I understand everyone’s desire for umbrella terms, a term to group a whole lot of something under. We grow up with it at school when we start grouping like things together. We have birds, which are then broken into subsets of birds (chickens, eagles, sparrows, parrots, etc). We have dogs, which are then broken into subsets of dogs, we have fish, we have butterflies, we have flowers, and grasses, and trees, etc etc etc. Some of these things are very similar, such as dogs, and some of them are incredibly different, such as birds or fish.
So once you know you can group things together, you keep doing it. You group people from countries, language groups, hair colour, skin colour, relationship status, age, food preferences, employment status, religion, sexual orientation, etc. You realise that the group “people” has many subsets under it, and that people can fit into many of them at once, and that people are generally awesome. This is called demographics and people study this in depth – nothing particularly earth shattering with this knowledge – except that in each of those subgroups, people like to have easily pronounceable labels to apply to the sub sub groups (and the sub sub sub groups, because it all depends on how deeply you want to dig), and this is where this blog post comes in.
Far too often when people talk about sexual orientation, they talk about “straight and gay” as if all those people who do not identify as straight, identify as gay. I’ve blogged about how “gay” is not an umbrella term, and I’ve blogged about how bi invisibility makes me mad. What I haven’t blogged about recently is how favouring “gay” over the remainder of the lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, asexual and gay community (and I’m only talking about sexual orientation) continues the privilege of those men who identify as gay over the remainder of those who do not identify as straight. Not all lesbians identify as gay, no bisexuals or pansexuals identify as gay, and probably only a handful of asexuals identify as gay.
It’s insidious too, it’s so common for media outlets, fellow bloggers, conservative religious spokespeople, and the general public to refer to “gay rights”, “gay marriage”, “gay activists” or people/decisions/laws to be “anti-gay”, as if “gay” is the only and best word to describe a wide group of sexual orientations that make up the not straight sub sub group of sexual orientation.
Grouping together disparate sexualities under a term used mostly by the monosexual men of the subgroup privileges them over everyone else. Whenever they read about issues that affect them, they are reading it in language that they immediately identify with. When they participate in conversations with other people about specifically queer issues, they can use societal shorthand and make the conversation immediately relevant, without having to spend time explaining what the terms that identify their group are, and how that fits in with “gay”. Those of us who do not identify as gay become invisible under the onslaught of using gay as an umbrella term, an ill fitting jumper that I just do not want to wear.
It is beyond time that the gay members of the queer community was not privileged over the rest of the community. Where specific issues relate directly to them, using gay is understandable, but where an issue is broader, such as equal rights, marriage equality, queer rights activism, etc there is no reason for those who identify as gay to be solely identified over and above the rest of the queer community.
If you are a writer, please do not use gay to refer to the entire queer community, find another word or phrase or acronym. I know that there are those who are concerned with the usage of the word “queer” because it was used as a pejorative insult some time ago, I believe that it has been reclaimed, though not everyone else does. LGBTIQ isn’t pronounceable but does capture the majority of the community. QUILTBAG captures pretty much all of it, but some people find it too whimsical/cute and not suitable for serious conversations (I think it rocks all the time).
I don’t care how much “gay [x]” (where X is the topic under consideration) appears in your search results, don’t title your article “gay [x]”, put that in as a tag or keyword, don’t make the rest of the queer community invisible. Educate your readers that the queer community is made up or more than just those who identify as gay.
5 thoughts on “The privilege of “gay””
This is a great post, thank you. Also, mega thanks for introducing me to QUILTBAG which is the best acronym ever ever ever.
I agree with you on almost all of this, and it is very close to a rant I have definitely been known to deliver.
Couple of points, though.
There are definitely bisexuals who identify as gay. I have met some. Generally bi men who identify strongly with gay men’s culture and are mostly attracted to men, but who sometimes have sex with women for the fun of it. They identify primarily as gay, but will, if discussing their sexuality in detail describe themselves as “a little bit bi” or something to that effect.
Also, queer has definitely NOT been fully reclaimed. It is still actively used as a slur, and there are still quite a lot of people out there who have been very hurt by it. I recommend that cis-het people use it with caution, although I am personally very fond of using it as an umbrella term myself.
I am not personally very fond of QUILTBAG, partially because it’s a bit twee, but also because it includes groups of people who do not necessarily consider themselves part of an umbrella with the rest of the people described, and do not necessarily have similar aims or goals in a political sense, and who are largely ignored by everybody else listed. Not much in the way of actual community going on, is kind of my point. I don’t mind it being used in a very general and vague way to refer to gender and sexuality minorities, but I think it’s a mistake to think that all of those groups have much in common.
But as I said, I very much agree with everything else you’ve had to say, and will probably be passing this essay around, unless you object.
For the record, I am a white cis bisexual woman who identifies strongly as queer and a dyke. (Men are fun for sex, women are better for relationships as well as sex.)
Thanks for your comment, and I’m quite happy for you to pass this around.
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