Saturday, May 05, 2012

The Plague of LGBT.

A friend informs me of a current exhibition of “LGBT History” in Plymouth, England.  Doubtless one should be grateful to the organizers for gathering some hard-to-find documentation, but the title raises hackles.

Even in present-day circumstances, the clumsy acronym LGBT is eschewed when serious matters are concerned.  No one writes about “LGBT law reform,” or “LGBT marriage,” or “LGBT service in the military” (at least no one I know).  So far, so ludicrous.  Why then should this monstrosity apply when it comes to the study of the past?

One may argue that LGBT has the advantages of “inclusiveness.”  Perhaps so, but the value of such collocations must be determined individually on the merits. 

A comparison will illustrate this point.  A current acronym is BRIC, for the emerging major powers of Brazil, Russia, India, and China.  This quartet makes some sense synchronically but not diachronically,  Imagine an exhibition of BRIC History through the Ages.  Such an event might help to understand the migration of Buddhism from India to China, and on to Brazil (where there is a substantial Japanese community), but little else.

A while back a philosopher introduced the concept of "making up people."  That seems to be what has happened with the LGBT chimera.

I turn now to some more specific remarks. First,  some tentative remarks on the last element of the acronymic quartet: the Ts.

First, I strongly believe in liberty of dress, including cross-dressing.  The only objections to this principle of dress-liberty that come to mind are two: wearing a ski mask in a bank, and donning the uniform of a police officer when the intent is to deceive.  (Even the latter might be OK in certain cases, as in the forthcoming film "Magic Mike.")

I also believe that one should be able to make whatever body modifications one sees fit, whether of the breasts, genitals, or some other bodily part.

That said, it seems to me that to link these two forms of T with the other three elements of the quaternion is a category mistake. For much of the 20th century sexologists struggled to clear up a common popular confusion, one that still survives in some quarters.  This confusion links sexual orientation with cross-dressing, formerly known as eonism.  Anyone who has had any experience in the matter knows that, for example, there are many heterosexual men who like to wear female clothing.  Some heterosexual women like to don "mannish" clothing.  And so on.  In other words, the adoption of such a mode affords no conclusion as whether the adopter is gay, lesbian, or bi.  Conversely, there is no particular compulsion among these three groups to engage in cross dressing.  

As regards transsexualism, the great majority of gay men and lesbians, certainly the ones I know, prize their genitals as they are, and have no wish to modify them.

Sadly, the current addition of the T to the group reinstates this old confusion of categories.  Why this should be done baffles me.   

There are of course perfectly good grounds for studying the history and conceptualization of eonism and transsexualism.  But they need to be studied for their own sake.

Finally, there are reasons for questioning, historically at least, the collocation of gay men and lesbian women.  While there are some scattered earlier avatars of this pairing, only since 1869 with K. M. Kertbeny's coinage, has it been regarded as axiomatic.  Yet historical study, which is the aim of the proposed inquiry, strongly suggests that it is not axiomatic--that is is a matter of (recent) culture rather than nature.


Anonymous Thomas Kraemer said...

I've also noticed a trend at many colleges today where Instead of using the generic words gay or queer, they use the acronym LGBT or worse LGBTQQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning and intersex) because this has become the "politically correct" terminology.

I often point out to young college students at my university, who love to argue for use of the "queer" identity instead of LGBT, that both men and women proudly called themselves gay activists in the 1970s until many women liberationists adopted a separatist lesbian identity after objecting to the many misogynistic and sexist gay male activists who would not allow women to assume leadership roles in the gay liberation movement. (For an example, see my local university history Thomas Kraemer, "Corvallis, Oregon State University gay activism 1969-2004," posted April 30, 2010)

I was an eyewitness to these naming disagreements. I always argued that it is also sexist to adopt a separate identity for male and female people with a minority sexual orientation or even gender identity. Ironically, many queer activists use this same argument to justify the word queer.

With my perspective of age, I also realize now that gay activists in the 1970s adopted the identity of "gay" to separate themselves from the older, more conservative, homophile activists who they considered to be too timid, such as W. Dorr Legg. I can see how the younger students today, who passionately argue for use of the "queer" identity, are probably also wanting to separate themselves from us old fuddy-duddy gay activists.

I agree that academic research needs to use precise language, which is why I specified that my OSU Foundation Magnus Hirschfeld Fund was created to support educational and research programs at OSU concerning humans or animals with a minority sexual orientation or gender identity

However, I also agree that there is too much time wasted on arguing about terminology, such as homophile versus gay versus queer versus LGBT, etc.

The sexual minorities community (another popular term) is so small and subject to the whims of the majority that I think it is essential for them to acknowledge the "rainbow continuum" (another popular term) of sexual orientations and gender identities and then move on and unify to achieve the common goal of being treated equally by society.

I recently used the election of a gay frat boy to student body vice-president at my university to remind students how this event represented the heart-warming progress toward the goal of equality that brave gay pioneers sought, such as Jack Baker who ran to become the first openly gay student body president at the University of Minnesota in 1971. (Baker surprised me a few weeks ago when he called me on the phone out-of-the-blue and told me about his yet to be released blogging project and private negotiations with the University of Minnesota to do a historical donation (that I may be contributing to also. He and his partner are now 70 years old and still consider themselves to be married.)

I am predicting that the "gay" terminology will have legs and stick over time because it has been adopted internationally and also in my experience simplicity always wins out over time. The word "queer" already seems to be falling out of fashion at many universities and LGBT seems to be a term increasingly used only by politicians and gay rights organizations who are trying not to offend anybody. You are correct that LGBT is too clumsy of a term to be embraced by popular language. I bet it will be rarely used a few decades from now.

11:37 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

I agree with your calm and sensible remarks, Thomas. (I would have said more in the original posting, but the matter was aggravating my hypertension.) While I never met Jack Baker, I admired him, and am glad to learn that he is doing well.

12:37 PM  
Anonymous Thomas Kraemer said...

Thanks, I forgot to mention another thing -- but I would have to go back and look at old magazines to prove it -- I swear recalling that in the late 1970's and early 1980's the common usage was GLBT and even GLB until lesbian women took charge during the AIDS crisis of the early 1980's (I was living and working in San Francisco (Stanford) at that time and I appreciated lesbian women taking charge as many gay male leaders were savagely decimated by GRID, as AIDS was initially called.)

As lesbian women rose and gay male power diminished, it seemed like editors everywhere put lesbians first, perhaps as a way to acknowledge the prior charges made by lesbian women that gay men were sexist. I don't know if lesbians appreciated being listed first, but I also learned, the hard way, that saying "ladies first" would offend many women libbers. Therefore, perhaps the change from GLBT to LGBT was not done by women, but it was a subtle slam by a sexist gay male activist!

3:18 PM  

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