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The Gay Blade

3rd May 2010

Homo ! Dyke ! Poofter ! Gay ! Leso ! Fag ! Queer !

Posted by: Michael Stevens

Which label fits you best? Which one do you use for yourself ? Or do you hate them all? I think a number of us have had these words spat out at us as terms of hatred at times, and that’s always nasty.

I generally tend to call myself gay, but will also use poof or fag at times, just for the hell of it. In lectures at Uni where it’s appropriate I sometimes call myself a big old homo: Because let’s face it,  I am. But the full word “homosexual” (only invented in 1867, heterosexual came 10 years later) now is seen as clinical and less appealing to many. It sounds like an illness to many, so it seems less popular as a personal term.

There’s an old political idea that by taking over the words our enemies use to attack us and using them ourselves we rob the words of their power as weapons - the growth of Black Pride in the USA in the 60s & 70s (in contrast to the older, more respectable “Negro” or “Coloured”) is an example of this, and so is the recent appropriation of “queer”.

Yet many older gay people, especially older gay men, hate the term “queer”. For them it is associated with the fear, misery and bullying of their youth, but a lot of younger gay people seem to prefer it. And hard as it may be to believe now, “gay” itself was once a radical term to describe same-sex attracted people. Today it seems a bit boring and ordinary as a label, safe and conventional. The growing use of “fag” just shows the growing influence of American culture on us all. I never used to hear it when I was a teenager. And if you think it’s somehow based in the use of the bundles of sticks to burn homos at the stake, well, you’re wrong.

Many lesbians dislike “gay” because it’s seen as too closely tied to male issues and ignores them and the issues that go with being a dyke. And “dyke” was also reclaimed by lesbians in the same way I talked about above: for many “lesbian” seemed too technical, too clinical and dated.

Does it matter? Some people say “Don’t label me! Who I sleep with isn’t who I am!”: Yeah, well I think they’re just kidding themselves. Society labels us all the time. We live in a world of symbols and labels, everywhere, and how they are used can often have a deep political and personal effect. And my first reaction to those who reject any label based on their sexuality is that they still haven’t really come to terms with who they are.

So what about “queer” then? Well let’s start with this nice neat idea that there are two sorts of human sexuality - hetero and homo. A nice idea, but it’s flawed; there are all sorts of permutations and shades of grey in how and who humans fuck. If gay is solely for same-sex attracted people, then what about bisexuals? (They actually do exist). What about people who have differing gender identities from the norm? Transexuals or Intersexed people for example? They’re not gay, but they’re not straight either. “Queer is useful in being inclusive of all types of sexual/gender difference.

“Queer” also took strength as a label from academia, and the invention of Queer Studies in the last 20 years or so. Personally, it’s not a project I have a lot of sympathy for, but it has its place. The beauty of “queer” as a social identifier is that it gives space to those who are marginalised even within the gay world. If you call yourself “queer” you’re stating that you are sexually different, that you’re not straight, and that’s a useful tool to have. In New Zealand you will often see the letters LGBTTI used (Lesbian, Gay Bisexual, Takatapui, Transgender, Intersex) and let’s face it - queer is easier if you’re trying to be that inclusive.But it also can cover so much ground that issues that it loses force; it sort of assumes too that everyone who is queer will share a common set of interests, and that just isn’t so. For instance, I’d argue most gay men have little interest or understanding of what it means to be a transperson. Their interests are not necessarily those that we fags share, beyond that of basic Human Rights.

Names can and do have the power to hurt or help us. Being abused by people on the basis of who we (or who they think we are) sexually attracted to can be deeply painful. But it’s fun to turn it round at times too. A while back at a cocktail party I was asked if I was married or  if my girlfriend was there and replied “No, I’m a cocksucker.” It made the party a bit more interesting.

And even while writing this I stopped at times and thought” Which word do I use here?” They are slippery things, nowhere near as neat and obvious as we’d like to think, but they matter now and will continue to.

Tags: General

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Damian // May 4, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    Thanks Michael. I suspect this is a commentary that we’ll continue to have for many years yet.

    I know many people who object to the use of ‘queer’ which I personally prefer, but will happily call themselves a ‘fag’ which I dislike – had it shouted at me a bit much over the years by morons I guess.

