Homophobic Slurs and Bisexual People or why does this matter to me?
I have seen many gay men and lesbians argue that words like fag, dyke and queer can not be reclaimed by bisexual people because they’re slurs for gay people only. As someone who is bisexual and who finds power in reclaiming words used against me and people like me, I have decided to write this just, so I can send it to anyone who thinks this rather than having to repeat the arguments over and over again. Enjoy everyone. Before anyone says- ‘But it’s written in the dictionary’-Sorry but put down your dictionary, it is not the by all and end all of the English Language. I have seen this line both in arguments online and in real life ‘well according to the dictionary definition of the word’-stop right there please. The dictionary is not some holy bible of the English language.
It is not the final and deciding factor on what words mean. A dictionary is written by people whom have biases and flaws just like the rest of us. Words gain their meaning from social political and historical contexts. [i] This does not mean that words can mean whatever we want them to mean. But rather that what they mean is governed by social norms of a person’s community.[ii] Therefore, when you start arguing that a word definition is X and only X because it is written in the dictionary you fail to consider the social, political, historical and cultural reasons why they define the word in that particular way. Often the reasons maybe not as simply as you think. So, before you begin arguing about terms and definitions do some research. Many words have more than one meaning because different groups have different norms. Most dictionaries reflect only what the majority of people in a particular setting see the word as. Many groups fall outside the majority and just because you’re in the majority does not make you right-language is an anarchy not a democracy. Many groups have terms and language that would not even be recognizable to people outside those groups. In short, the common dictionary is not some holy bible of the English Language, if you have a problem with how a group of people define a word then you need to come up with another reason then ‘well the dictionary says so’.
Let’s take this and apply it to slurs. You might insist that a word like dyke means lesbian because that is the dictionary definition, or else that the word faggot means a gay man because that is in the dictionary. But the dictionary definition of a word is always awfully simplistic, dictionaries are very inadequate about explaining the social, political and historical factors at play. This is because they only give one sentence explanations for words-which is not nearly enough. Secondly, these words association with lgb people is not official, even your dictionary can tell you that. The word fag for example actually means a bundle of sticks. The word dyke is a damn, and Queer means something strange. So instead let’s dive in and have a look at some of those factors surrounding some of the most common slurs for gay, lesbian and bisexual people. I have located three: Fag, Dyke and Queer. But beforehand I am going to explain a little bit about bisexual people historically and how those history intersects with the wider LGB+ community.
A very brief history of bisexuals before the word bisexual existed or will the real Sappho please stand up?
Separating out bisexual history from LGB history is difficult for a number of reasons. The first one being that bisexual is a modern word that was only coined recently.[iii] Therefore, because the label didn’t exist until then you won’t find a woman in the 15th century proudly calling herself bisexual. This applies to other words used in the LGB+ cannon as well. Gay did not gain its current association with homosexuality until recently. Before then it meant happy or immoral-sometimes both and was frequently used as a term for prostitution. A gay woman was not a homosexual but a sex worker. This problem is actually affect one of the most famous women to love other women in history; Sappho. In our modern age, Sappho is usually seen as an icon to Queer women.
But this was not always how Sappho was viewed.[iv] During different periods, she has been seen as fallen woman, married woman and an intellect. There are also myths of her falling in love with the ferry man Pheon and of her marriage to a man. It is also possibly she may have a daughter-but whether this was by birth or adoption is unknown. This is because we know so little about Sappho’s life. Only a tiny handful of her poems survive to the modern period, of these there is certainly homoerotic elements to them. Considering all of this it is impossible to say for certain if Sappho was attracted to men and women or if she was exclusively attracted to women. We may never know.
With all this in mind we can’t say for certain whether she would have called herself a lesbian or bisexual today. Is it even fair to place such a label on her when she herself would never have used them? I think that we need to be cautious in assigning a label to someone whom can’t speak for herself on the matter anymore. So, instead of calling a lesbian or bisexual, I will refer to her a proto-queer woman. Queer here is meant in the umbrella sense, whether she was exclusive interested in women or interested in men and women, she would be considered Queer today. Proto, meanwhile, accepts that she would not have called herself such, that I am only placing the label there to make sense of her and her legacy for myself.
