I don’t have to tell you guys that we’ve been fans of The Advocate for years now. It was probably the first LGBT news outlet that I ever started reading, and it was one of the first news outlets to start supporting us and our online content. They’re also not shy about letting their editorial content take a potentially contentious stance, which is something that, from time to time, inspires both admiration and frustration (sometimes even at the same time). But hey, that’s the nature of the idea marketplace. If we never exposed ourselves to ideas that contradict and challenge our own, then we’ll never be able to grow or progress as individuals, as a community, or as a society.
That’s one of the reasons why I was able to take a recent op-ed by Kurt Niece that they published, “LGBTQIDONTKNOW: The Acronym Struggle Is Real”, in stride. In it, Niece bemoans the ever-expanding acronym that our community uses to identify itself. He points out that, when it first emerged, the term “gay” was much more of a blanket term to describe anyone who didn’t fall under the traditional norms of being straight and cis. He also poses the possibility of having it come back as the title we all rally behind as a singular community:
So in that great linguistic circle of life, what would happen if we resurrected gay? Maybe gay can be what the word queer is for — an all-encompassing, United Nations-of-a-term for the nonstraight.
While I don’t really agree with the mindset that “traditional ways are always best”, I can certainly see where he’s coming from. It’s a variation in the same theme I touched on in an op-ed I published with them three years ago. “Why does our community need so many separate letters and identities?” “Why do we have to fracture the community?” “Why do we have to assign a label to everything?” I’ve been there before. And if I’m being truthful, then I must admit that, in my ideal future, we wouldn’t bother with sexual or gender labels at all, and just let people live their lives. I can only guess that not many others out there in Internet-land were able to cut Mr. Niece some slack, since he recently just published a follow-up: “Don’t Forget Who the Real Perpetrators of LGBT Erasure Are”. I wish I could say that it clears his position up without alienating anyone in the process… I really do. But instead, I can only say that Niece is digging himself in deeper.
“I, someone who’s personally witnessed the evolving acronym, wrote it with good intention and a smile. But, it created a shit storm. Words like “erased” were tossed about… The majority of negativity seemed to come from bi folk with a millennial perspective. That was especially puzzling. I wonder, why do the people who seem most comfortable with human sexuality, seem the most insecure?”
As someone who makes a living on the internet, I’ve developed a pretty thick skin. I see casual biphobia tossed around pretty much daily. And since Millennial-bashing has become all the rage among many a media outlet, I don’t really bat an eyelash when yet another member of a previous generation decides to shake their cane at me and tell me to get off their lawn. I even have my moments when I myself sit in my proverbial rocker and scold idiot teens who try to snap while driving. But there is one thing that will always irk me, and that’s whenever someone tries to respond to criticism by playing the victim.
“This piece touched nerves and the pervasive, word du jour, tweeted incessantly, was “erased.” That’s simply misguided… Erasure is not a word to be used casually. In fact, it’s a terribly, inappropriate word to be bandied about by those suffering mere hurt feelings. To use the word so carelessly guts the meaning, reality, and the core of a powerful concept. It diminishes an entire generation: AIDS, 30 years ago, was erasure.”
Ugh, here we go. Look, I know that tweets and comments aren’t exactly known for being articulate and nuanced, but there’s no reason for us to bring the AIDS crisis into this. Sure, it was (and still is) one of the darkest chapters in the history of the LGBT community and the world, but you’re completely missing the point now.
Believe it or not, labels can and do serve a purpose. In fact, I was on a panel with Hannah Hart at VidCon last year when I heard her say a phrase that I really like: “we need to use labels to get past labels”. When we add new terms like “asexual”, “demisexual”, “sapiosexual”, “pansexual”, and so on to our lexicon (go ahead and Google them if you don’t know them), it helps us gain better awareness of all the different possibilities that can exist out there. It also deepens our understanding of the various complexities behind sexual and gender identity (or lack thereof). More importantly, a label, should a person choose to use it, announces to the world that you exist, and that this identity that you’re donning is both real and valid. Then, once multiple people start adopting this same identity, there’s an opportunity for them to gather together as a community, and address any unique issues and challenges that they might face. For example, one of the reasons why the Bi+ community exists on its own is because we have our own unique physical and mental health risk factors that we have to address. Furthermore, we’re trying to seek refuge from the stigma we face from both straight and “gay” individuals.
