Why do lesbians have their own word?
December 16, 2003 6:21 PM   Subscribe

Why are gay women lesbians, while gay men are just gay?

I'm curious why women have a label and men don't.
posted by o2b to Society & Culture (12 answers total)
I (gay man) always thought that homosexual women were lesbians, while homosexual men were gay. It's only in the past few years that I've heard 'gay' applied to women, and it still rubs my ears the wrong way. 'Queer' is the more encompassing, politicized word to apply to both genders, although it is meant to encompass all genders and a bunch of other behaviors and sentiments that aren't necessarily homosexual.

As for the core of your question (why homo women are referred to by the birthplace of Sappho, and homo men are just gay)... I don't know. Maybe because 'gay' men are in fact light-hearted and brightly-colored, while lesbians are dour and partial to earthtones. ;-)

Dictionary.com says this (usage note at 'gay'): Usage Note: The word gay is now standard in its use to refer to homosexuals, in large part because it is the term that most gay people prefer in referring to themselves. Gay is distinguished from homosexual primarily by the emphasis it places on the cultural and social aspects of homosexuality as opposed to sexual practice. Many writers reserve gay for males, but the word is also used to refer to both sexes; when the intended meaning is not clear in the context, the phrase gay and lesbian may be used. Like the other names of social groups derived from adjectives (for example, Black), gay may be regarded as offensive when used as a noun to refer to particular individuals, as in There were two gays on the panel; here phrasing such as gay members should be used instead. But there is no objection to the use of the noun in the plural to refer collectively either to gay men or to gay men and lesbians, so long as it is clear whether men alone or both men and women are being discussed. See Usage Note at homosexual.

Anybody have an OED on hand?
posted by stonerose at 6:43 PM on December 16, 2003

I really don't know anyone who uses "gay women"...this might explain a little but comes from the American Psychological Association, so is problematic in itself. Lesbian and gay male are preferred to the word homosexual when used as an adjective referring to specific persons or groups, and the terms lesbians and gay men are preferred to homosexuals used as nouns when referring to specific persons or groups. ... The terms gay as an adjective and gay persons as a noun have been used to refer to both males and females. However, these terms may be ambiguous in reference because readers who are used to the term lesbian and gay may assume that gay refers to men only. Thus, it is preferable to use gay or gay persons only when prior reference has specified the gender composition of this term.

There have been lots of words used for both in the past, but gay almost always refers to men, unless modified, i think. I always thought lesbians self-identified as lesbians and promoted the usage (to differentiate maybe?), so that term became the preferred one. Here's what GLAAD says, and this is pretty good about Sappho
posted by amberglow at 6:44 PM on December 16, 2003

This is pretty good too. Contrary to those who rely entirely on the OED, Emma Donoghue has established beyond doubt that throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the word ‘lesbian’ was used in the very same sense as today, and that lesbians were viewed as a distinct sexual and social group. To cite an example from a literary work that was excluded from the OED survey (either because it was libellous, or because it was published in Dublin), sexual relationships between women are described as ‘Lesbian Loves’ by William King in The Toast in 1732, where he explains ‘she loved Women in the same Manner as Men love them; she was a Tribad’; in the 1736 edition of King's book such women are called ‘Tribades or Lesbians’. Thus is is clear, as Donoghue points out, that ‘"Lesbian" could be used both as an adjective and a noun to describe women who desired and pleasured each other more than a century and a half before the OED’s first entry for that meaning.’
posted by amberglow at 7:05 PM on December 16, 2003

If a person's talking about human rights, why does "he" say "the rights of man," even when "he" means women too? Why does "actor" mean "one who acts" but "actress" means "a female actor"? Same damn thing. Male term is normative and encompasses the entire type to which he belongs; women need a marker. Maybe by next century we'll have finally ditched this anachronism.
posted by soyjoy at 7:10 PM on December 16, 2003

I have noticed the usage of 'actress' falling in the last ten years. It was quite normal to use the term 'actress' for a female actor ten years ago, whereas now people tend to be using 'actor' instead. I think the anachronism is being ditched as we speak.
posted by wackybrit at 7:18 PM on December 16, 2003

Maybe by next century we'll have finally ditched this anachronism.
I don't know if thats entirely a good thing--people should self-identify, and by using the normative (always male) term, people who aren't male are submerged.
posted by amberglow at 7:24 PM on December 16, 2003

Male term is normative and encompasses the entire type to which he belongs; women need a marker.

I thought it was because men are boring, and women are interesting.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:45 PM on December 16, 2003

Female actors are now called actors.

Perhaps if there were a famous greek island where a bunch of homosexual men once formed a utopian commune, they'd have their own gender-specific name too.

/talking out of my ass
posted by scarabic at 10:20 PM on December 16, 2003

i call male and female homosexuals gay sometimes, usually i will say lesbians though, it depends on my mood. i would never say "gay women" though. I might say, to a woman, "are you gay?" but if she said yes she would be a lesbian. it's all very confusing. a lesbian might say, at a table of mixed gender homosexuals, "we're all gay here". but if i said "gay people are sluts" i would mean gay men. i would say "lesbians all sleep with each other"
posted by rhyax at 11:05 PM on December 16, 2003

It's called markedness. Deal.
posted by rschram at 12:53 AM on December 17, 2003

What occurred to me recently is that when you're talking about sports teams, the men's team is, say, "The Longhorns" and the women's team is "The Lady Longhorns." In order to correct this, I think we should refer to the men's team as "The Gentleman Longhorns," because at least then it would add an air of gentility to the whole affair.
posted by vraxoin at 7:22 AM on December 17, 2003 [1 favorite]

I don't know why, but I prefer gay to lesbian. Maybe because I'm bisexual and to me, gay is a catch-all term, where as lesbian seems to be 'women-only, no-men-allowed'. I haven't been paying too much attention, but it seems like most of my female homosexual friends also refer to themselves as gay. Maybe it's an Ellen thing?
posted by widdershins at 9:42 AM on December 17, 2003

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