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 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.
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