To exist as LGBTQ+ in the twenty-first century is an infinitely different experience for the younger generation as it was for our queer elders: as understanding of gender and sexuality has deepened, so has language. Historically, the terms “gay’ and “queer” have been fairly one-dimensional in their meaning, but they are increasingly being used as umbrella terms for anyone that might exist under the LGBTQ+ spectrum.
Stonewall defines “gay” as referring “to a man who has a romantic and/or sexual orientation towards men. It’s also a generic term for lesbian and gay sexuality – some women define themselves as gay rather than lesbian.” Interestingly, this definition does not address the increasing use of “gay” as an umbrella term: opinions on this diverge throughout the LGBTQ+ community, with younger members increasingly likely to use it as a catch-all term.
The definition of “queer” better fits the umbrella-term interpretation, defined as “a term used by those wanting to reject specific labels of romantic orientation, sexual orientation, and/or gender identity. It can also be a way of rejecting the perceived norms of the LGBT community (racism, sizeism, ableism etc.). Although some LGBT people view the word as a slur, it was reclaimed in the late 80s by the queer community who have embraced it.”
Clearly, the question of labels and their accompanying definitions is eternal: what purpose do they serve, and how important are they? For some, labelling their identity, be it gender or sexuality, provides clarity, and for others, labels have dissolved or reduced in both meaning and importance. Some sections of the LGBTQ+ community perceive that exact, precise labels are increasingly redundant, impeding or hindering equality in some way: for those who haven’t quite figured it out yet but categorically know they’re “not straight”, umbrella terms can be useful as a one-size-fits-all mechanism. Tia says: “When I struggled with figuring out my sexuality, I found comfort in knowing I could call myself queer or gay, and that would be enough to feel part of the community.” Others, like Zaide, had not interpreted “gay” as an umbrella term until recently: “I always thought gay was reserved for queer men, but after living with lesbians I have been more exposed to them identifying with the term ‘gay.’ ”
Like Tia, for a long time, the terms “gay” and “queer” allowed me to express my identity while I was still on the journey towards figuring out my bisexuality: unsure whether I was a lesbian or bi, simply identifying as “gay” or “queer” allowed me flexibility and removed some of the pressure surrounding formally coming out. Sasha states: “I perceive “gay” to be an umbrella term, but only for certain people in certain contexts. I feel comfortable using the word “gay” to describe myself if I want to come out informally, but if someone asked me my identity in a more serious situation, I would gravitate towards the terms “lesbian” or “queer.”’
As I found, the journey towards discovering bisexuality or pansexuality can be particularly tough, as society perceives sexuality as a binary concept: bisexuality in particular isn’t about being “half gay, half straight”, and can fluctuate with regards to attraction to different genders. In fact, bisexual people who are dating people of the opposite sex often feel rendered unable to use “gay” or “queer” as umbrella terms to describe themselves. Rachel reveals: “I would normally say bisexual to others to make it clearer as I’m in a male/female relationship at the moment and saying that “I’m gay” can confuse people.”
Inclusivity issues aside, in many ways, terminology surrounding LGBTQ+ issues is intrinsically political: “gay” and “queer” have both been used historically to underscore violence against the LGBTQ+ community, so any reclamation of these terms can only be empowering. Both terms represent a historical struggle against oppression. In the twentieth-century, language surrounding identity was very binary, with the notion of bisexuality marginalised: terminology was fairly simplistic, with “gay”, “lesbian”, and “homosexual” just about representing the limits of expression. Tia argues: “LGBTQ+ terminology has developed over the years. People never bothered to clearly understand and distinguish between different members of the community, and so “gay” was used for anyone who dated people of the same gender, regardless of whether they were actually gay, bi, pan, etc.”
Nowadays, it’s commonly understood that sexuality, and by extension, gender, exist on more of a spectrum than a binary, rendering terms “gay” and “queer” subject to evolution. That’s not to say that those who previously existed outside of the polarity of sexuality, so those not identifying as either a gay man or a lesbian woman, were not valid, but merely that terminology had not suitably adapted in line with their expression. There’s a reason that mainstream society wrote Freddie Mercury off as a gay man for so long: it was not fully equipped to deal with the concepts of bi and pansexuality, and to some extent, it still isn’t.
On the spectrum of sexuality, Tom states: “Those who view sexuality as a spectrum are more likely to use these terms in a broad sense to encompass everyone on (or off) the spectrum who wouldn’t consider themselves straight. I recognise though that a lot of people, especially a lot of gay men, don’t see it that way and see it as very specific to those who are only same-sex attracted.” Em furthers this: “Terminology has changed, in that it’s not rigid anymore – I think as we learn more about the fluidity of our identities, we realise definitions and terms are just a foundation and not set in stone. Younger generations tend to be more willing to use terms in a fluid manner.”
Coming to a form conclusion about umbrella terminology isn’t simple, but what remains clear is that open-ended discussions surrounding labels are productive: wherever you sit on the fence, it’s clear that “gay” and “queer” have evolved in their respective meanings as discussions around gender and sexuality have progressed. If you’re still on the journey to discovering yourself, then “gay” or “queer” might just be the label for you.