I get that “gay” used to be more of a blanket term. But times have changed. We also used to put lead in our paint and asbestos in our homes and Bill Cosby on our TV’s, but then we learned better. I’m not even opposed to coining a blanket term that we’re able to use to group all of the sexual and gender minorities together into one community. I’m a firm believer in the idea that there’s power in numbers, and that we do need to focus on our common goals and enemies. But there is a risk associated with that. The minute you gather together a bunch of diverse individuals together into one community, it’s easy for the voices of more privileged members to drown out others. It’s one of the main reasons why “gay” went from a blanket term to one that largely describes cis men who choose same-sex partners exclusively. And when we look at portrayals of “gayness” in mainstream and even queer media, the vast majority are portrayed with certain specific traits, mannerisms, interests, body types, socioeconomic status, and skin color. That’s why many people who read your op-ed are concerned about “erasure”, since we’re largely speaking from experience.
That’s why I can’t help but feel like your point about the AIDS crisis was in extremely poor taste, as well as the self-righteous pontificating that followed soon thereafter:
“For those too young to remember, or who choose not to understand, there was no effective treatment for AIDS. It was a death sentence. The virus caused literal erasure… Many of us earned our “G” by standing up to a political and medical empire that clearly, didn’t care. We made them care though, by making enough noise about being gay. It was called, Gay Pride. So, I embrace the “G.” If you don’t, that’s OK, but don’t judge what you didn’t experience. And try, just for a minute, to consider the path my generation cut for present, enchanted generations. Today, you are free to perseverate about proper acronyms and generally, without fear of breaking a sodomy law. You’re welcome.”
Listen, no one is trying to dismiss or downplay the incredible bravery displayed by previous generations. Yes, so much of the progress we enjoy today came thanks to those who came before us to gave their time, effort, blood, sweat, tears, and their lives. To borrow from Newton, we’re “standing on the shoulders of giants”. But in your lecturing, you actually gave more merit to the concerns that we’re trying to express. You see, it wasn’t just gay people who found themselves ravaged by an epidemic. It wasn’t just gay people who fought to change a system that tried to silence them. The organizer of the first ever Pride parade was bisexual. The first person to throw a brick at Stonewall was a trans woman of color. We got to where we are because of sacrifices and contributions that came from all the different letters of the acronym. And because “gay” doesn’t mean what it used to, when you say it was the “G” that’s largely responsible for the progress that we enjoy, you are, in a way, erasing the contributions made by the Brenda Howards and the Marsha P. Johnsons of history. Furthermore, erasure is erasure, regardless of the severity. Is today’s casual erasure worse than the physical erasure that faced earlier generations? Probably not. But it’s still erasure, just like racism is still racism, be it institutional racism like Jim Crow or casual racism like the guys on Grindr who say “sorry, it’s just a preference”.
Does my generation have an apathy problem? Absolutely. But there are reasons for that, which I can address at a later time. Do many LGBT youth need a history lesson? Sure. You have our school system to thank for that. But if your concern is doing justice to those who came before us, then I suggest you practice what you preach and stop invoking their names every time you try to make a point. Furthermore, if you’re going to be satirical and ironic, you need to do a better job of making that clear, lest people get the wrong impression. Most importantly of all, if your goal is to unite our community and stop it from splintering, maybe it’s time you stopped talking and started listening to what we’re actually trying to say. Who knows, maybe us whippersnappers can help you learn a thing or two.