by Rishi Mago
The term LGBT+–denoting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other identities–will be used from the start in this paper as shorthand for the range of sexualities and genders that differ from those who are cisgender and heterosexual, though the subtleties of this topic will be discussed in detail later. The term “cisgender and heterosexual” will be used rather than “normative” (as in “non-normative”) to avoid the implication that being anything other than cisgender and heterosexual is “not normal.”
This paper will cover two broad areas: the language used to talk about the LGBT+ community and the language used within it. However, discussing the large number of slang words and slurs that have been used to talk about the LGBT+ community is beyond the purview of this paper.
The language people use to talk about any topic is a window into how they think about that topic. Language Ideology notes that the language people use has social and political significance (Coady, 2018), which holds true for language used to talk about members of the LGBT+ community. About forty years ago, the journal WILLA: Women in Literacy and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) issued guidelines on gender-fair language. These guidelines noted that “language plays a central role in the way that human beings behave and think.” Extrapolating from this statement, following the history of how the language used by both those in and outside of the LGBT+ community has changed and evolved can be informative as well. Studying this history helps bring about an understanding how thinking and attitudes about this topic have evolved.
This article works toward this end and explores the linguistic history of what is now often termed the LGBT+ movement. Because such language use is crucial in the development of a sexual subjectivity, there are certain linguistic features that apply particularly to members of the LGBT+ community. For example, the color “lavender” has been associated with same-sex relationships in many parts of the world (Leap, 2015). In the 1990s, linguistic studies related to the LGBT+ community began to be called the “lavender lexicon” or “lavender language” (Leap, 2015). A separate field of inquiry called “Queer linguistics” also developed, and today, the terms “LGBT linguistics,” “Queer linguistics,” or “Lavender linguistics” considerably overlap in terms of describing this set of linguistic studies.
Lavender language studies received academic attention at the Berkeley Women and Language Conference in the early 1990s (Leap, 2015). Researchers from all around the world began to collaborate and communicate about this field of research. In 1993, the Lavender Languages Conference was first held at the American University in Washington, DC, and it has been held every year since then. This conference is the longest-running conference of its kind but is by no means the only one.
Historically the identities of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons had been interlinked (Zak, 2013) and distinctions were not always clearly made between these identities. Prior to the 20th century, the terminology used to describe sexuality and gender was crude and non-specific.
The term “sexual inverts” was used by the British sexologist Havelock Ellis to refer both to persons who were attracted to others of the same gender (what we would call gay and lesbian) and to persons who presented as having a gender different from the sex assigned at birth (what we would call transgender; Iovannone, 2018). Analogously, in German, the term “Urning” was used by Karl Ulrichs to refer to a third gender considered to exist between men and women (Iovannone, 2018). Urlich considered male Urnings to have male bodies but the souls of women; the opposite was considered to be the case for female Urnings (Iovannone, 2018). Gay, lesbian, and transgender persons were sometimes referred to as the “third sex.” Confusingly, the term “the third sex” was also used to refer to person who had anatomical features of both a male and a female. Thus, the term “the third sex” was conflating gender and sexuality, something we now know not to do. Persons with anatomical features of both a male and a female, now called “Intersex,” were previously referred to as being “hermaphrodite,” a term that is now obsolete (Mago, 2018).
The terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual” were coined by the Hungarian journalist Karl-Maria Kertbeny (or Károly Mária Kertbeny) in 1869 (Rodríguez Rust, 2015). “Heterosexual” initially referred to persons with “inclinations to both genders” (Katz, 1997, quoted in Rodriguez Rust, 2015). It is interesting to note that even within that definition, there is a heteronormativity in the belief that same-sex attraction is an add-on, not a full sexual identity. The word “homosexual” was introduced to the English language in 1892 by Charles Chaddock in his translation of the classic medical book about sexual “deviance” written by the German psychiatrist Krafft-Ebing (Martinson, 1994).
An “N-gram” from Google Books (https://books.google.com/ngrams) showing how often digitized books published in English since 1860 used the words “homosexual” and “heterosexual” shows that that use of both terms increased gradually in the next century.
The word “queer” was first applied to “homosexual” persons in the late 19th century as a derogatory term. By 1922, the term “queer” was even used to mean “homosexual” in a US government publication (Sayers, 2005).
