Do we earn the privilege of being gay?

From today's Post-Gazette, a letter written by Kurt Colborn of Swisshelm Park:

I have to agree with Sen. Larry Craig's claim that he is not gay. People have forgotten that “gay” is a term of liberation. Being gay means having the maturity to accept yourself as you are. It also means having the courage to represent yourself honestly to the world. Not all homosexual men are deserving of the term “gay.”

Sen. Craig is not gay. He's just a coward. He should spare us bearing witness to his thousand deaths by reversed pleas and canceled resignations (“Craig Vows to Remain in Senate,” Oct. 5). He should slink quietly away to be forgotten.

While I agree that Craig is a coward, the gay v homosexual debate is the interesting point.  Homosexual is the preferred term utilized by the right wingnuts (especially the Christian wingnuts) to demonize persons who are LGBTQ.  They've taken a rather scientific term, skipped right over the “human” syllables and loaded it with all sorts of sexually inappropriate connotations to make us less human and more “other.”

In reclaiming the terms “gay” and “queer”, the LGBTQ community has made tremendous strides liberating ourselves from a heteronormative society that does often, in fact, demonize us.  Being gay is different that identifying as gay.  I've heard this theme pop up in quite a few different contexts in the recent past here in my day to day queer life.

Hipster heterosexuals appropriating the term queer when queer identity does not include heterosexuals.  Queer is not about being hip (or ironic).  It is politco-cultural identity. 

A related issue is heterosexual women identifying as bisexual for the purposes of fitting in (and hooking up) with queer women.  This blurs the lines for actual bisexual women (see below).  However, there is also the issues around using women for sexual gratification and/or exploration which is a patriarchal tool especially icky in the hands of other women.

Bisexual women have a tough time laying claim to being part of the LGBTQ community because of our long-standing division into the gay men and the lesbians.  There's a suspicion that bisexual women partnered with a man (straight or bisexual identified themselves) are just “playing” at being gay or trying to have their cake and eat it, too.  I'm not sure if gay men feel the same way about bisexual men, but I suspect it is not so much an issue.

Read a few recent posts for an example of the challenges of gay identity for transgender men and women. 

The battle over amending ENDA to eliminate gender identity and gender orientation goes far beyond political expediency to tap into notions of who “deserves” to be part of the gay club.

For our local community, the inherent issue truly is about identity and there's a heightened scrutiny of the motives and even the legitimacy of assuming gay identity solely based on sexual preferences. 

Personally, I haven't been victimized in any sense by someone pretending to be gay.  The closest I came was one date with a bisexual woman who decided she had to date a man to please her parents.  I have no clue about the “validity” of her identity as bi and, frankly, didn't care b/c she was a double-dipper <gross!> and that meant no second date from my point of view anyway.  I have three friends who are bisexual – two are with men and one with a woman.  It never occurs to me to question their gay identity and knowing them makes me a bit more sensitive to making sure of the B in titles and terms.  As for the men, the only thing that bothers me is their reluctance to accept the whole bisexual identity thing. That only happens in one case.  That makes me feel sad, but it doesn't impact the authenticity of the woman. Nor does it make me feel like the dates I had with her were less than authentic.

I would be annoyed by the hipsters, but I gotta wonder how blurry the line can be between heterosexual supporters and those questioning if they might be gay. It certainly seems blurry in the opposite direction, with plenty of women exploring life as a heterosexual women while working through our identities.  At least, that more closely mirrors my own experience, rather than saying I was simply closeted or in denial or some other explanation that solidly defines my sexual orientation during the years I lived as a heterosexual woman.   I would say hanging around gay people, spending time at their events and being supportive is completely different than soliciting sex in a bathroom stall or crawling through a bar looking for a woman to deceive. 

That being said, it makes sense that queer men and women resent their identity being co-opted.  If that were my scene, I might feel differently.  But my scene is very hetero-mixed and filled with lots of straight men. 

So, the gay identity is hotly contested even within the community.  Those of us on the inside understand how nuanced and diverse we are, but, to the larger population, it is one big mass of homosexuals – supporters and opponents alike.  I sort of like identifying Craig as a homosexual man, be he bi or gay, while stating that he has not claimed identity as a gay man (or a bi man).


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  • Is the second quote from the same letter?
    ps. thanks again for organizing the non-discriminatory dinner last night. I really had a great time, and the food was yum. Now, that's a good time!

