by Ryan Crawford | @YesISaidCabSauv
When I was a kid, insults spread around the school like fashion. There were trendy ways to put down your classmates: “shitbreath,” “giantess,” “lardass,” and a colorful assortment of genital-shaming quips to fling like bark dust on the playground.
But if you really wanted to destroy a boy’s self-esteem and reputation, you went for the jugular.
To be labeled “sissy” or “girly” or “fag”” was to be completely humiliated by one’s classmates. And—shocker—I was routinely labeled a sissy. I didn’t know I was gay as a kid, but apparently everyone else did. How? Because I was more feminine than other boys.
So I, like many other unknowingly gay kids, tried to butch it up. We swore. We spat. We showed our respect to other boys by calling each other “dude,” “man,” “bro,” “dawg”—anything that asserted our masculinity and reinforced someone else’s. We established “male” activities like football and playing with Pogs, and distanced ourselves from allegedly “female” pastimes like making jewelry and coloring. (Where did that leave us: the queer boys babysitting everyone else’s Tomagotchi and playing Oregon Trail in the computer lab during recess?)
We were taught early on that femininity was “wrong” for males, but it wasn’t until much later in life when I realized that this binary gender enforcement among kids is not only stupid, it’s detrimental to kids’ views of their own personalities. We police our children so much about the acceptable ways that boys and girls should behave, speak, dress, and think, that they begin to police each other in turn. “That’s a girl’s toy.” “That’s a boy’s cartoon.” Any child who doesn’t want to—or simply can’t—prescribe to these rigid gender norms is often immediately labeled an outsider, a problem, a cultural threat.
Little Tiffany would rather play kickball than braid hair? Shun and tease her. Young Brandon, on the other hand, knows how to weave a perfect waterfall plait? Beat him up.
These bullying patterns to pick off the queerest wildebeest in the herd continue into adulthood, often becoming more gruesome. Raping a lesbian to “turn her straight,” assaulting a gay man to “teach him a lesson,” murdering a trans person to “send a message”—these are all manifestations of that same seedling planted in our impressionable little minds as children: Girls Wear Pink, Boys Wear Blue.
Then I came across Barrett Pall’s blog post, GURL PLEASE: Are We Fighting a Stereotype or Perpetuating One? This post asserts, “Gurl, She, Sister, etc are all things that I totally get as playful and fun, but I feel as if they’re detracting away from our community being taken seriously.” Pall claims that using queer-popularized words like “kiki” and “werk” divides us from dominant society, and “doesn’t actually represent the smart, ambitious and successful community of men that make up our diverse and intelligent brotherhood.” In other words: taking pride in feminine pronouns and LGBT slang makes you look stupid and lazy, so assimilate to straight culture and heteronormative gender expectations. PROBLEM SOLVED, AMIRITE?
Well, GURL, let me tell you why that’s off the mark.
Firstly, feminine words don’t divide us from straight society; misogyny and homophobia do. Why is it that you can walk up to a group of mixed-gender people and call them “guys” without anyone batting an eye, but if you addressed this same group as “girls,” people would laugh at you or get offended?
Because in America, we still associate femininity in men with insult. Want to piss off an insecure straight man? Question his penis size or his ability to sustain an erection, and then cast doubt that he’s even a “man” at all. Call him a wuss, a sissy, a pansy – something associated with feminine stereotypes. If you survive the interaction, you’ll find it was an effective button to push.
What would be really revolutionary? Calling a man “sister,” “gurl,” or “she” without him flying off the handle. This goes for Barrett Pall, too. There shouldn’t be anything shameful about being associated with femininity because there’s nothing wrong with being a woman.
To say that we should stop using feminine words to address other gay men is to assert that gay men must play by straight men’s rules in order to be accepted in society. But here’s what should actually happen: everyone should accept proudly feminine gay men without telling them to change, because they deserve respect just like anyone else. (And fuck you very much Louis C.K. for saying anything otherwise.)
Now, we all have preferred pronouns and our own gender identities. If someone earnestly uses the wrong pronoun for you or confuses your gender identity, you can politely correct them. But don’t claim there’s something wrong with your fellow gays who are fine with being called “she,” “gurl,” “sister,” etc. They’re secure. That’s a good thing.
Secondly, queer-embraced jargon isn’t any more stupid than other fad words that come up in pop culture. We invent creative words to describe specific things, or we appropriate existing words into LGBT culture. If the queer community never did this, we wouldn’t be called the “queer” community at all, because that word would still mean “strange” or “weird.” And “gay?” Without it, we’d be stuck in a 1950’s lexicon trying to describe our community as “a united enclave of peaceful, well-meaning homosexuals.”
In his blog, Pall asserts that using a gay-specific vocabulary encourages straight folks to use it with us too. I hear his point: it’s fine for my straight friends to talk to me about the puppy they saw mid-kiki with a pageant queen; and it’s not okay for anyone to call me faggot.
This is why it’s important for the LGBT community to have our own common language and cultural associations. We can turn verbal weapons used against us into terms of endearment used by and for us. And straight readers: think of it like a racial slur. If you don’t identify as a particular race, obviously you shouldn’t try and use slurs as a way to bond with folks of that race. If you don’t identify as gay, learn gay vernacular from those who fought for it, earned it, and know how to use it respectfully. Then use queer colloquialisms with courtesy, and not as a way to try to look “hip” with the kids.
Pall also states, “We’re not sisters. Sisters are two women that are born from the same mother or father. We aren’t even brothers because technically we all aren’t born from the same parents.”
Well duh, literally that’s true. But I don’t see Pall calling upon black men to stop calling each other “brother” unless they’re siblings, or standing outside a sorority yelling at any Kappa who will listen, “YOU’RE NOT ACTUALLY SISTERS!” Calling a gay man my “sister” doesn’t diminish my relationship with my actual sisters; it reinforces my bond with this other gay man who knows the struggle of surviving in a world in which we are incessantly expected to be more stoic, masculine, and emotionally repressed than we actually are or should be.
Lastly, gay stereotypes sometimes hold us back, sure, but gay culture as a whole is the only reason we as a people have survived this long. To tell a gay man he shouldn’t seek to adopt and contribute to gay culture for the sake of “fitting in” with straight folks is right in line with telling someone, “Go back in the closet. Your life will be so much easier if you pretend to be heterosexual, and so much more convenient for us.”
I agree with Pall that we should have common ground with straight society. In order to be accepted as equals, bridges must be built and maintained. But I disagree that taking pride in unapologetically feminine cultural norms is grounds for distance. The LGBT community deserves respect, regardless—and because of—our feminine and masculine qualities alike. And if a straight person or a gay person is too narrow-minded to accept that? Well, #byegirlbye.
Ryan Crawford is a content marketer, social media manager, and Broad City addict. You can find his writing online at Seattle Gay Scene, Jetspace Magazine, and the Mazlo blog, or printed in Arcana: The Tarot Poetry Anthology and Gay City Anthologies 3-5. Whisky drinks him.