With that in mind, when I discuss women that existed before our era, who would not have used our language, I used terms like proto-queer, proto-lesbian or proto-bisexual. So where are the proto-bisexuals in history? The answer is that they are closer then we think. Emma Donoghue writes in Passions between women that ‘While many of us make a useful erotic and political distinction between the labels ‘lesbian’ and ‘bisexual today, I have found little evidence of any such distinction in the seventeenth and eighteenth-century text.’[v] Such a distinction is not found until the late 20th century.[vi] The separation of women who loved other women into the subgroups of lesbian and bisexual is a recent invention. Proto-bisexual people can be found in the pre-stonewall gay communities all throughout history. It just takes a little digging to find them.
During the 20th century a gay women’s bar and house party culture had developed; this community was relatively insular focused on survival and supporting one another. This was true in both the USA and UK. During this time period, the word lesbian was not widely used. In the USA the word gay[vii] was used, meanwhile in the UK terms such as tomboy and career woman were used.[viii] These were more common with the working class, Sapphic was more common for the middle and upper-class women. The working class gay women’s community in both the USA and UK had some things in common, including the Butch and Fem (or femme) roles and dynamic.[ix] These two archetypes had very different roles and stereotypes about them. The Butch was seen as a gender invert, the true homosexual.[x] With her masculine dress and manner whose sexuality was in born, something that could never be changed. The Fem was very different. Her sexuality was not seen as in born nor fixed but fluid and elastic.[xi] Many Femmes combined their gay identity with being a girlfriend or wife to a man, or a sex worker with male clients.[xii] Her feminine dress and manner meant she wasn’t easily recognizable as a Queer Woman. The difference between butch and fem has been described as that of the butch as persistence and the fem as fluid.
The fluid fem was viewed with suspicion and doubt. Many were seen as the type to go back to the safety and security of heterosexuality. During the (in)famous lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness, the protagonist Stephen is a butch woman whose fem lover leaves her for a man in the end. Another example of this is Anne Lister whom had is considered ‘the first modern lesbian’ whom was the first to use the word femme to describe her lovers-many of whom had relationships with both men and women.[xiii] Queer women use different labels for lesbian and bisexual women now, it is also understood, that one can be feminine and a lesbian or masculine and bisexual. However, these archetypes still existed for many years within the pre-stonewall community and can be seen in the lives, literature and history of the women from these times.
I am not arguing that every fem was fluid and every butch was persistent. There were plenty of femmes whom were committed to the gay women’s community. Meanwhile there were also butch women whom had sexual contact with men-whether from lust or for material and social gain.[xiv] However, the social norms within this community did describe these two archetypes that did impact how members of the community viewed each other. The archetype of the butch can be read as a the proto-lesbian. The archetype of the fem can be read as a proto-bisexual woman, seen as sexually fluid and having relationships with both men and women. So, where were the proto-bisexual women? The answer is that many of them were living as femme gay women.
I have written a lot about women now, because that is what I know best. But what about the men? Where are the proto-bisexual men? Where they inside the gay men’s community, similar to the case with proto-bisexual women? While let’s examine the history of men who love other men and find some answers. Unlike with women whom the law was silent on, male-male sex was illegal under the charge of sodomy. However, despite the legal persecution these men faced many of them were able to find one another and form a community. Gay bars have existed for centuries-even though they weren’t always called that. Perhaps the best example of a Proto-gay bar comes from the Molly Houses.[xv] A Molly was a term used for men whom had sex with men or for male assigned at birth people whom were gender non-confirming. Molly houses were a combination of drinking houses, community centres and brothels. The most famous of which was mother clamps molly house.[xvi]
It’s important to understand that sex between two men was not seen as a normal expression of sexuality for some people but as a sin that any man could be attempted by.[xvii] Because of this a sodomite was defined not by his exclusive interest in other men but because he had sex with other men-it was seen as a matter of behaviour not sexual attraction. The society these men were in did not care if they were attracted to both men and women or if they were attracted in only men. Sodomy was Sodomy and that was that. The Molly subculture was persecuted fiercely but that did not stop these men from gathering, this subculture was a proto-type of the gay bar culture of the later 19th and 20th century. This culture co-existed alongside the gay women’s culture, often sharing the same drinking establishments and the two sexes mixed frequently enough.[xviii] So, what did this community of men whom were persecuted for having sex with men think about sleeping with women? Did the mollies, sodomites and buggers of the 17th to 20th century have a problem with men whom had sex with both men and women? What about the early gay community of the 20th century?
