I cancelled my subscription to what was formerly Huff Post Gay Voices when the editorial director Noah Michelson changed the title to Huff Post Queer Voices earlier this year. Michelson justifies substituting “queer” in place of “gay” on the grounds the “word is the most inclusive and empowering one available to us to speak to and about the community.” (Noah Michelson as cited in OUT) The thinking behind it is people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, etc. form a “community,” that is they share a collective group identity. Following this train of thought, Michelson asserts “‘queer’ functions as an umbrella term that includes not only the lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people of ‘LGBT,’ but also those whose identities fall in between, outside of or stretch beyond those categories, including genderqueer people, intersex people, asexual people, pansexual people, polyamorous people and those questioning their sexuality or gender, to name just a few.” (Noah Michelson as cited in OUT) I get that “queer” is used by some as a blanket term for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, etc., but I heartily disagree with and refute of this point of view.
Fairy, faggot, pansy, queer were are a few of the slurs cast at me over the years as an insult, starting when I was in middle school. I do not like these slurs, least of all queer. Homosexual was the accepted and widely used term in use for a gay man in the early 1970s. I first heard my grandmother use the term. She signed on as a volunteer with the Ottawa Distress Centre when it opened in 1969. She counselled homosexuals over the telephone. She was sympathetic and appreciated the difficulties they faced at the time. She was the first person to whom I came out as “homosexual.” She was deeply concerned for me, telling me to be sure of this, warning me there was a great deal of prejudice and discrimination based on sexual orientation in society. She urged me to keep it to myself because if word got out the consequences could be dire. I heeded her advice, concealing the truth about my homosexuality from most people until 2012 when I came out once and for all.
Gay–meaning a male homosexual–became a familiar term later in the 1970s. Gays of Ottawa (GO) was founded in 1970. Its mandate was gay rights advocacy. I remember my grade nine history class in 1975, there were giggles in class when part of the textbook description of Queen Elizabeth I included the adjective “gay.” Homophile is another term used by gay people in the early 1970s to refer to themselves. The Queen’s Homophile Association (QHA) was set up at Queen’s University in 1973 as a supportive space for gay people at Queen’s and to counter negative attitudes toward homosexuality. I remember my first day as a first year student at Queen’s University in September 1980. When I met with my Gael group, an orientation group of first year students led by upper class student volunteers called “Gaels,” one of them made a disparaging remark about the Grey House. The Grey House provided space for the Queen’s Homophile Association at the time. The Gael said something to the effect that this is where “queers hang out.” It was an unpleasant reminder of the prejudice of which my grandmother warned me.
The Homophile Association of London Ontario (HALO), founded in the early 1970s, operated as a community centre for gay and lesbian people until it folded in 2005. I remember going to bar night at HALO on Saturday nights when I was a graduate student at the University of Western Ontario from 1992-1993. It was fun mingling with the people I met there and the most memorable moment I recall was during frosh week in 1992. A group of gay freshmen showed up dressed in “pumps and pearls” as part of their initiation. I stopped going to bar night after an incident one night as I left the HALO centre and walked home alone. I passed by two young men and one of them made reference to me using the slur “queer.” I ignored them and kept walking. I decided to err on the side of caution and stayed away for the rest of my time at Western. By the time I graduated from the University of Western Ontario in 1993, gay was established as the blanket term meaning a man who experiences same-sex attraction. By then I accepted this and identified as a gay man.
Were my grandmother alive today, she passed away in 1991 (two weeks after my 30th birthday), I think she would be happy for me and Mika. She would be pleased that we live openly as a gay couple, were granted the legal right to marry in Canada in 2005 and are accepted in mainstream society for who we are. Yes, gay is a clear and well-defined term. Gay is not a slur hurled at same-sex couples or single people who experience same-sex attraction. Some people use the terms gay and homosexual interchangeably and that is fine. The meaning is clear either way, though I prefer gay as homosexual sounds so impersonal. Either way, people in the wider world understand that Mika and I are two men who met, fell in love and set up household together. Moreover, in doing so I trust that people in the wider world appreciate we fulfill our human need for love and companionship as individuals who happen to be gay.
We are not part of a community, least of all the “queer community” invented by Noah Michelson and people who think like him. I think my grandmother would be mystified by this notion that gay people are expected to refer to themselves as “queer” and think they are part of a wider class of people that includes genderqueer people, intersex people, asexual people, pansexual people, polyamorous people and those questioning their sexuality or gender. None of this has anything to do with being gay and conflating it with the realities of being gay only creates confusion. No, queer remains a slur commonly used by people who dislike gay people for various reasons. Furthermore, how I relate to other people, whether they are straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, etc. is rooted in my individuality. I think for myself and I think Noah Michelson needs to rethink his point of view on this issue. The fact that being gay is no longer stigmatized, in spite of lingering prejudice from some elements of society, that gay people live openly and are free to marry is one of the achievements of Western civilization. It is something Noah Michelson should appreciate and celebrate in its own right.
Posted by Geoffrey