A Heritage of Words

As a writer, I am interested in words; where they come from, what they mean, their use, significance and power. As a gay writer, I am particularly intrigued by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered slang (also known as gayspeak) and by the words that are used to describe us; both by ourselves and by others. Like other groups, lesbians and gay men, bisexuals and transgendered people have developed through the years a language of our own; a code that we often used to communicate among ourselves and to keep an often-hostile world from knowing what we are talking about. Meanwhile, heterosexist society’s often-hostile take on sexual and gender minorities also influenced the development of the common language. From Leviticus to Richard von Krafft-Ebing to the punk in the street homo-, bi- and trans-phobic words were coined, developed and used by the people who did not understand us and who therefore feared and hated us.

I personally do not give a rat’s ass what people say about me, as long as they do not interfere with my life, liberty and the right to be myself. But gayspeak never ceases to fascinate me. Several books have been written about this exciting topic. The mother of them all, of course, is “Gay Talk: A (Sometimes Outrageous) Dictionary of Gay Slang” by Bruce Rodgers, originally published as “The Queens’ Vernacular” way back in 1972. This was followed by “Homolexis: A Historical and Cultural Lexicon of Homosexuality” by Wayne Dynes (1985) and “Gay(s) Language: A Dic(k)tionary of Gay Slang” by H. Max (1988). Another useful source is “Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds” (1984), Judy Grahn’s fascinating cultural history. A more recent review of gayspeak is the article of that same name published in the online GLBTQ Encyclopedia (www.glbtq.com).

Gayspeak has long been with us. As Grahn wrote, “Gay culture is ancient and has been suppressed into an underground state of being” and “slang is not necessarily a transitory language form.” As heirs to this closeted queer culture, we learned our language from the same-sex loving and gender-variant people who came before us. Grahn herself learned her gay slang from her first lover while I learned it from the gay, bisexual and transgender acquaintances, friends and lovers who took me in when I came out in Miami’s Little Havana in 1973. At that time, our language passed from person to person by word of mouth. Today, thanks to the LGBT media and the greater openness of our subculture, gay words and gay worlds are more easily transmitted from one LGBT generation to the next.

As members of a despised minority group, LGBT people have developed ways to communicate among ourselves without the so-called straight world knowing what we were talking about. Even today words and symbols like the hanky code, the pink triangle, the Lambda, the labrys and the rainbow, leather and bear flags are used by our community to let our sisters and brothers know who we are and what we want. In the Cuban-American subculture in which I came out, the language that those of us who were in the know (entendidos) spoke was used to let others discreetly know that we were all part of the LGBT ambiance (ambiente). This kept most heteros in the dark and ourselves physically safe. In America, gay men long referred to each other as Friends of Dorothy (as in Dorothy Gale of “The Wizard of Oz” or Dorothy Parker of the Algonquin Round Table – Take your pick.); a code word that was used to inform those in the know where we were coming from. By the same token, queer African-Americans used the term in the life to refer to same-sex loving or gender-variant women or men.

Even the word gay began its career in the homosexual lexicon as a code word. Originally, of course, gay was used to mean happy, light-hearted, lively, merry, and vivacious. Later, gay was used to refer to people of easy virtue, as when prostitutes were referred to as gay girls. The word lesbian, of course, comes from the Greek island of Lesbos, home to the classic poet Sappho (a Lesbian in both senses of the word). Meanwhile, Grahn added to our cultural heritage with her intriguing suggestion that the words bulldyke and bulldagger came to us courtesy of the first century Celtic Queen Boudica; an inspiration for heroic women even if her sexuality remains in doubt. The Celts, by the way, are role models for LGBT communities even after twenty centuries. After all, Celtic women were strong and Celtic men were pretty and the male Celtic warriors were not ashamed to expose their well-built bodies as they proudly fought their battles in the nude.

Though both male and female homosexuals began to use the word gay to describe themselves and each other by the early part of the last century, the mainstream did not catch on until the 1960′s or so. In the meantime, as George Chauncey wrote in”Gay New York,” the word gay began to be used by men who saw themselves as members of a fixed sexual class – as opposed to words like fairy, queer and trade which were long used to define fluid sex roles and gender-identified categories. The rise of gay liberation made gay the word of choice in the gay male community, just as the words Black and later African-American replaced Negro. Even so, as late as the 1970′s, men who described themselves by what they did and not by what they were continued to use the word queer, as did the hero of Clay Caldwell’s delightful novel “Queers Like Us” (1975).

Of course, as we all know, the word queer has made a comeback in our community. This is partly due to the emergence of a new generation of LGBT which sees itself in a new light. But there are other reasons for queer’s return. The diversity of our community has made queer an easier word to use than the exclusive word gay or the inclusive but cumbersome lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (and queer) community. There is also something daring and radical about the word queer; a once-derogatory word that we have (re)taken from the enemy and made our own. As a writer, the return of the word queer has given me another word to use in order to describe myself and those who are like me. Which is all the better.

by Jesse Monteagudo

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