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Is “lesbian” a word we should still be using?

September 30, 2016

Before I realised that I was trans, I identified as gay. A gay woman, technically, but of course I always avoided phrasing it in those terms.

Others would have referred to me as a lesbian, the very thought of which I absolutely despised.

I was once asked by a male acquaintance which term I preferred. When I gave him my preference, he proceeded to tell me that if he were a lesbian, he would prefer to be called such.

My immediate reaction was a stab of annoyance. Yes, I thought, the point is that you’re not. If you were, you may well think differently. Leave it to the heterosexual, cisgendered man to assume he knows how it feels to be a gay woman!

It never helped that every time I heard a straight man say “lesbian” is sounded like a fetish. Straight women were not much better; they would say “lesbian” with ecstatic curiosity, the type one might associate with some kind of ultra-rare gross condition, ripe for gossiping about.

I do not believe that my resistance to the term had to do entirely with my transgenderism. Nor do I think that it was it down to phonetics, as I once did. The sound of the word lesbian was unpleasant to my ears.

Since then, I have read studies into words like “moist” that have suggested that when people object to the sound of a word, it is not actually the sound they dislike, despite their perception. The context and connotation changes their response to the word.

No one objects to the phrase “A moist cake,” because the context makes it non-gross. Remove the cakey context, and people cannot help but think of bodily functions, therefore reacting with disgust. The emotion of disgust is principally about hygiene and fear of contamination, so often circulates implication of bodily excretions.

I discovered later that I minded the word “lesbian” much less when it was used in its adjectival form: a lesbian woman. This made it equivalent to the male: a gay man. Someone somewhere had consciously or unconsciously picked up in the fact that women were being described wholly in terms of their homosexuality, and decided to adapt the term.

The difference between “lesbian” and “gay” is that “lesbian” is a noun and “gay” is an adjective. Adjectives are grammatically designed to be stacked, in the way that nouns are not. You can have a big, bad, red dog; but you cannot have a dog, cat, duck human. Except in some very strange manga.

Yet, there has been an increased tendency to stack nouns in the vernacular when referring to people: you can be a lesbian slut bitch, though it does sound rather like the disconnected slurs of redneckary. You can also be a brunette BBW cutiepie. This also sounds like a description from a not particularly enlightened man, but I assure you that you’ll also find it one someone’s online dating profile.

We have resigned ourselves to definition by nouns, and have purloined the grammar of adjectives to remove the necessary restriction of nouns: that any given subject can really only ever be one noun at a time. The rabbi walks down the road. The man human rabbi does not. You have to pick a noun, and therefore decide which attribute you deem most significant in defining or identifying the individual.

As such, the language of nouns-as-descriptions is often the language of prejudice. “Homosexual” and “Negro” are words of a bygone age, which describe people primarily in terms of what they are as distinct to the rest of society. It is the language of segregation and difference.

The more offensive equivalents of these terms, and insults in general, are nouns more often than adjectives. “Fatty” is instantly more offensive than “fat”. Ah, the difference a letter can make.

Offensive language is consistent, but inoffensive language is inconsistent. Why dyke should be homophobic and lesbian not, I don’t know, since they can both be used scornfully, or not, and both focus on segregation of culture.

Derided people are fixed states. Once a ginger, always a ginger; people with red hair can dye their hair and gain brown hair, yet they do not become brunettes. They still have a ginger soul, which to some is worth deriding. They have an inescapable, inferior, internal state of redheadedness.

Hair colour is a good example of a split between the genders in terms of adjective-versus-noun description. Even for positive words, women are often described as nouns. A blond, a brunette, a redhead. A man simply has brown hair, or has blond hair.

Terms made up of adjectives become noun-phrases and are contracted into initials to make easy nouns: a Big, Beautiful Woman becomes a BBW. The world is full of hotties and cuties. And when she a hotty, you want a piece of that ass.

The final statement there shows how using nouns as description immediately lends itself to objectification, and the breaking of people up into their constituents parts, focusing particularly on the ones which are of the highest sexual interest (“ass” here is a bit of a euphemism).

Negative terminology, too, is based more in the noun camp for women than for men. “Butterface” is my favourite example. Men are just ugly. Butterface is a word specifically designed to work for women only, because it is a play on words that relies on seeming to contain the word “her”. People, even women, use it with a smirk like they’re being clever, because they see the insult but they don’t see the sexism.

Minger” was a favourite in the Noughties at my school. I don’t think I ever heard it used to describe boys and men. I’m sure it was somewhere, but if I rarely heard it, it suggests that this term was favoured for girls and women.

Women are sluts, whores, hos – and in Britain, slags or slappers – all those terms just for promiscuity alone! For men, we have to hastily adapt these terms if we want to use them; doesn’t “man-whore” suggest an acceptance of the default position that a whore is usually a woman?

The old fashioned noun words for male promiscuity are not as negatively connoted, such as a “playboy”, which in any case refers to a set of traits, including wealth, not just the one attribute of promiscuity. If Wikipedia is to be believed, it does not even principally refer to promiscuity, but rather the promiscuity is like a side effect. “Lothario” is a word coined from a name in fiction which is actually closer in meaning to “seducer”.

It’s well documented that promiscuity in men gets a free pass, when in women it does not. That the language reflects this is not surprising. What is surprising is that any gay woman would freely accept a description that, in exactly the same way, focuses on their inherent difference by branding them as a single identity.

The movement of political correctness has favoured further and further movement away from certain elements of language, down to fine detail; even prepositions get a question mark. Wheelz, the wheelchair freestyler, prefers to say he is “on a wheelchair” not “in a wheelchair” because the latter sounds like the wheelchair is part of him, but the former sounds like “you’re just riding it, like a bike.”

Then there is the one-letter indefinite article. Consider: “He is a Romanian,”  against “He is Romanian.” Same for “Muslim” and “foreigner”. All uses of “a” something (and additionally, pluralisation) give you an descriptive noun for a group of people sharing an attribute; in so doing, separating people off into fundamentally different categories.

Most recently, the zeitgeist of PC language has favoured turning pre-modifying adjectives into post-modifying ones. It is no longer “disabled people” but rather “people with disabilities”. No longer “black people” but “people of colour”.

What’s interesting about this is that now, the whole thing has become a noun-phrase: He is person-of-colour. A return to nouns looks like backwards step, but the difference is that the noun of personhood is being emphasised, which is the whole point in the change.

The problem with nouns as descriptors is that they erase personhood, and redefine people as being primarily composed of their most obvious attribute(s). You can replace the nouns fatty, blonde and lesbian with the nouns “alien”, “doll”, “dog”, “meat” or some other non-human / inanimate object – it’s about the same mentality. Blonde women are not people, they’re blondes.

I wouldn’t be surprised if I wake up one day to discover “people of lesbianism” or “persons of homosexual proclivity” circling the tumblrsphere. I myself might stick to “gay”, but I would understand the standpoint from which the liberalese is coming.

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