What’s in a word?

Hi, peeps!

I’ve got a lot of stuff going on at the moment. Several projects I’m trying to finish up, both writing and editing. And of course the day job and all of the attendant things that go with that. Then there’s the state of the world…

ugh.

Let’s not go to certain places in that regard.

Instead, I was thinking about a conversation I had a few months back with a young woman (in her early 20s) who identifies as lesbian. For further clarification, she’s cisgender.

She was telling me that it’s really difficult for her and other young lesbian-identified women to tap into a larger lesbian community. She told me she and her peers would really like to be around older lesbians and she want on to tell me that on her campus, lesbian-identified women are often marginalized because they don’t identify as “queer” or “genderqueer.” She kind of laughed at that and said she was just a boring lesbian. One of her friends chimed in at this point that she experienced backlash because she was accused of being part of a segment of radical feminists (some of whom identify as lesbian) who are seriously anti-trans.

In other words, she said, people hear the word “lesbian” and automatically assume she’s anti-trans because of this one segment of the radical feminist community. Which, as we all know, isn’t true. And the backlash right now against trans people in this country is catching all of us who identify as LGBTQI in its net. Hold on, friends. It’s sure to get uglier. And that’s a blog for another time.

Back to our younger audience.

I asked the two women I was speaking with what would be useful to them, in terms of contact with a larger lesbian community. And they both said just to be around older lesbians with or without partners, who have been around a while and weathered the storm, if you will. To be in contact with them, in a mentor fashion. To hang out. Go to dinner. Go to events. Just to have them as part of their circles of colleagues.

I remember being that age, and I remember thinking the same thing. Part of the problem when I was that age was that older LGBTQ people were afraid to be around younger ones, because part of the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric we were all subjected to is that older gays are sexual predators, and “recruiting” younger people, including kids. So it seemed, as I was coming of age, that older LGBTQ people tended to keep their distance and I understand why, though I would’ve liked being around older LGBTQ people.

And now that I’m “older,” and the myths are still out there, I wonder whether that might not be part of why my generation, too, might be leery about hanging out with younger LGBTQ people. It seems that this is as good a time as any to break that myth wide open, given the changing landscapes for LGBTQ people in this country.

And then I thought about this idea of “queer.” I know several young people (under 30) who identify as queer. That is, they don’t think of themselves as ascribing to heteronormative or homonormative ideals (that’s a whole discussion for elsewhere).

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That’s a loaded word for some, “queer.” No doubt a few of you reading this blog remember it when it was used as a pejorative. Many of you probably recoil just reading it here. And for that I apologize even as I acknowledge the historical context of language and identity.

And I wonder if perhaps language isn’t also getting in the way of intergenerational discussions, when younger people throw a word around effortlessly in reference to themselves that was used as a bludgeon against older.

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One of my colleagues in their late 20s identifies as queer and also uses the pronouns “they/their/theirs.” That’s now something that comes up when meeting any new group of people in LGBTQI and ally circles — “what pronouns do you prefer?” It’s almost a ritual, this announcement of your name and your pronouns and, in some cases, how you identify and it’s a little off-putting for older LGBTQI people, because it might seem ridiculous, asking about your pronouns but if you think about it, gender isn’t really something that’s binary.

We’ve been taught that it is, and that it’s supposed to match sex and physiology, but it really doesn’t. And in terms of human expressions of any of those, it’s a lot more fluid than we realize. For some of us who grew up in a world that demanded that binary, it’s a little hard to let go of that, even though we might understand that a binary isn’t how life is lived. It’s still a roadmap of sorts, for many of us conditioned in that context. A hook to hang our understanding of various parts of the world on. And it’s hard to try a different hook.

There’s a bewildering, dizzying array of terminology now for sexual orientation and gender identity (see here and here) — especially for those of us who grew up before increased visibility and the rise of the Internet, and yes, I’ll admit that there are days I feel like just a plain ol’ lesbian, especially around some younger people, who throw terms around like handfuls of confetti and are at home in that milieu, in the shifting currents of discourse and unfolding ideas about sexual orientation and gender identity.

Some days, I feel like a throwback, like a retro manifestation of an antiquated sexual orientation, with a quaint not-quite-female and not-male appearance.

And some days, I feel valued, when a young person asks me for an opinion or guidance with something. I like being around young people. I like their ideas, I like their energy. I try to value them as I value my elders and peers, because they are the next wave of activists and thinkers and doers, and the more we can share what we know with each other, I think the better for everyone.

It’ll take some work. And as a writer, I’m struggling with getting more comfortable with terminology so I can bring even more characters into my stories, who are reflections of younger people now.

And I hope that in doing that, and in engaging as much as I can with younger people, that they’ll continue that, when they’re twenty, thirty, forty and more years beyond their current age bracket.

That, to me, is sharing the luv.

All that said, for those of you who write, are you dealing with this shift in language and generations? How does it affect your characters/plots? I’m curious.

And for readers, tell us some of the books you’re reading that bring in characters that fall all over the LGBTQI spectrum. And has anyone read anything with asexual characters? Is anyone writing asexual characters?

Share your thoughts below and happy Friday, all!

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10 thoughts on “What’s in a word?

  1. I’m so glad you asked about fic with the spectrum of queer characters! One book I’m happily signal-boosting is “Reintegration” by Eden S. French https://www.amazon.com/Reintegration-Eden-S-French-ebook/dp/B016YHM2O4. It’s SF, and her characters run the gamut across the spectrum. To me, it feels like not only like something set in the future, but like something from the future of our genre. Not to mention, she’s a fabulous author.

