This post is about what words mean. It’s not about legality, morality, or any other -ality. Just saying that up front.
Earlier this week, sci-fi author and film critic John Scalzi (whose writing I very much enjoy) wrote a lengthy post on his blog comparing the Straight White Male (SWM) privilege to the lowest difficulty setting on a video game. I read through the post carefully several times, and came to the conclusion that it is mostly apt. It’s not perfect, but as Scalzi said in a later post, metaphors never are perfect, and whether it could be tweaked or not doesn’t change the fact that it still fits pretty well.
I was one of the lucky people who got to reply with a comment before he closed the comments. My comment had two parts. In the second part, I acknowledged the aptness of the metaphor, stated that nevertheless SWMs can still have quite difficult lives, and bemoaned the fact that often the ideal solution of non-SWMs whom I’ve talked with is to make things harder for SWMs rather than trying to make things less difficult for themselves. However, the first part of my comment read:
It may be obvious, but Straight White Males can “up” their difficulty level any time they choose:
- Start having sex with men.
- Move to a place where most people aren’t white.
- Transgender themselves. (At which point they will have to revert to having sex with women again if they already did #1…)
If they want to…
Anyone who knows me probably would recognize that I was being satirical here. Of course these are Not Real Solutions™. Alas, I am not so well known by everyone, though, because at least one other commenter named Tess didn’t get it. Her reply (in part) was:
- Gay is an identity, not a behavior. You don’t choose to be gay.
- Being of an advantaged race but a local minority is not actually a disadvantage, although it’s less of an advantage than being in a majority racially homogeneous enclave.
- Transgender isn’t a verb, and this is also not a choice, although whether or not to act on one’s gender identity (by transitioning) is.
I immediately had three thoughts. First was, “Apparently I’m no good at satire.” Second was, “Apparently Tess is no good at identifying satire.” Third was, “Is gay really an identity and not a behavior? And is transgender really not a verb?” It’s the third thought that I’m exploring here.
A Note on Language
I always find it strange when people say, “That’s not a word.” Someone recently told me “overgrowth” isn’t a word, even though it clearly has a dictionary definition. I get annoyed with claims like this for two reasons: First, because it makes a claim of ignorance against me, when I’m not actually being ignorant; secondly, because it displays the person’s own ignorance.
To say something is not a word is to fundamentally misunderstand what words are. A word is, simply, a symbol or series of symbols that conveys some meaning.
When someone claims “X isn’t a word,” they are typically saying that the second half of that definition is not true. For example, “afdk” is undoubtedly a series of symbols, but it doesn’t have a meaning, and thus someone could say it’s not a word.
But what does “meaning” mean? Without getting all existential, “meaning” is anything that conveys an idea to someone else. However, there is no inherent meaning in the symbol(s) used. The meaning that the symbols convey is based on convention, a sort of social contract where everyone says, “Hey, these symbols strung together in this particular way means X.” The meaning conveyed by the symbols isn’t always understood the same way by everybody, making language (especially English) a loose system where most people know what many things mean a lot of the time.
Because language is not a strict system, it allows for people to make new meanings using existing symbols. Thus, even if “overgrowth” was not in the dictionary, it’s meaning could be easily ascertained: “over” as a prefix often means “excessive,” and “growth” means things that get bigger or more in number; thus, “overgrowth” means something that excessively increases in size/volume. This is how many new words are formed.
Sometimes a new meaning is given to the same exact symbols as another meaning. Since it’s the topic of our post, “gay” seems an obvious example. Historically, it meant “happy”; now, it almost exclusively refers to homosexuality.
With that understanding, it’s possible to start thinking about the words “gay” and “transgender.”
