By Pamela Paul of the New York Times
Last month, the new president of advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, Kelley Robinson, posted a 6 1/2-minute video to introduce herself and frame the mission of her organization, which was founded 40 years ago by gay activist Steve Endean to help fund political campaigns for pro-gay-rights candidates. In the video, Robinson talked about voting rights. She talked about transgender kids in school. She talked about abortion access and workers’ rights. She said a lot of things, including getting “to a world where we are free and liberated without exception — without exception — without anyone left behind.”
Not once, however, did she say the word “gay” or “lesbian” or “bisexual.”
She’s not the only one. The word “gay” is increasingly being substituted by “queer” or, more broadly, “LGBTQ,” which are about gender as much as — and perhaps more so than — sexual orientation. The word “queer” is climbing in frequency and can be used interchangeably with “gay,” which itself not so long ago replaced the dour and faintly judgy “homosexual.”
The shift has been especially dramatic in certain influential spheres: academia, cultural institutions and the media, from Teen Vogue to The Hollywood Reporter to this newspaper. Only 10 years ago, for example, “queer” appeared a mere 85 times in The New York Times. As of Friday, it’s been used 632 times in 2022, and the year is not over. In the same periods, use of “gay” has fallen from 2,228 to 1,531 — still more commonly used, but the direction of the evolution is impossible to miss. Meanwhile, the umbrella term “LGBTQ” increased from two mentions to 714.
“It is quite often a generational issue, where younger people — millennials — are more fine with it. Gen Xers like myself are somewhat OK with it. Some you might find in each category,” Jason DeRose, who oversees LGBTQ reporting at NPR, said of the news organization’s move toward queer. “And then older people or boomers, maybe, who find it problematic.”
But it’s not only older people who bristle. “The mainstream media, and mainstream ‘LGBTQ’ media, treat the word ‘lesbian’ like it’s the plague,” noted Julia Diana Robertson in lesbian publication The Velvet Chronicle.
Let’s be clear: Many lesbians and gay people are fine with this shift. They may even prefer umbrella terms like “LGBTQ” and “queer” because they include people who identify according to gender expression or identity as well as sexual orientation. But let’s consider those who do not and why. For one thing, “gay” and “queer” are not synonymous, as they are increasingly treated, particularly among Gen Zers and millennials. Likewise, the term “LGBTQ,” which sometimes includes additional symbols and letters, represents so many identities unrelated to sexual orientation that gays and lesbians can feel crowded out.
Last week on “CBS News Sunday Morning,” writer David Sedaris said he was done “fighting the word ‘queer.’” He went on, “Like the term ‘Latinx,’ ‘queer’ was started by some humanities professor and slowly gathered steam. Then well-meaning radio producers and magazine editors thought, ‘Well, I guess that’s what they want to be called now!’ But I don’t remember any vote being taken.”
This raises a question for me, a language obsessive and someone interested in the ways word choices reflect and drive the culture: Why change the word for same-sex orientation? And to echo Sedaris: Who decides these things anyway?
Let’s start with the basic dictionary-sense differences between the words. “Gay” has a clear, specific meaning that applies to both men and women: “homosexual,” which is the first entry in most dictionaries. “Lesbian,” of course, bears the same meaning, but strictly for women.
Whereas the first definition for “queer,” according to Oxford and Dictionary.com, is “strange, odd.” Another definition refers not only to gay people but also to “a person whose sexual orientation or gender identity falls outside the heterosexual mainstream or the gender binary,” according to Dictionary.com. That could mean “transgender,” “gender neutral,” “nonbinary,” “agender,” “pangender,” “genderqueer,” “demisexual,” “asexual,” “two spirit,” “third gender” or all, none or some combination of the above. Being queer is, as bell hooks once said, not “about who you’re having sex with — that can be a dimension of it — but queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and it has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.”
While we’re here, the Q in “LGBTQ” currently can stand for both “queer” and “questioning.”