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the term “Lesbian,” with a capitalized “L,” referred to the Greek island of Lesbos. But, it also became associated with female homosexuality because a poet from that island, Sappho (c. 610 to 580 BCE), wrote about erotic love with other women. While the term “lesbian” was rarely used in print until the middle of the 20th century, its use to denote female same-sex attraction can be traced back to the 18th century. A satirical book, The Toast by William King, first published in 1732, referred to “Lesbians” as women who “loved Women in the same Manner as Men love them” (Norton, 2005).
The Twentieth Century
The term “homosexual,” coined in the 19th century, continued to be used in the 20th century and is still in widespread use. Activists in the LGBT+ community preferred the term “homophile” over homosexual because the former denoted attraction to persons of the same gender without using the term “sexual” (Iovannone, 2018). However, the term “homophile” did not become popular. Eventually, “gay” became the preferred alternative term.
It is unclear when the term “gay” as slang to refer to a homosexual person was used for the very first time. But, this use is certainly documented by the 1930s. For example, the Dictionary of Underworld Slang (published in 1933) described the term “gay cat,” which it defined as “a homosexual boy” (Norton, 2005). The term was typically used as prison slang for a younger man with an older partner (Norton, 2005).
In the 1940s and 1950s, the term “gay” was used to refer to both men and women “homosexuals”–the term used at that time for those whose sexuality was linked to same-sex attraction. “Gay” was used both as an adjective to indicate the person’s sexuality and as a noun referring to a person with that sexual orientation. For many years, the term “gay” was used as as an “underground” term or “code” to refer to such persons. By “code,” we mean that it was a euphemism used by those who were attracted to others of the same sex to refer to themselves rather than the more direct term “homosexual.”
It was only after the Stonewall uprising of 1969 (1) that the term “gay” came into widespread social use. Members of the “Stonewall generation” were less likely than those before them to consider same-gender attraction to be shameful and they preferred the term “gay” (Iovannone, 2018). It should be noted that at that time, the term “gay” was used to refer broadly to all persons who identified themselves as gender and/or sexual orientation that was not cisgender and heterosexual.
An “N-gram” from Google Books (https://books.google.com/ngrams) studying how often digitized books published in English since 1970 used the words “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual,” and “transgender” shows that the use of the word “lesbian” grew after 1970, slowly at first and then more rapidly in the 1990s and thereafter. The use of the word “gay” also showed a significant increase from the late 1980s onwards. Of the other two words, the use of the word “bisexual” increased only slowly the last quarter of the 20th century while the word “transgender” remained uncommon in published books.
The term “gay” was associated more with men than with women (Zak, 2013). Gay women felt excluded from both women’s organizations and gay movements (Iovannone, 2018). Unfortunately, some second-wave feminists reified heteronormativity. The term “lavender menace” was first used in 1969 by the renowned–and sometimes regarded as infamous–feminist leader, Betty Friedan. Friedan and some others at the National Organization of Women (NOW) believed that lesbians might be be used by society to discount all feminists as masculine and/or “man-hating” and so tried to co-opt the term “lavender” toward a hateful end. On the other hand, gay organizations that were active after the Stonewall uprising of 1969, e.g., the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), tended to be sexist and discount the role women–specifically lesbians–could play in the social justice movement (Iovannone, 2018).
This is why during the second wave feminist movement (“Women’s Movement”) of the 1960s and 1970s, gay women wanted to differentiate themselves from both heterosexual women, who were the majority in the Women’s Movement, and from gay men, some of whom were enacting misogyny (Iovannone, 2018). Women began to identify themselves as “lesbian” and the phrase “gay and lesbian” came into common use (Zak, 2013), a significant assertion of their identity as separate from both communities from which they felt excluded.
By the end of the 20th century, several other commonly-used terms had fallen out of favor. The term “homosexuality” was commonly used to refer to gay persons. In the 1960s, sexuality researchers used terms like “situational homosexuality,” “pseudohomosexuality,” “secondary homosexuality,” and “latent homosexuality” (Rodriguez Rust, 2015). Homosexuality was considered to be a mental disorder, being officially a “diagnosis” in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM. After much controversy, the “diagnosis” was removed from the the second edition of the DSM in 1973 (Drescher, 2015). Perhaps related to this change, the term “homosexual” acquired a derogatory connotation and a temporary drop in its use in the years following the publication of the second edition of the DSM can be clearly seen in an N-gram of the term “homosexual.”