To Gay or Not To Gay
In my comment on Scalzi’s post, I never actually said “gay” is an action. My comment was that SWMs could “start having sex with men” to “up their difficulty level.” Tess’s reply interpreted my comment to refer to “being gay” as “a behavior,” i.e., an activity, something people do, rather than “an identity,” that is, a state of being, something people are. The very fact that Tess associated the act of “straight white man having sex with another man” with “being gay” offers a prima facie case of “gay” referring to behavior.
Looking beyond the prima facie case, however, the most common use of “gay” is as an adjective, either attributively (“gay rights”) or predicatively (“he is gay”). It is sometimes used as a noun, usually in the plural (“Parents, Families, Friends of Lesbians and Gays”) but sometimes singularly (“he is a gay”) — that the latter is often used pejoratively doesn’t annul its meaning, although it does inform connotation. It is never used as a verb: “To gay” makes no sense, transitively or intransitively. There aren’t any relevant adverbial forms.1
As a predicative adjective, “gay” certainly describes a state of being. However, that doesn’t tell us whether “being gay” is an identity or a behavior. Some states of being clearly describe behavior (“He is running”), but “gay” is never used in this way. Others describe a mental or emotional status (“He is thoughtful”), which may refer either to the present (“He is thoughtful [now]”) or generally (“He is [usually] thoughtful”), as well as a situational status (“He is poor”), none of which applies to “gay.” The sense in which “gay” seems to be used most often is in ascribing a property (“He is tall”).
But is that accurate? There certainly seem to be actions and mental states associated with being gay: Feeling attraction to someone of the same gender is a chemical process in the brain, and that chemical process leads to activity, including everything from admiring the attractive person to engaging in full-on hardcore sex. (If you disagree, google “gay sex” and tell me if the results indicate something other than an action.) And actually, this is true of any type of attraction, not just homosexual attraction. To identify as straight or bisexual implies similar neurochemical processes and resulting actions, the only difference being the target of one’s affection.
If there is such a thing as gay action, then the next question is whether one has to be gay to perform a gay act. Remember my comment was (satirically) directed at straight white men who wanted to “up” their difficulty level by having sex with other men. Would this action be considered gay? It may help to consider a spectrum of scenarios.
Scenario 1. Two men have sex together. Both identify themselves as gay.
Scenario 2. Two men have sex together. One identifies himself as straight, the other identifies himself as gay. For the straight man, it was a one-time “experimental” experience.
Scenario 3. Two men have sex together. Both identify as straight, and for both it was a one-time “experimental” thing.
Scenario 4. Two men have sex together. Both identify as straight, but they were both heavily under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, and neither acknowledges the experience later.
Scenario 5. Two men have sex together. One man identifies as straight, and for him it was non-consensual.
In which of these scenarios is it inappropriate to refer to the activity as “gay sex”? Why? What would a better term be?
It seems obvious, at least to me, that “gay” refers both to an identity and an activity, and that the two may be disambiguated, at least to some degree.
In my aside about language above, I left out one part: That words often mutate their symbols slightly to accommodate common language structures, while retaining their overall meaning.
One recent example of this is the word “text.” For many, many years, “text” was a noun, and only a noun. It meant the writing on a page/scroll/whatever, or it could mean a contained unit of such writing (e.g., a book, hence “textbook”). When SMS was developed, “text” became an adjective used primarily in the phrase “text message,” which was in contrast to “voice message.” Soon, though, as is the way with language, “text” reverted to a noun that meant the message itself, and a verb form emerged (“to text”), which meant to send such a message. “Texting” as a participle (i.e., a common mutation of symbols to accommodate language structures) couldn’t exist until “text” was recognized as a verb.
“Transgender” is used foremost an adjective (although I was surprised to find that dictionary.com lists the noun form as the primary meaning). Like “gay,” it has no relevant adverbial or verb forms (except when I used it as a verb, which I’ll get to…). Without going through the same detailed analysis as I did above, it is most often used predicatively (“Max is transgender”) and attributively (“Max knows transgender people.”)
