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Journalist explains history of LGBTQ acronym at event
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Liz Baudler
2018-02-27

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"I'd like to apologize on behalf of my entire generation," longtime journalist E.J. Graff told the audience who attended her lecture "LGBTQ: How the Amazingly Awkward Acronym Got Foisted On You" at Northwestern's Institute for Sexual and Gender Minorities in Health ( ISGMH ). The Feb. 21 talk was part of ISGMH's Current Issues in LGBTQ Health Series.

Before beginning, Graff admitted that her history of "LGBTQ" was personally slanted. "The reason we have this acronym is that the identity is always changing," she explained, before launching into a brief history of social perception. In beginning an often humorous talk—"They have actual words with vowels!" Graff joked about the labels of other identity groups—Graff set up an x and y axis, one of which represented sexual orientation and one of which represented gender presentation. Originally, the two concepts were viewed separately and had very different levels of societal acceptance. "Once upon a time, it wasn't who you desired, it was what you appeared to be," Graff explained, pointing out that the historic label "invert" was derogatory and that people who took on the behaviors of the "opposite" sex were considered the dangerous ones.

But around 1920, according to Graff, the script flipped for multiple reasons. Birth control suddenly made sex more about desire than procreation, and capitalism opened up new venues of work for women. Suddenly, who one desired was the suspect category, and by the 1950s, the word "homosexual"—invented, as Graff said, "to connote desire without judgment"—became nearly synonymous with evil, although laws enforced ideas of gender-appropriate presentation.

The community's "secret word" was "gay" and Graff explained that, to mainstream it, it became an act of defiance. "'Gay is good' was a really radical slogan," said Graff. As feminism blossomed, it became clear that the "L" needed equal time, and Graff even recalled fighting to put the L first in the 1980s. Yet that was only two groups, and as Graff pointed out, "the problem with claiming absolute identity is what do you do with the people on the borderline?"

Graff also dissected the mid-'70s move towards androgyny among lesbians. "It was a big breakout when I got myself a purse!" she joked. As kids, she said, "many of us first noticed not our attraction but our gender expression." Not feeling like there was an option that provided a release from gender, people, including Graff, "looked back and reinterpreted our youth" to view their early discarding of gender norms as a sign of their queerness. But, at least among lesbians, Graff said, "all of us started realizing that rejecting gender is just as constricting as a gender that just doesn't fit."

Touching on trans history, Graff explained early trans individuals needed to fit the "born in the wrong body" narrative in order to receive surgery, and that the trans community was able to find each other with the explosion of the internet in the 90s. Across all identities, kids today, Graff said, become aware of their differences earlier and much more organically. "People today are more aware that gender and orientation are woven together," said Graff, stressing that she wants new generations to have their own reactions to "the old boxes" of identity. She pointed out that today's "nonbinary" could be considered and analogue to the historical "invert."

Graff preferred discussion to a Q&A session, answering questions about inclusive health care and how the identity spectrum might recognized in the future by asking the questioners what they thought. A few questions addressed spots of tension when it comes to the acronym, such as trying to get identities that have become more privileged to assist those "left behind", and the idea that inclusion might have limitations. Graff expressed both the desire to cultivate good allies and to be one herself, saying she personally felt called to educated people outside the community.

"When I realized I was gay, I realized I didn't understand it, so my job in life became to help other people understand it," Graff explained.

Both Graff and ISGMH postdoctoral fellow Dennis Li, who introduced the speaker, favored including identities that were vitally important to those who had them. "There are things you need to talk about because that's what's going to be visible about you," said Graff. And Li added, while acknowledging that ISGMH's intentionally broad name tried be inclusive, "When you don't have words, you don't know how to talk about your experiences." A later audience comment pointed out that named terms are vital when it came time to allocate resources to communities, including money and social power.

To Graff's delight, LGBTQ historian John D'Emilio was in the audience, and offered his perspective that while embracing individual identities created a sense of belonging, activism preserved a minority identity. "It's hard for me to imagine retaining identities and having the oppression disappear," said D'Emilio. "Who's oppressed will keep changing, but we'll still have the oppression."

Li closed Graff's talk by pointing out that while these conversations don't affect people's daily lives, they still matter. And before opening up the floor to discussion, Graff expressed that while she believes future individuals will devise better ways to discuss LGBTQ identities, at some point, identity itself, being slippery, will prove the ultimate barrier to definition.

"As important as it is to find language that is ineffable, the task will always fail," Graff said.


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