In 1981, the first cases of what was later called AIDS were reported. The realization that the transmission of the disease was related to sexual behavior quickly followed in 1982, and the disease was initially called “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency” or GRID. Due to the realization that gay men were at increased risk of HIV infection, scientific and public health publications began to use the term “gay and bisexual men” (Rodriguez Rust, 2015). The term shows that the authors of these scientific and public health publications were interested only in the common factor between these two kinds of men: that they had sex with other men. Not surprisingly, these scientific and public health publications later began to use the clinical-sounding, factual term “men who have sex with men” (MSM). Perhaps in part due to its association with the medical concerns related to same-sex sexual activity and its potential to lead to HIV transmission, the term “men who have sex with men” (MSM) is not used within the LGBT+ community and should not be used by those outside the community.
As the HIV epidemic unfolded, HIV/AIDS activists were at the forefront of reclaiming the word “queer” from its aggressively pejorative meaning (Marzullo, 2015). Instead of queer meaning an abnormal, undesirable, person with “deviant” sexual behavior, it began to be used defiantly to mean a person whose gender identity or sexual orientation were not cisgender and heterosexual but who was not ashamed of this identity (Marzullo, 2015). HIV/AIDS activist groups used the word “queer” for its shock value in drawing attention to the importance of efforts for research, prevention, and treatment (Marzullo, 2015). In the 1980s, gay and lesbian activists began to “reclaim” the word “queer” that was so often used against them.
The significance of this shift was both that it indicated defiance against those who used the word against them as a slur and that the term “queer” was more inclusive of a variety of identities. The defiant attitude was exemplified in the slogan of the organization Queer Nation, formed in New York City in 1990: “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” Some signs of cultural acceptance of the term “queer” were the British TV series Queer as Folk (1999) that was followed by the American version of the show (2000 to 2005) and the American reality TV show, Queer Eye (2003 to 2007), that won an Emmy award for Outstanding Reality Show in 2004.
In the 20th century, for a long time persons with other sexualities like bisexual or other genders like transgender were not included under the same linguistic umbrella as gays and lesbians. This was because some in the gay and lesbian community felt that those who were bisexual were “not really gay” and it was pointed out, correctly, that when persons identified themselves as transgender, unlike the terms gay and lesbian, this referred to their gender identity rather than to sexual orientation (Zak, 2013). But, in the 1980s, activists advocated for recognition of bisexual persons as having identities separate from those of gay and lesbian persons. This change led to the “B” being added and the initialism (2) GLB to come into use (Marzullo, 2015). In the early 1990s, the term “lesbigay” was also introduced to include lesbians,bisexual persons, and gay males, though this term never became very popular.
In 1993, a trans man, Brandon Teena, was raped and later murdered in Nebraska. The tragedy was the subject of the 1999 Academy award-winning file, Boy’s Don’t Cry. The case shocked the nation and activism that followed led to wider recognition of transgender persons as having a separate identity (Marzullo, 2015). The term “transsexual,” accepted a binary view of gender and denoted a person who wanted to transition from one gender to another. The term “transgender,” on the other hand, referred to persons who did not fit into the binary concept of gender. In the late 1990s, the term “cisgender” also came into use, though it was not included in the Oxford English Dictionary unitil 2015 (an inclusion hailed by LGBT+ groups). The Oxford English Dictionary defines cisgender as “denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex.”
However, it has been argued (Zak, 2013) that lesbians, bisexual, and transgender people lose the visibility they have when each of them is separately in the initialism LGBT, discussed below, than if they are subsumed into the broader category of “queer” . Also, for many older gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons, the term “queer” brings back memories of abuse they faced in the past when the term was used against them as a slur.
History in an initialism?
The initialism LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender), variations of which are in common use today, was first used only as recently as the 1990s. At first, the initialism was used most often in the
The N-gram viewer also shows that after 2003, the initialism “LGBTQ” clearly overtook “GLBTQ” in the frequency of use in published books.
The change from GLBT to LGBT was not accidental. The “L” was intentionally placed first because putting the “G” for gay first was considered be sexist since gay is the masculine generic term for same-sex attraction (Marzullo, 2015).