  • I'll have to go back in and fix that. The second excerpt isn't a quote as a bullet list. Thanks for point the confusion out to me.
    I'm glad you enjoyed yourself on Saturday. It was a very nice evening. Cambodican Kitchen is great. 🙂

  • I don't know too much about this whole “identifying as” thing, but I do know a lot of gay men and some actual lesbians, too. From what I've seen, men don't make a big deal about identifying as anything other than gay. The only bisexual men I've known were still dating women on the way to exclusively men and are no longer bi, if they ever really were. Some you meet in the wee hours at a bar who are straight married men who like to call themselves bi and fool around with guys. With men, it's sometimes more comfortable to call yourself “bi” before you call yourself “gay.” I don't get it, but it works for some people. I think women analyze this stuff a lot more than men do.

  • George,
    What's your experience with gay men accepting transmen into their/your community? Or their perception of transwomen?
    Do you think people who come out earn the right to call themselves “gay” whereas people closeted are just homosexual?

  • To be honest, it's never come up in conversation. I've never met a transman in my travels that I know of. The only transwoman I've met was years ago when I got a bid from her for some work. I like to think they'd be accepted as men amongst us, but I really don't know. That's a tough one to call with my limited experience, and I've been out since 1979! Most gay men just don't run into them much, I guess. Is there a whole other side of life that I don't see? I like to think that I'm not sheltered, but sometimes I wonder.
    As to the “gay” and “homosexual” monikers, I don't know that there would be a difference between those who are out and those who are closeted. We always used the term “closet case” for gay men who hadn't come out yet. But you see fewer and fewer of them every year. Maybe times have changed. I know some younger guys (in their 20s) who came out in high school, which I never could have done in the mid-70s. And the kids that perform with Dreams of Hope are real heroes to me – teenagers who are out, writing and composing performances aboout their experiences. Anyone who hasn't gone to one of their performances should make a point of doing so.
    It's interesting to see the comments on this blog, especially from women, because I don't get to see this side of the conversation much.

  • Here’s my take on it:
    Gay is our orientation. We are born that way. We know from an early age that we are attracted to a particular sex.
    Homosexual is nature of the relationship. We can be in a homosexual relationship. The word itself defines what a relationship is.
    Bisexuals are those who are aroused by either gender and will engage in a relationship with either gender. They approach each relationship as a unique thing. When a partner is found, be it for a week or for life, they are chosen based on how well our personalities, interests and desires mesh; this is similar to a heterosexual or homosexual relationship. Sadly, bis are often not allowed to have “gay” status, meaning we aren’t “gay enough to be gay”, which is ludicrous.
    Transgender: this is a big issue right now as people come to understand what it means to be transgender. TG is not the same as orientation. Bob is attracted to women. Bob also feels he was born the wrong gender. Bob has surgery and becomes Betty. Betty is happy with women. Betty is thus a lesbian. Mandy is in the same situation as Betty was. She feels she’s a man trapped in a woman’s body. She loves women. She has surgery, becomes Danny and meets a wonderful woman. Danny is now considered “straight”. If Mandy-turned-Danny was attracted to men, he would be considered gay.
    Unfortunately, there is a division in the community as it pertains to transgender people. TG men and women are often ostracized and labeled traitors. Some feel they are “pretending” to be the gender they really do feel that they were born to be. I recommend the book Other Men’s Sons, by Michael Rowe. It contains a short essay, “My Life as a Girl”, that gives insight into what it means to be transgender.
    As for the word “queer”: I still find it derogatory. “You queers!” and “You fags!” are phrases that belong buried in the filth pile from which they were spewed. I can not help but equate it to the now-popular use of the word “nigger”. This word flows freely from the lips of so many “hip” individuals. Have we forgotten how hard people worked to have that demeaning label removed from polite conversation? How many lives were lost? How many marches marched? How many laws passed? Yet we return to the vulgar and forget the efforts of so many civil rights leaders, those proud men and women who avowed that the word “nigger” would never be applied to a black person again. We are poised on a new era for the GLBT community. In the wake of Matthew Shepard, Barry Winchell and others who died with the word “queer” spat in their faces, and as we march for equality and the right to marry our partners, we need to leave behind the vernacular that set us as something less than human and less than worthy. Please, let us allow “queer” to die out of our vocabularies.

  • Autrice,
    Regarding the use of “queer”, it's my preferred identification. For one, I think there is enormous power in taking back terms that were once derogatory and imbuing them with new meaning that subverts the original (hateful) intent. I think that it can be healing to reclaim language and turn what was once a slur into a celebration.
    I also like “queer” because it's inclusive of the whole alphabet soup of the LGBTQQTSA… I mean, how else do you refer to the entire community without spelling out the acronym?
    I plan a few different women's events, have a mailing list and calendar, etc. and I call them “queer” because I want to not just include lesbians, but also bisexual gals and transwomen and genderqueers, too.
    I like queer. Heck, I *love* queer!
    I plan to check out the book/essay you recommended. Thanks.

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