The answer is that, similar to their female counterparts, these communities did not make a distinction between a bisexual man and a homosexual man. In his book, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, George Chauncey states that ‘Above all, it was not a world in which men were divided into heterosexual and homosexual.’[xix] He continues ‘This book argues that in important respects the hetero-homosexual binarism, the sexual regime now hegemonic in popular American culture, is a stunningly recent creation.’[xx] Instead sexual behaviour was the only identifier. If you chose a man as a partner you were gay, if you chose a woman you were ‘normal.’ Some men went back and forward between the two genders and some were sexual active with both. Others, of course, were exclusive in their choice of sexual partners, choosing only men.
So, what does all this mean? Very simple put: bi+ men and women have been here from the beginning and we’re just as much a part of the community and its history as gay men and lesbian women are. You cannot draw a clear-cut line between the experiences of a lesbian woman and a bisexual woman. Just as you cannot say bisexual men have nothing to do with the gay community. This is not just true of history but also of sexuality in general, thanks to the efforts of researchers such as Alfred Kinsey, we know sexuality is more of a spectrum then a black and white divide-as Kinsey himself famously said ‘the word is not divided into sheep and goats.’[xxi] More recent researchers such as Lisa M. Diamond have argued sexuality is fluid for many men and women.[xxii] So, when did it change from gay being the only term used to identify people whom were attracted to the same sex to the whole alphabet of labels we have now. The answer lies in the late 20th century, as the gay community became more radical many new ideas come forward and a new language began to develop to talk about sexuality and sex.
Despite their many flaws, the Kinsey reports of 1948[xxiii] and 1953[xxiv] had a massive historical impact. At the time they were revolutionary changing the world’s view of sexuality forever. Kinsey was the first one to argue that sexuality was a spectrum and not a binary between; Queer and ‘normal.’ For those who fell in the middle there was also now a world for such a thing: bisexual. People whom labelled themselves as bisexual began to crop during the early 20th century. Active in the pre-Stonewall, homophile movement and in the liberation front that came later. These include figures such as Stephen Donaldson and Brenda Howard. Donaldson founded the first students homophile group and Howard organized the first pride celebration.
However even though bisexuality as a concept now existed it was not always accepted within the early gay rights activism-indeed many had to hide their orientation because many gays and lesbians believed they would revert back to heterosexuality, this is despite the fact that many gay men and lesbian women were not out themselves. The gay liberation movement embraced bisexuality and celebrated it as part of human sexuality. The liberation movements of the 60s went even further arguing that everyone would be bisexual if it wasn’t for how society forced people into heterosexuality. However, this changed yet again with the 70s and 80s. However, the Gay Liberation front came to an end in 1972 because of infighting among the different subgroups.
Exclusively same sex attracted men began to argue that homosexuality was an in born trait-similar to your skin colour.[xxv] Women whom were attracted to other women left to join the feminist movement-going on to define the word lesbian as a woman who exclusively chose women as sexual partners.[xxvi] They argued women should only chose other women as their sexual partners- ‘feminism is the theory, lesbianism the practice.’ Women who could not should chose to be celibate and put her energies to other women, rather than sleep with the enemy.[xxvii] Men and women whom identified as bisexual were left out of these movements. Thus, they began to create their own. Many of which such as the Bisexual Resource Centre still exist today.[xxviii] While the earlier bisexual groups did focus on either helping women or men, later ones began to help both-meaning that unlike the gay male community or lesbian community this one made up of both men and women.
For most of the 1980s these three communities saw themselves as separate but that changed again because of the HIV/AIDs epidemic. These three groups along with transgender people began to work together to fight the virus-they had no other choice. From here the LGBT community was born- in some way things have come full circle except now we have a language for talking about many different experiences that before would have simply been grouped under one word: Gay. Now that I have put bisexual people back into our proper place in history. I will now go on to explain why slurs can be reclaimed by bisexual people, where these slurs came from and how they can affect anyone under the Queer umbrella.
This word is probable the most controversial for a bisexual woman to reclaim, I have seen many lesbian women insist that this word is specific to lesbians only. Well then let’s unpack that a little bit. The word dyke’s origins are not something we can be sure of and there are many theories as to where the word comes from.[xxix] Similar dyke is a slang word that has had many different meanings depending on the time and place it was used.[xxx] Sometimes it means a masculine woman, sometimes it means a lower-class Queer woman, and other it means a woman whom only engages in tribadism every now and again by those whom partook in this activity more often. The term dyke has been around as an insult for a long time, however, regardless of where it came from its origins as a slur predates the divide between lesbian and bisexual women.[xxxi]The orgins of the term in regards to Queer women seems to refer to dyking-a sexual practice of rubbing two cliterouses together. A practice both lesbian and bisexual woman engage in.