In the early years of this century, a “Q” to denote queer began to be used and the initialism was expanded to LGBTQ. The expanded initialism, including the “Q,” continues to be used today though sometimes it is written as “LGBT/queer” (Marzullo, 2015).
Given that there are many more identities in terms of gender and sexual orientation, it was inevitable that the initialism would grow as a deeper understanding of the spectrum of genders and sexualities grew. Some of the identities included in longer versions of the LGBT initialism are persons who are “Questioning” of their gender/ sexual identity, “Intersex” (a person with anatomical features of both a male and a female), “Transexual” (a person who has had or is preparing to have sexual reassignment surgery), “Intergender,” “Asexual,” and so on. Thus, an array of variations on the abbreviation LGBT (or GLBT) have been used including GLBTQ, LGBTQQ, LGBTI, LGBTIQ, LGBTTQQIAAP, QUILTBAG, LGBPTTQQIIAA, etc. When we see two “Q”s in the abbreviation, one stands for Questioning and the other for Queer, a word that, as noted above, has been reclaimed by the community.
Occasionally, we may see the number “2” or the Roman numeral “II” added after the letter Q to indicate that the letter Q is being used twice, e.g., LGBTQ2 or LGBTQII (Marzullo, 2015). When two “T”s are in the initialism, they stand for Transgender and Transexual. Similarly, when multiple “I”s are included, they can stand for Intersex, Intergender, or Inquiring. Lastly, two “A”s in the initialism can stand for Asexual and for Allies, people who are not queer themselves but are supporters of the community. Inclusion of allies in the initialism is controversial because though allies are valued by the community, they are, by definition, not queer. One expanded version of the initialism, LGBTQQIP2SAA, stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, pansexual, two spirit, asexual, and ally (Iovannone, 2018). But, Iovannone (2018) asks rhetorically, “While inclusive, are expanded versions of the initialism actually less effective in creating increased acceptance and awareness because they are too complicated and unwieldy?” As of the time of writing, LGBT is the most commonly used initialism, including by The Washington Post (Cary-Mahoney, 2016).
Where should the line be drawn in terms of the expanding initialism? On the one hand, specifically listing differing identities in the initialism provides those within the different communities with “visibility.” On the other hand, it has been argued that it emphasizes the differences between people when instead the intersections of these identities could be the focus.
Such debate leads to the concept that the term “queer” may work as the most inclusive linguistic strategy. In 2015, Juno Dawson, author of This Book is Gay, recommended using the term LGBT*, where the “*” is supposed to represent “the full and infinite spectrum of sexual and gender identities.” While that specific proposal has not caught on, in recent years, the unwieldiness of a long initialism has been addressed by putting a “+” sign at the end of the initialism, e.g., LGBTQIA+, where the “+” represents the many other identities not specifically recognized in the initialism.
Gender: A linguistic history
Gender and sex are not the same things. Sex is a biological method of categorization, the main criterion for which is reproductive potential (Eckeret and McConnell-Gatin, 2013). Gender is a social elaboration based on biological sex, one that extends the biological differences into areas where the biology is irrelevant (Eckeret and McConnell-Gatin, 2013). So, “gender is not something we are born with and not something we have, but something we do – something we perform” (Eckeret and McConnell-Gatin, 2013).
In Old English, the term “
In the 1970s, many feminists’ argued against using the term “man” to refer to all human beings and the term “he” to refer to persons of both genders. Those who opposed this view derisively called it “pronoun envy” (Eckeret and McConnell-Gatin, 2013).
In the 20th century, linguistic research related to gender focused mainly on women’s issues, “where ‘women’ meant heterosexual women, and usually white women at that” (Leap, 1998).
While feminist linguistics argued for removing linguistic inequalities between men and women, they did not question the binary view of gender, which Queer linguistics does question (Coady, 2018). Gender binarity is created through a process called “iconization” in which a linguistic feature thought to be shared by a group of people becomes an “icon” for that group (Coady, 2018). This feature has two consequences: dichotomization and essentialization. “Essentialization” refers to the treatment of individuals as part of an allegedly homogeneous social group.