Confused? You should be! “Queer” can mean almost anything, and that’s the point. Queer theory is about deliberately breaking down normative categories around gender and sex, particularly binary ones like men and women, straight and gay. Saying you’re queer could mean you’re gay; it could mean you’re straight; it could mean you’re undecided about your gender or that you prefer not to say. Saying you’re queer could mean as little as having kissed another girl your sophomore year at college. It could mean you valiantly plowed through the prose of Judith Butler in a course on queerness in the Elizabethan theater.
Given the broad spectrum of possibility, it’s no surprise that many people — gay or straight — have no idea what it means when someone self-identifies as queer.
But this is important: Not all gay people see themselves as queer. Many lesbian and gay people define themselves in terms of sexual orientation, not gender. There are gay men, for example, who grew up desperately needing reassurance that they were just as much a boy as any hypermanly heterosexual. They had to push back hard against those who tried to tell them their sexual orientation called their masculinity into question.
“Queer” carries other connotations, not all of them welcome — or welcoming. Whereas homosexuality is a sexual orientation one cannot choose, queerness is something one can, according to James Kirchick, author of “Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington.” Queerness, he argues, is a fashion and a political statement that not all gay people subscribe to.
“Queerness is also self-consciously and purposefully marginal,” he told me. “Whereas the arc of the gay rights movement, and the individual lives of most gay people, has been a struggle against marginality. We want to be welcomed. We want to have equal rights. We want a place in our institutions.”
Many gay people simply prefer the word “gay.” “Gay” has long been a generally positive term. The second definition for “gay” in most dictionaries is something along the lines of “happy,” “lighthearted” and “carefree.” Whereas “queer” has been, first and foremost, a pejorative. For a certain generation, “queer” is still what William F. Buckley, jaw clenching, called Gore Vidal on ABC in 1968 — “Listen, you queer” — before threatening to “sock you in your goddamn face.”
What I hear most often from gay and lesbian friends regarding the word “queer” is something along the lines of what Sedaris pointed out: “Nobody consulted me!” This wasn’t their choice.
So how did it happen? Partly it’s the force of academic and institutional language, which has permeated the influential worlds of the arts, Hollywood, publishing and fashion. Another part is generational: Gen Zers — 21% of whom identify as “LGBT,” according to Gallup, a percentage that has nearly doubled in just four years — often use social media to frame the conversation. As linguist Gretchen McCullough explained in her book “Because Internet,” word shifts take hold much faster these days.
“Queer” bobbed around the academy in semiotics and gender studies classes for decades before activists unleashed it with the help of social media in the past decade or so. “Queerness” and “queering” now materialize in all manner of contexts, whether it’s queering John Wesley, queering the tarot or queering quinceañeras.
In recent years, other activist terms have followed light-speed trajectories. The term “Latinx” overtook academic institutions and briefly became fashionable in the media, still prevalent in some influential publications, including The New Yorker, even though only 3% of Hispanics (or Latinos, if you prefer) use it. Similarly, the word “fat.” As Sarai Walker, author of “Dietland,” has written, “fat activists use the word proudly in an effort to destigmatize not only the word, but by extension, the fat body.” For her, the word represents not merely acceptance but also the promotion of body positivity.
To be clear: There’s nothing wrong with embracing a particular word to describe yourself. The problem arises when a new term is used in ways that misrepresent or mischaracterize some of the very people it’s meant to include. This is especially true when people in the population in question outright reject the fashionable term. Such is the case, it seems, for overweight people, who, according to a number of studies, rank “fat” among their least desirable descriptors. For many, the word “fat” remains a fourth-grade way to shame someone. Choosing a euphemism like “curvy” need not be denounced as complicity or avoidance. Nor should a medical term like “overweight” be considered verboten, as it is by some activists, because it implies the existence of a normative weight.
Language is always changing — but it shouldn’t become inflexible, especially when new terminologies, in the name of inclusion, sometimes wind up making others feel excluded. In the case of “queer,” it’s especially worrisome and not only because it supersedes widely accepted and understood terms but also because the gay rights movement’s successes have historically hinged on efforts at inclusion.
Gay people, lesbians and bisexuals fought for a long time to be open and clear about who they are. That’s why they call it pride.