But just because “transgender” isn’t typically used as a verb doesn’t mean it can’t be used as a verb. “Text” wasn’t typically used as a verb, until it was. Does it make sense to use “transgender” as a verb?
If transgender refers to someone who does not identify with his or her birth gender in some meaningful way, then it does seem there’s a relatively easy way to turn it into a verb. As a matter of identity, the verb “transgender” would likely be a special-case transitive verb that applies to one’s self: I can’t transgender you, but you could transgender yourself. It would mean something like “causing one’s self to identify in a way different than one’s birth gender.” (That’s a clunky definition, but the beautiful thing about language is the meaning of words gets smoothed out over time, like rocks in a river.)
We’ve already seen how someone who identifies in a particular sexual way can act in a different sexual way (see scenarios in previous section). Does the same thing apply to how one identifies according to gender? Some people say men can “get in touch with their feminine sides” — would doing so change their identity? (Probably somewhat, otherwise there isn’t much point.) Are there other things people could do that would make them identify less with their birth genders? It seems there probably are.
I’ll stipulate that it might be absurd for someone to attempt such a thing. But the absurdity of an idea doesn’t affect its grammatical context as a verb. In the context of satire as I used it, the absurdity is not only appropriate, but desired.
Language and Identity
There’s one other issue with identity, which Tess exemplifies in her comment when she says, “Gay is an identity, not a behavior. You don’t choose to be gay.” It’s true that someone may not choose to be gay, but they absolutely can choose to identify themselves as gay. I don’t mean publicly by outing themselves or anything like that, but I mean self-identification as part of one’s internal dialogue.
The thing about self-identification is that it’s constantly changing. Broadening the discussion beyond sexuality and gender, people self-identify with all sorts of things over their lifetime. How someone talks about him or herself to him or herself is an ongoing process. Regardless of what someone is, what they call themselves internally tends to change. Some of that happens naturally as people learn more words; it also happens when people are presented with different ideas that cause a cognitive dissonance. This is true not only of sexual and gender issues, but of religious, political, social ideas, and many other things.
Furthermore, identity may not be as hardwired as people think. There is a lot of scientific evidence showing genetic predilections for all sorts of things, from sexuality and gender identification to political and religious values. But predilection is not prescription. As people grow, their bodies change, including their brains and brain chemistry. For example, sexual drive changes over the course of a lifetime; it’s possible that, for some people, so does sexual orientation. Note that change doesn’t imply choice: Changing orientation and behavior may still be the result of genetics and biological factors. Present science is suggestive, but still far from conclusive.
As language changes over time, the tendency is toward more refinement. As shown above, the meanings of some words calcify, others shift. New words appear all the time, and some of them stick around. A hundred years ago, “gay” had a completely different meaning, and “transgender” had no meaning, but there were people who had similar feelings as gay and transgender people do today. However, to call those people “gay” and “transgender” is anachronistic, and it certainly would not have been how they self-identified.
And of course, we’re only talking about English. Synonyms in other languages are not necessarily (and often aren’t) cognates. The German schwul has a similar meaning as “gay” in English, but a totally different etymology (it comes from the German word for “hot, humid”) and therefore it likely elicits different connotations and ideas in the mind of someone who speaks German than “gay” elicits for English-speakers.
Thus, idiom is intimately intertwined with identity. One may not choose to be gay, but thinking of one’s self as gay is, at least to some extent, a matter of both culture and choice. And those can both change.
1. There are other forms of the word “gay” that don’t concern the present discussion: As previously mentioned, “gay” (adjective) archaically means “happy”, and “gaily” (adverb) is synonymous with “happily” or “cheerfully”; “gay” (adjective) can also be used in a derogatory colloquial sense to mean “lame,” “stupid,” “uncool” (e.g., “that’s so gay”); there also are some derogatory colloquialisms based on stereotypical ideas about what homosexual men like, including “gayish” (adjective) and “gayishly” (adverb), as well as “gay it up” (verb phrase).