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  2. Thank you for touching on this topic!

    I recently read “Any Way the Wind Blows” by Carlin Grant. It’s a novella, so I was able to wolf it down while waiting for a mechanic to change the oil in my car. I want to read more stories with asexual, aromantic protagonists. It features two aromantic, asexual women. Callie and Jo, two women from different backgrounds, meet during one of Callie’s farmshare stints and instantly bond. It’s an enjoyable story! There are some grammatical errors that can be remedied with a bit more editing, but they don’t detract from the story overall.

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  3. My heart goes out to the young lesbians you spoke with. It’s nice to know there are still some young women who actually identify as lesbian. I’m in my early 60’s now, and am still VERY proud to call myself a lesbian, even though it’s almost considered a dirty word these days. Although I respect the right of anyone to refer to themselves in any way they wish, I refuse to call myself “queer” or “cisgender”. In my over 40 years of activism, I have seen each new generation insist that their terms are the “correct” ones, and they become just as judgmental of people who don’t use them as they accuse the latter of being. If we lesbians feel unwelcome in our so-called LGBTQI community, then something is very wrong. Obviously, I don’t live in the city where you met these two young lesbians, so I won’t be able to meet them, but I sure wish I could. i’d be so happy to hang out with them and do whatever I could to be a mentor to them. I hope they remain proud and strong as lesbians.

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  4. I’m 30, and I’ve certainly experienced hostility from the older generation of lesbians (and gay men, though that’s perhaps off-topic), hearing things like ‘you’re gay or you’re straight, there’s no such thing as bisexual’, or ‘bisexuals are just jealous’ – compare and contrast the unquestioning acceptance of straight friends of my own generation! That was four or five years ago – since then I’ve become much less bothered about what anyone thinks about me or my identity, but at the time it really knocked my confidence and put me off getting involved with LGBT activism.

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    1. Well, that just ain’t right. But perhaps it would help to think about the contexts older LGBTQ people grew up in and came of age in. Gender, sex, and sexual orientation as binary constructions for many of us were hammered into us culturally, socially, politically. Even those of us who took gender theory classes in college and were part of the vanguard of queer studies and theory still grapple with our conditioning.

      Doesn’t make it right, but perhaps it might help you understand why there are those among the older set who react the way they do. Change is hard. It’s scary. And it requires, in this case, that people relinquish a lot of what they know. Adjusting a worldview is akin to turning a huge ship, and sometimes, sadly and perhaps tragically, the ship hits an iceberg.

      That said, there are bunches of us older LGBTQIA people out here willing to question assumptions–whether our own or those of others–and work with people across many generations to effect change for as many people as we can, across all kinds of backgrounds and circumstances.

      And I’ll say here that you may not consider yourself an activist, but identifying outside what is considered the heteronormative (and homonormative) “norm” makes you one. The personal IS political, and I hope that you don’t paint all older LGBTQIA people with one broad brush. There are those in that population who do it, and those among younger who do it–but there are all kinds of views in between and we all have a lot to learn from each other.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

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      1. I should have said ‘put me off activism *for a while*’ – I’m very political these days. But it’s in places where I can feel that my voice is welcomed and listened to. My first bi-specific meeting was an amazing experience – for the first time in my life, I didn’t feel that people were questioning who and what I was.

        I certainly think that there should be dialogue and involvement across the generations – but listening and acceptance goes both ways.

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  5. It’s gratifying to learn there are young lesbians interested in hanging out with older lesbians. I frankly thought I was invisible to them. Perhaps as a sexual partner, but maybe not as a mentor. I figured I was just a dinosaur with nothing of value to offer the younger crowd, who I’ve been jealous of precisely because they don’t appear to have to go through the angst I did (not that they don’t have any, just that it’s not the same). Happy to be wrong, I think.

    As for the writing standpoint and a shift in language, yeah, it’s hard to keep up. I have a trans character in my novel, Wishbone, and during the many years it took to write, the language shifted and I had to keep bringing it back to the early ’00s, when the story is set.

    Lastly, to think that by identifying as lesbian I might be signaling I’m anti-trans is horrifying! Rad fems are not all lesbians. I am no rad fem, I am NOT anti-trans. Yikes!

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  6. Interesting topic. I probably don’t hang with many younger lesbians only because I don’t really go to the bars or enjoy the same types of activities. My wife and I are pretty mellow. I offered up my condo to a young lesbian who needed a place to stay, but we really did enjoy different types of activities. I don’t actively avoid younger lesbians, I just don’t have too many opportunities to interact. I also live in a very rural area…

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  7. My Shirley Combs/Dr. Mary Watson mystery series features an asexual female Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson first believes herself to be asexual as well, but questioning. In the second book, she falls in love and comes out as a lesbian. Shirley will always be asexual. The books always have characters who are in the LGBTQQIA spectrum. I for one welcome the new language, the asking and being asked re pronouns. Since I moved to San Diego from Portland last year I haven’t met many young people, but I am working to expand my community. I prefer to have friends of all ages, all genders, all pronouns.

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  8. Have you read The Labrys Reunuion by Tery Wolverton? Published in 2009 by Spinsters Ink it uncovers and discusses this intergenerational “gap” between lesbians as the theme underneath the plot.

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