel like I should apologize for this for some reason. But I can't bring myself to, it's too much fun. My label's always playful, it loves to dance and spin. A happy game of label, oh play now let's begin.

**I would have thought that no sane, practicing Christian could seriously contemplate talking about people as sodomites in their hearing, except perhaps in a fit of anger. Having read the comment boxes of certain magazines, blogs, and so forth, I'm compelled to take the view that either fits of anger are more plentiful, or sanity is scarcer, than I had hoped; I am still loathe to renounce my original opinion.

***Warning: that link is exactly what is says on the tin.


  1. I suggest you give some critical consideration to the bizarre acronym LGBT. I am old enough and have been out long enough to have lived decades of my life without it. Now it is ubiquitous and treated as if it were simply An Obvious Truth. I for one reject it. It is the sexual equivalent of Yugoslavia.

    The addition of the T is the crucial point. LGB all have this in common: erotic attraction to one's own sex. Orientation and desire. Adding the T and making believe that "we" includes transgenders/transexuals changes the commonality from orientation to gender deviance. Why straight transvestites are excluded is a puzzle.

    "LGBT" puts in the same "camp" not only homosexual women and homosexual men and bisexuals of both genders --no stable bonding to begin with-- but males whose great desire in life is to be castrated and given artificial breasts. What that has to do with me, a man who loves other men precisely in their masculinity-- is beyond me.

    Though I don't use the word, I am an androphile. Donovan is right, that "gay" is a pre-packaged herd identity requiring lefty politics, victimist attitudes and deep ambivalence about masculinity. Not me. I'm an old-fashioned kinda guy, a man who loves other men.

  2. I don't understand DrAndroSF's attitude.

    Or, rather, I understand it, but I think it is horrible.

    Yes, there are different ways you can group things. People of minority sexual orientation are, in one sense, totally different than people of irregular gender identity.

    But then as DASF points out, there IS a commonality in the fact of gender transgression (homosexuality being a major transgression of hegemonic masculinity no matter how "masculine" you present in ways other than that).

    So, as with all things, there are some similarities and there are some differences. DrAndroSF seems to want to say, "Let's assimilate as much as possible. Let's defend OUR minority experience as only a minor or acceptable deviation...and distance ourselves from the REAL deviants. Let's not bootstrap our cause to theirs, we're not like THEM."

    Except, we're all Other. We're all "queer" in some way. Yes, in different ways. But the position that sexual minorities should "stratify" based on how transgressive our queerness in fact like supporting the "hierarchy" of blacks that existed back in the old days where "light skinned blacks" or even those who could "pass" were exalted socially, or at least perpetuated notions exalting themselves.

    In reality, though, that's usually a deeply internalized self-loathing. "The more normal we are the better!" the fetishization of the "straight acting" or "normal" deeply suspicious and possibly incoherent among a group of men who, by definition, are already NOT normative, not part of the hegemonic order. Trying to throw our brothers and sisters in Otherness under the bus to try to secure some semblance of a place in the hegemonic order...seems like just a cowardly move, and like one hasn't learned the empathy that should come from being Other, being minority, being queer. And if ones own "different status" doesn't create a broadminded amity with all other marginalized and different groups...well then what's the point?

  3. I can't really take either of these views without qualification.

    On the one hand, it is certainly true that there is a difference in kind -- both experientially and philosophically -- between homosexuals and the transgendered. Being interested in the same sex as oneself isn't the same as regarding one's physical gender and one's psychic gender as mismatched. On purely philosophical grounds, one could approve of the one and disapprove of the other, or vice versa, because they aren't the same phenomenon (as I'm sure members of both groups would agree); and approval or otherwise aside, the problems that confront each group and the manner in which they choose to express their "otherness" will inevitably be different, not only as a matter of personal decision, but as a matter of what the person is deciding about, so to speak.

    I therefore shrink from the notion that something like identifying as an androphile rather than gay, and seeing no commonality between oneself and transgenderism, is necessarily an example of self-loathing. After all, a lot of us simply have no interest in typical (or, at least, stereotypical) gay culture, and we don't all take the same view of sexuality, nor is there any reason to assume that we would -- common experience does not necessitate shared views. Hell, look at this very blog: I'm as gay as the next fellow (provided the next fellow's gay), but my own views on the subject aren't stereotypically gay. They aren't even stereotypically Catholic.

    I think, too, that it's a mistake to conflate all "otherness" and then think and speak as though we all owed one another the same kind of approval and support regardless of what we think. There are plenty of expressions of LGBT culture (polyamory, for instance) that I find opaque or unappealing, even apart from my moral principles; and there are some self-professedly queer organizations, like NAMBLA, that most queer people I've ever met or read would (justly) vilify -- the fact that they too are an "other" wouldn't enter into it.

  4. Without an agreed upon philosophy of what is desirable as to question of gender, sexuality, sexual behavior, &c., I don't think that viewing things through a lens of majorities oppressing minorities is very helpful, because a minority simply means "less than half of everybody." Without knowing the rubric we're using to isolate and reify that minority, the mere fact that they're a minority tells us little. Birdwatching enthusiasts, serial killers, and Bon Jovi fans are all minorities, but we take a rather different attitude towards birdwatchers than toward the two criminal groups I've just mentioned. There again, the simple fact of "otherness" isn't enough to establish an argument.

    On the other hand, it's true that more or less anyone who is not a cisgender heterosexual will face a lot of the same relational challenges, regardless of the specific reason for being outside that category. To that extent, speaking of "otherness" is very useful. I don't at all think it's hypocritical to put more emphasis on the shared experience of manhood, as opposed to the divergent experience of gay men versus straight men; indeed, I think it can be a valuable corrective to the "special snowflake" problem that can afflict minorities of every sort, queer people included. But, I do think it's a little insensitive not to consider one's own experience of "otherness" and be willing to apply it sympathetically to people whose "otherness" we don't perhaps find appealing. That, after all, is no more than the Golden Rule, unless we don't want anybody to sympathize with us at all, which seems both unlikely and odd.

    Personally, I use LGBT (or occasionally LGBTQ, but the string of letters does get tiring after a while) not because I look at those four things and think "Eh, same diff," but because it's common parlance. It's much the same reason I use the word "gay," even though I'm not 100% satisfied with the word (or with any word, actually). To choose a different word/acronym/interpretive dance/whatever would thus come across as me taking sides, on questions in which I either straight don't know what I'm talking about well enough to have the right to an opinion, or fundamentally have no interest.