Two terms came into use in contrast to the binary view of gender: the straightforward “non-binary” and “genderqueer” (also written as “GenderQueer”). It is important to note that these terms, non-binary or genderqueer, encompass a wide, unspecified range of genders: the person may identify as having some combination of masculinity and femininity or but may not identify with either of them. Though the term “genderqueer” was used in print by Riki Anne Wilchins in 1995, an N-gram from Google Books (https://books.google.com/ngrams) showing how often digitized books published in English since 1992 used the words “genderqueer” or “GenderQueer” suggests that it may have been used in print even earlier than that, in 1993.
In any case, the term became known more widely with the 2002 publication of the book Genderqueer: Voices Beyond the Sexual Binary, co-edited by Wilchins.
Epicene (gender-neutral) pronouns
With increasing understanding and acceptance that gender is not binary, there is an urgent need to use pronouns that are not simply binary, i.e., either male or female. Such pronouns are called “gender-neutral” or, in academic writing, “epicene.” The term “epicene” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “having characteristics of both sexes or no characteristics of either sex; of indeterminate sex.”
The word “they,” in the singular, is recommended instead of a male or female pronoun when the gender of the subject is unknown, irrelevant, nonbinary, or needs to be concealed (Baron, 2018). This use of “they” in the singular goes back to at least 1375 (Baron, 2018). For those who may object that a plural pronoun should not be used for a singular subject, Baron (2018) points out the historical evolution of another pronoun–”you”–that was plural but became singular. In the 17th century, you replaced thou, thee, and thy as a singular pronoun. This met with resistance initially, just like the use of the singular “they” is meeting with some resistance. Baron notes that George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, wrote in 1660 that anyone who used singular you was an idiot or a fool. Even in the 18th century, grammar students were taught that thou was the appropriate singular pronoun and you the plural (Baron, 2018). In addition to the singular “they, them, theirs,” other epicene pronouns have also been proposed (Wikipedia), but “they” is the only one that has had any significant acceptance within and outside the LGBT+ community. These alternatives include “hou,” “ze,” “zhe,” and so on.
Unfortunately, the use of gender-neutral pronouns has become politicized. For example, in 2016, after the Diversity Office at the University of Tennessee published posts promoting the use of gender-neutral pronouns (and inclusive holidays) and encouraging teachers at the university to ask their students what their preferred pronouns were, the Tennessee state legislature passed a law that diverted funds from the Diversity Office (Culligan, 2016). In 2017, when a transgender teacher at a Florida school asked their 5th grade students to use the gender-neutral prefix “Mx.” and the gender-neutral pronouns “they, them, their” to refer to the teacher, the teacher was reassigned to the school’s adult basic education program (Dupuy, 2017).
The language related to the LGBT+ community continues to evolve; it is a living entity. Many streams of influence come together to shape the nuances of how the LGBT+ community and those outside the community speak about its members. The aim of this paper has been that a study of how this language has evolved–and continues to evolve–is a reflection of the attitudes of society towards the LGBT+ community and of the community towards itself. This historical study provides insights into the dynamics of the LGBT+ community and its place in society. As Iovannone (2018) pithily stated, “The act of naming or labeling oneself can serve as a powerful and validating experience. Language gives visibility and can help to shift social perspectives on historically stigmatized groups. Language does not merely describe our reality, but can actively create it for the better. And language can both enhance and impede social justice efforts.”
(1) The Stonewall Uprising was a key event and a turning point in the struggle for LGBT+ civil rights (Mago, 2018). It is also called the Stonewall riots by those with a different point of view. Here is a brief synopsis of the events (Mago, 2018). In the 1960s, when bars frequented by gay people applied for liquor licenses, these were frequently denied by the State Liquor Association, allegedly due to bias against the gay community. These bars, therefore, often operated without a license. They were often raided by the New York Police Department and their patrons would be arrested. In June of 1969, the police raided a Manhattan bar called The Stonewall Inn and arrested 13 of the patrons. An angry crowd gathered outside the Inn and the arrests triggered six days of protest and conflict with the police. The Stonewall Inn had special significance for the gay community because its clientele was typically those who were not welcome in other places where gay people tended to socialize. This included hundreds of young, homeless, gay persons living on the margins of society.
(2) As Marzullo (2015) pointed out, an acronym is created by combining the initial letter of several words but is then pronounced as a new word. In an initialism, on the other hand, the initial letters of the words are enunciated separately, e.g., L-G-B-T.
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