Labels in YYC: do you like Queer?

The second episode of Calgary Rainbow Radio premiered this week. It is an interesting discussion about labels and the complications in how we identify in our community. Here is the transcript of our contribution to the show on the history of labels:

Hello. My name is Kevin Allen and I am the research lead of the Calgary Gay History Project.   When I initially conceived of the name of the project, I called it the Calgary Queer History Project and had printed posters and postcards to that effect. I personally like the word queer, and use it often. I came out in 1990 at the age of 19, when AIDS activism and queer nation was in the ascendant. The slogan “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” still resonates with me today. Yet in my first few oral history interviews with community elders, I discovered that “queer” is still a living pejorative for them. To honour their contributions to the project I shifted the name of our work to the Calgary Gay History Project.

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Photo: from Zine, “Queers Read This: published anonymously by queers”

Terminology in the LGBTQ2S+ community is steadily evolving and there have been many transitions in terms over the decades. For example, I was surprised to learn that some women once considered the term lesbian an uppity feminist word in the mid-20th Century. These individuals maintained that they were gay women and not lesbians. In fact, Canada’s very first national lesbian conference, held in Toronto in 1973, ended up being called the Gay Women’s Festival. Ellen Woodsworth, one of the organizers, explained:

“Some of us really wanted to call it the Lesbian Conference or Lesbian Women’s Conference or something, but it was clearly going to be a barrier to others – either those who self-identified as gay or those who weren’t sure, or those who were really in the gay movement. We wanted everybody to feel safe to come.”

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Woodsworth quote and poster image from Liz Millward’s book “Making a Scene: Lesbians Community Across Canada 1964-84.”

The word gay itself came into common usage to mean homosexual only in the 20th Century, although it likely had earlier usage antecedents. It was first uttered in this context in a famous Hollywood film in 1938, called Bringing Up Baby starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. There is a scene in the film, in which Cary Grant’s character’s clothes have been sent to the cleaners, and he is forced to wear a woman’s feather-trimmed robe. When another character asks about his robe, he responds: “Because I just went gay all of a sudden!” This reference to cross-dressing (and, by extension, homosexuality) was unfamiliar to most filmgoers. The line can also be interpreted then as, “I just decided to do something frivolous,” but it was a coded reference to the rather large gay community working in Hollywood at the time.

California was also the birthplace of the homophile movement in the 1950s, a sort of polite, pleading for tolerance effort, that early gay activists employed. Homophile societies seeded themselves across North America. The two most prominent: the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis were both code names for homosexual men and women respectfully.

Amusingly, Harry Hay one of the Mattachine founders reported that in the 1930s and 1940s, gay people referred to themselves as temperamental – which I am really fond of now in 2017.

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Harry Hay in 1937. Photo: LeRoy Robbins from the Bay Area Reporter

The word homosexual itself is a manufactured word and a mash-up of Greek and Latin roots. Its first known appearance in print is found in an 1869 German pamphlet called “143 des Preussischen Strafgesetzbuchs” written by Karl-Maria Kertbeny. He published it anonymously. His pamphlet advocated the repeal of Prussia’s sodomy laws. Kertbeny had previously used the word in a private letter written in 1868 to Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a writer and forefather of the modern gay rights movement. Kertbeny used homosexual in place of Ulrichs’ term Uranian, which was the term he invented for his so-called third sex: men who had female brains and women who had male ones.

And of course, we are just scratching the surface of terminology past and present for queers, including names we call each other and those which are used against us. There are literally dozens of slang words. A sampling includes; dyke, faggot, molly, tommy, poof, pansy, Mary, limp-wristed, friend of Dorothy, butch, Kiki, muff diver, pillow biter, fairy, fruit and sod.

Like queer, perhaps it is time to reclaim some of them.

For myself, if I am looking for a change, I sort of like the ring of the Calgary Temperamental History Project.

{KA}

One response to “Labels in YYC: do you like Queer?

  1. Good article Kevin
    Some of those terms took me by surprise I must admit I don’t like the word queer because to me it implies something very negative. I believe homosexuality is a normal state for the person that is as being straight is for the one also. I believe the attitude of others is what sets the tone in society.
    We are born and grow into being short, tall, fat and thin, black, white and brown. Sexual orientation is just another feature.. why does there have to be so much emphasis placed on this by society? To me people are all human beings and where nature or God places us is not of our doing. So everyone is lovable and should be accepted for who they are. So to come back tonthe word queer, for me it sounds discriminatory. And I don’t want that for anyone in any way.

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