The word dyke has long been used as an insult for any woman attracted to other women, even before the term bisexual was coined or before lesbian became popular with exclusively same-sex attracted women. Arguing that the word dyke was coined to describe lesbians alone, overlooks the circumstances in which the word has been used. To claim lesbians exclusively have the right to this word, or that it comes from the women whom were exclusively attracted to other women is nothing more than ahistorical. The word comes from a time when the difference between lesbians and bisexual women wasn’t even invented. Which means that the word dyke, belongs to any woman whom is Queer, not just those attracted to their own sex exclusively.
Of the three words discussed here, faggot is perhaps the one that has been least reclaimed. I personally see it more commonly used by ignorant teenage boys then by Queer men. Make no mistake this word is a slur with a long and very violent history.[xxxii] The word Faggot comes from Latin and means a bundle a of sticks.[xxxiii] It was first used as an insult for an older woman.[xxxiv] How this shifted to refer to Queer men is unclear-perhaps it was the conflation of male homosexuality with male femininity that brought this about. Another possibility is the practice of fagging[xxxv]-where British Schools would have younger boys be servants to older boys. Perhaps it was this association with male-male relationships in an all-male environment that caused the word to eventually take on a sexual meaning.
Whatever the reason for this however, faggot predates the inventions of the divisions between homosexual, bisexual and heterosexual. It was first recorded in reference to male same sex sexuality in 1914.[xxxvi] Meaning that it must have already been in use by this point. At this time many bisexuals and homosexuals would still have used the word gay as an inclusive term for anyone with same sex attractions. The word fag come about just before the split. This means the word faggot, while newer then dyke, similar refers to any man with same sex attractions. Like the words Sodomite and bugger before it, it belongs to any man attracted to other men-not just the ones exclusively attracted to other men.
Out of the three words here, Queer is probably the least controversial one for a bisexual person to use. Probably because it has been reclaimed as an umbrella term for anyone whom does not fit into the heteronormative world. The word has its origins going as far back as the 16th century. It meant something odd, unusual or ‘something not quite right.’ It first began to be applied to LGB+ people in the early 20th century before the division between heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual was created. It is a term that was initially used as a slur by those whom said it. Efforts to reclaim it came about during the HIV/AIDs epidemic when LGBT+ people had to put aside their differences and work together to fight the disease. Since then it belongs to anyone under the LGBT+ umbrella and bisexual people have just as much a right to it as gay people do.
Homophobia is defined by UK Stonewall as ‘the irrational fear, hatred and prejudice to gay, lesbian and bisexual people.’[xxxvii] Before Stonewall, you were either gay or else ‘normal.’ Homophobic people have never cared if you’re exclusively attracted to your own gender, or if you like both your own gender and others. Either way you are a Queer. Homophobic people hate queer people, they see us all as a threat. Bisexuals are not less committed to liberation then gay men and lesbian women. Such an idea is not just insulting both also ahistorical as many LGB+ activists are or have been bisexual. Bisexuals have just as much to do with this fight as gay men and lesbian women do.
Bisexuals are in fact even more disenfranchised then gay men or lesbian women are. Because in addition to facing homophobia from the heterosexual world, we also face biphobia from heterosexuals, gay men and lesbian women.[xxxviii] Bisexuals have the worse mental health, unemployment rates and substance addiction of anyone in the LGB+ community.[xxxix] Many organization still acknowledge the B and the T as foot notes to the LGBT community. Bisexuals have been part of Queer communities from the very beginning-the history of the L, the G, and the B are interconnected and overlapping, not separate. The slurs discussed here are defined by their history which includes bisexuals just as much as those whom are exclusively homosexuals.
If a bisexual woman calling herself a dyke, a bisexual man calling himself a fag, or bisexual people using the word queer bothers you then I suggest you take some time to think about why that is, especially in light of the information in this blog post. I will be interested in knowing some of the answers, feel free to comment below to start a conversation. However, be warned I will not tolerate having my work misinterpreted intentionally or otherwise and I will tolerate any type of bigotry. I will not publish your comment if that is the case.
