Sun, Nov 06, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Homolexicology: Should lesbians be called gays?

In writing about people who are homosexual, the word gay no longer covers both men and women, but the word guy now does apply to both sexes

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In an article about a referendum coming to a vote in Maine this week, the Associated Press reports that opponents of broadened civil rights protections for homosexual men and women claim that such legislation, already signed into law by the governor, would "grant a new status to gay men and lesbians that could open the door to same-sex marriage."

Meanwhile, Marc Lacey of the New York Times reports from Nairobi, Kenya, that in a referendum revamping that nation's constitution, "there has been disagreement on whether the language opposing discrimination would protect gay men and lesbians, who are scorned here."

Apparently, in writing about people who are homosexual, the word gay no longer covers both men and women. (Contrariwise, the word guy, as I noted in a recent column, now does apply to both sexes when taken together, though seldom to women individually.)

Most stylebooks are a half-step behind current usage. Gay, alone, is "acceptable as popular synonym for both male and female homosexuals (noun and adjective)," advises the Associated Press, "although it is generally associated with males, while lesbian is the more common term for female homosexuals."

The Times says "Gay[s] may refer to homosexual men or more generally to homosexual men and women. In specific references to women, lesbian is preferred. When the distinction is useful, write gay men and lesbians."

It seems to me that the usage is now the specifically inclusive gay men and lesbians whether the distinction is useful or not.

Why is gay no longer encompassing enough? "Historically, gay represented both homosexual men and women and technically still does," says Chris Crain, editor of the gay weeklies the Washington Blade and the New York Blade, "but a number of gay women felt that gay was too male-associated and pressed to have lesbians separately identified so they weren't lost in the gay-male image."

That led to such names as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. (The Washington Blade began in 1969 as the Gay Blade, a play on an old expression about a gallant.)

Diane Anderson-Minshall, executive editor of Curve, a lesbian magazine in San Francisco, agrees that the one-word adjective was expanded to set homosexual women apart.

"When, in the queer world, you say `the gay community,' the majority of the time that conjures up San Francisco's largely male Castro District, or West Hollywood or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, so interjecting the word lesbian into the mix is a necessary reminder that we -- gay women -- are not simply a subset of that larger male world but rather our own distinct community of individuals," she said.

The editor freely uses "queer," formerly a slur, to include not only lesbians but "bisexual women and lesbian-identified transgender women." This leads to the initialese LGBT, standing for "Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender," as well as its gay-first GLBT.

The reader will note my careful use of the word homosexual as an adjective modifying a noun like man rather than as a noun itself. That's for two reasons: first, because the prefix homo is from the Greek homos, "the same," in this case denoting a "same sex" relationship, not to be confused with the Latin homo, "man," as in homo sapiens, the current species of human being.

Another reason for the wincing at homosexual, especially as a noun, is the emphasis that the word places on sexuality, while gay and lesbian also may range across cultural and social attitudes (but watch out for that no-no lifestyle).

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