    My preference for using queer? – try being an out bi who works in the LGBTTF community. The number of meetings and such like, where the various members continue to talk about, label, and assume that all present are ‘gay’. People rattle off GLBT and appear to forget about the B (and the T too I think) so insisting on using a generic term is about trying to diminish the barriers.

    Of course this does leave room for the marginalising of the minority groups and I know many Trans who argue quite hard for being recognised separately to the… sexually queer? So the argument goes round.

  • 2 Kestin // May 4, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    Great article, so often I’ve had conversations with people who hate labels and think we don’t need them nowadays.

    I think the only problem with labels is when we let just one define who we are, when we have many labels!

    What you said made a lot of sense, how you think that they’re just not yet accepting of themselves…

    I’m one of those who prefer the term Queer, cause I am Bi and Trans so it fits all of me.

  • 3 Craig // May 4, 2010 at 6:24 pm

    To avoid upsetting older gay men, I use the term LGBT (IFTW etal)…

  • 4 Brian // May 4, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    Good article Michael, thanks for allowing us old(er) gays to hate the word ‘queer’. As a youngster in the 50’s/60’s the word queer was used against us with such vehemence that I was almost ill when I heard it. It brings back unpleasant memories when I hear it today. I am gay and proud.

  • 5 355 // May 5, 2010 at 4:53 am

    @Craig, but that will upset a lot of younger people who don’t appreciate the ‘T’ in LGBT [if you’re going to use an umbrella term you might want to look at GSD - quite a mouthful, why so many these days use queer - along with the the obv. political connotations attached to this term]

  • 6 anthony // May 5, 2010 at 10:06 am

    i hate poofter , when i was at school i got called it alot ,to me i associate it with bad feelings and being made to feel like shit

  • 7 Scott // May 5, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    I’ve lived on two continents, and lived in three countries. I’ve worked in five countries and the language, heritage, and cultures dictate –with impunity as the best adjective, what and how to identify ones self as a, well let’s say not straight.

    Australia, and America –the two continent candidates seem to embrace an accepting attitude for, well let’s say not straight, while Mexico, and Canada seem a bit reserved for, well let’s say not straight.

    But go into rural areas of the U.S. and Australia, and their embrace of, well let’s say not straight individuals are less than tolerant of, well let’s say not straight folks than smaller countries like Aruba.

    So, while traveling, or commuting, I’ll be just as gay as I can get buy with, or homosexual, or let’s say not straight as I can so I can immerse myself in the gay community without getting myself in trouble.

    For the lack of a ‘LGBT’ travel handbook, I would warn that all gay travelers educate themselves on they areas the plan to visit, and not hesitate to embrace their specific cultures. Gay or straight.

    If you should find yourself fortunate enough to feel comfortable to immerse yourself into a gay community with which you feel comfortable, by all means, learn all you can.

    If there were ever the first gay individual to walk this earth, he/she was on foreign soil. And we’ve been walking on foreign soil ever since.

  • 8 john // May 5, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    The term Queer was not originally meant to be an identity. It is actually the rejection and critique of having and promoting an identity. This articles says it best; http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-Dec-1996/jagose.html

  • 9 Amanda // May 8, 2010 at 9:24 pm

    I’m pansexual (like bisexual, but cooler! Kidding, I just don’t really have any preference to the gender of my partner or if they even fit in any gender brackets) and I prefer queer. Queer always meant ’slightly different’ to me while I grew up as that’s how my parents used it. So it’s perfect as far as I’m concerned. I’m ’slightly different’!

  • 10 Stuffed Animal // Sep 5, 2010 at 8:51 am

    This article is ignorant. The author should be ashamed of having written it. Words like “fag”, “dyke” and “queer” are inherently negative. Their etymologies prove as much. A word like “Gay” is not inherently negative, even though some people try to pretend it is. Its core meaning is “happy”. I find that much more subversive than “reclaiming” a thoroughly derogatory term and foolishly trying to convince everybody it’s benign.

    We will never achieve a world free of bigotry and ignorance so long as we insist on lugging the baggage of bigotry and ignorance into the future with us.

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