I have discussed a lot of things here at length however there are some things I left out. These include the history of Queer people of colour, and Transgender people. It was not my intention to erase them but only to keep this essay within a certain length-you can write a whole book about these things and still gloss over a lot. If you want to know more about Queer people of Colour or about Transgender people I suggest the following resources. I am sure there are other groups I have overlooked in this, it wasn’t intentionally-again leave a comment about what you think.
‘Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold’ by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis
‘Transgender History’ by Susan Stryker
[i] https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/17/the-role-of-a-dictionary/?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20130518 For information on the flaws of dictionaries check out this article.
[ii] https://www.wuj.pl/UserFiles/File/Studia%20Linguistica%20129/sling-129-suppl-adamska_salaciak-dictionary_definitions_problems_and_solutions.pdf For the more common problems in the dictionary going as far to say ‘Dictionaries are inevitably ethnocentric; their authors being limited by their own
experience of the world and their beliefs about it. Bias can be discerned especially with regard to politics, race, gender, and religion.’
[iii] https://www.glaad.org/blog/us-bisexual-movement-biweek-history-lesson The word bisexual was first used in its modern sense in 1892. However, it did not take off until the later decades.
[v] From p.6 of ‘Passions between women’ by Emma Donoghue from google books.
[vi] This when the term bisexual began to be more widely used because of the publications of the Kinsey Reports.
[vii] From p.385 of ‘Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold’ by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis.
[viii] From ps. 6-7 of ‘Tomboys and Bachelor girls’ by Rebecca Jennings.
[ix] Both ‘Tomboys and Bachelor girls’ and ‘Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold’ talk in detail about Butch and Fem roles among Queer Women. The formers focus on British culture while the latter focuses on American culture.
[x] See p.384 of ‘Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold’ by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis.
[xi] See p.384 of ‘Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold’ by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis.
[xii] See p.120 of ‘Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold’ by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis and see ps.121-122 of ‘Tomboys and Bachelor girls’ by Rebecca Jennings
[xiii] See http://rictornorton.co.uk/lister.htm the word femme comes from French and Anne lister, whom used the long version of the word.
[xiv] See ps. 122-123 of ‘Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold’ by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis.
[xv] https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/regency-gay-bar-molly-houses More information on Molly Houses
[xvi] http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/mother.htm More information on mother clamps molly house.
[xvii] Sodomy was a very confused category, with many definitions and ideas but it was seen as a behaviour see https://web.archive.org/web/20080704144443/http://www.glbtq.com/social-sciences/sodomy.html for more information.
[xviii] See p. of ‘Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold’ by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis.
[xix] See p.18 of ‘Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940’ by George Chauncey
[xx] See p.19 of ‘Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940’ by George Chauncey
[xxi] See ps.18-20 of ‘Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940’ by George Chauncey, this topic is covered in depth.
[xxii] For more information see Diamond’s book ‘Sexual Fluidity’ and this lecture by her ‘Lisa Diamond on sexual fluidity of men and women’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m2rTHDOuUBw
[xxv] See Queer by Choice by Vera Whisman for more information.
[xxvi] See Queer by Choice by Vera Whisman for more information.
[xxviii] A timeline of bisexual history http://www.binetusa.org/bihealth.html and the bisexual resource centre: http://biresource.org/about/
[xxix] http://rictornorton.co.uk/though23.htm the history of Queer words
[xxx] See p. 68-69 of ‘Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold’ by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis.
[xxxi] https://www.adl.org/media/6788/download and http://rictornorton.co.uk/though23.htm Dyke goes back as far the 1920s and perhaps before then. It predates the division of Queer women into lesbian and bisexual women which only took hold in the 1960s.
[xxxii] I would advise reading ‘Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940’ by George Chauncey in it’s entirety because the history of the word fag is long and complicated and has been well documented in this book.
[xxxviii] https://sf-hrc.org/sites/default/files/Documents/HRC_Publications/Articles/Bisexual_Invisiblity_Impacts_and_Recommendations_March_2011.pdf The bisexual invisibility report details many instances of biphobia from the gay community. Of particular interest is the story of a young man whom was accepted as long as he maintained a gay identity but was rejected once he began to be sexually active with women. By both straight and gay people.
[xxxix] https://sf-hrc.org/sites/default/files/Documents/HRC_Publications/Articles/Bisexual_Invisiblity_Impacts_and_Recommendations_March_2011.pdf The bisexual report goes into detail about these things.