‘What’s in a name?’ or, ‘A rose by any other name would still be just as gay’: Jamie Findlay On the Word Queer

Gays have a problem. Sorry, did I say gays? Gays and lesbians. Well, and bisexual people. Oh, and transgender folk too. Oh, fuck it, let’s embrace the whole panoply of alphabet-soup abbreviations: LGBTQQUCIT2SAAPHO people have a problem (to use the full list of possible variants Wikipedia offers): what the hell do we call ourselves? It depends who you are and what your aims are, of course, but I want to briefly put the case for my preferred adjective, the underused queer, the Q in LGBTQ. First, though, let me explain why names are important.

One popular theory about names is that they are just labels we attach to things that are already there. This is the belief Juliet is espousing in the speech which includes her famous ‘rose’ line:

“’Tis but thy name that is my enemy;

Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.

What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,

Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part

Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,

Retain that dear perfection which he owes

Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,

And for that name which is no part of thee

Take all myself.”

She doesn’t love the name ‘Romeo’ or the family ‘Montague’—she loves the person behind the name. The name is the problem, so if they could just change that (whence the earlier call to “deny thy father”), everything would be fine, right? Of course, the answer is no. Juliet is hopelessly naïve, both in love and linguistic theory, and things don’t work out quite as she planned. She’s wrong to think that words are just labels we use to name pre-existing categories, on two counts:

1) What words we have available determine what we think of as relevant concepts. For example, to a French person, the relevant distinction in bodies of flowing water is whether they empty into the sea or not (it is called une fleuve in the first case, and une rivière in the second); for us English speakers, it’s volume of flow (river for larger ones, stream for smaller). The words we use determine what we think of as ‘things’.

2) When we are talking about people, the words we use can actually change the things we use them to describe. The fact that Romeo is called ‘Montague’ has had a profound impact on the course of his life, how others see him, and how he sees himself.

In this way, Juliet reveals herself to be painfully essentialist in her thinking: she believes there is an intrinsic ‘Romeo’ inside her young lover, pre-existing and untainted by the social or linguistic world around him. More generally, these two points are central to the experience of the LGBT community, or indeed any minority. First, where do we draw the boundaries between one community and another? Second, how does what we call ourselves affect how we think about ourselves and how we organise?

Since this is ostensibly a blog about poetry (sorry for the hijacking), I should point out that this folk theory of naming is also the cause of much misguided confusion with regards to how poetry works. People often want to know what ‘counts’ as a poem. Does it have to rhyme? Does it have to be in a certain metre? But this in a way is to put the cart before the horse: there is no ‘real’ poetry out there—nobody discovered poetry; they invented it.

In a similar way, we didn’t discover homosexuality; we invented it. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that we started truly searching for our identity in sexual terms, and this is when a distinct, sexual minority was identified: the homosexual. Michel Foucault, in the first volume of his History of Sexuality, explains this change: “Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.” There was no gay identity before this in the same way there is no nose-picker identity now: it was something you did, not something you were.

But then the twentieth century came along, and identity politics reigned supreme. The Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Lib showed us the strength communities possessed when they came together, and we wanted a piece of the pie. The problem was that we didn’t have a clearly defined community. Did we include both gay men and lesbians? What about those shady bisexuals, who everyone thought were just too scared to fully come out? And then there were the trans* individuals, who added a new gender conflict to the mix. For whatever reasons, these all seemed good candidates, and so by the ‘90s the initialism LGBT was born. (But of course, paedophiles and pederasts also tried to jump on the bandwagon, and we mustn’t just assume that anything automatically excluded them. After all, one major source of concern for early gay rights activists and paedophiles alike was age of consent legislation, which discriminated against both groups.)

We started out as radicals, but, just like Women’s Lib, after a few major gains we decided to stop making such a fuss. That’s where the fabulously bland ‘LGBT’ came from: initialisms always make things seem more mundane and technical. We then get people who support assimilation, who want LGBT people to be seen as ‘normal’, whatever the hell that means. They want sexuality and gender to be ‘irrelevant’, and for the same rights straight people enjoy to be extended to LGBT folk—marriage, adoption, that sort of thing.

That’s all well and good, but when they say they want sexuality and gender to be irrelevant, what they tend to mean is that we should conform to societal norms as now ever-so-slightly redefined: OK, you don’t have to be straight, but you still have to orient your sexuality around a binary gender division—you’re hetero-, homo-, or bisexual. You love one of the two genders or you love both. Nothing else is acceptable. Concomitantly, you must of course belong to one of the two genders, and there is still a startlingly firm essentialism in the collective psyche, although some transgression is patiently tolerated when it comes to effeminate gay men and butch lesbians (mainly on account of its comedic currency, however). So trans* people, apparently paradoxically, given the criticism that they reinforce essentialist views of gender, tend to be left out in the lurch in modern assimilatory politics. Similarly, any belief that attraction isn’t always based first and foremost on gender identity is uninterpretable.

This is why I like queer, the Q which is now more and more attached to the end of LGBT (although it can mean ‘questioning’, too, which is also a good thing). It means different things to different people, but at its core it means different. People who are at odds with the (gender/sexual) norm. It’s not a word particularly used by people who have assimilatory aspirations, since it highlights our ‘deviance’ rather than trying to underplay it. It covers the LGBT spectrum, but also encompasses things like polyamory, BDSM, and people who identify outside of the gender binary. It celebrates and embraces difference, but also thereby challenges the norms it rejects. It’s also a challenge to the belief that the fight against homophobia is essentially over, since it reclaims and reiterates a homophobic slur (à la nigger or slut). A leaflet distributed at the 1990 New York Pride march puts it best (full text: http://zinelibrary.info/files/queers_read_this.pdf):

“Couldn’t we just use ‘gay’ instead? It’s a much brighter word and isn’t it synonymous with ‘happy’? When will you militants grow up and get over the novelty of being different? Well, yes, ‘gay’ is great. It has its place. But when a lot of lesbians and gay men wake up in the morning we feel angry and disgusted, not gay. So we’ve chosen to call ourselves queer. Using ‘queer’ is a way of reminding us how we are perceived by the rest of the world.  It’s a way of telling ourselves we don’t have to be witty and charming people who keep our lives discreet and marginalized in the straight world.”

People often comment that it’s rather ironic for there to be a label for people who dislike being labelled. But being queer is about announcing your difference; nothing more. ‘Queer’ is the start, not the end, of your identity. It brings us back to my point about names: what you’re called affects who you are, not the other way around. Reclaiming an insult is about reclaiming that power to name, and thereby to define. Indeed, being queer is about not letting other people define who you are, which is a lesson we could all stand to remember, whatever our sexual preferences.


Jamie Findlay grew up in Bedford, UK, a mysteriously forgettable small town where hundreds of languages are spoken (no, seriously!). Apparently this had an impact, and he’s now trying to become an academic linguist. He graduated in French and Linguistics from Oxford University last year, studied at McGill in Montréal for a term, and is returning to Oxford to continue his ivory tower adventures this autumn. Gender and sexuality have been preoccupations of his for some time now, particularly as they relate to language, and particularly how that language translates into action. He also fell in love with the Middle Ages at university, and is currently working on a translation of some Old French erotic short stories. Because they’re ace. If you want more of his ramblings, they can be found @findlayjy on Twitter