Remembering My Hat

8th March 2010

Half-open doors

Filed under: Uncategorized — rememberingmyhat @ 18:14
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Last week I went to a seminar organised by Age Concern’s Opening Doors programme about their programme of work with older lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people. At least, that was what it said on the tin.

Women in a tuxedo

I’ve loved this picture (from Age Concern’s Opening Doors programme) for ages and I got to meet this person!

It was, I should be clear, a well organised seminar with a friendly and welcoming atmosphere, celebrating the important and innovative work done by the Opening Doors programme in central London. I was moved, encouraged, touched, and revitalised by attending it. I came away with some new ideas (always a good outcome), including that there’s a tension between the current policy desire for user-driven projects, and the finding from this project, that many older LGBT people have a lifetime of activism behind them and so quite like the idea of sitting back and have things laid on for them.

But. (You knew there was a ‘but’ coming, didn’t you). The usual disappearing ‘B’ and ‘T’ in ‘LGBT’ was very much in evidence. Or rather, the B and T were very much not in evidence. All the talk was exclusively about older lesbians and gay men. A PowerPoint presentation had slides saying ‘the LGBT community’ which were read by the presenter as ‘the lesbian and gay community’. This is a very familiar phenomenon and in no way unique to this seminar. Bi and  Trans activists have various explanations for it, ranging from the relatively political immaturity of the Bi and Trans movements, to Bi and Transphobia (more on this here, if you’re interested).

But, once, I was a scholar  discourse analyst, so I was thinking about some of the linguistic features that tend to perpetuate this.

One is the fact that ‘LGBT’ is a terrible (non)word to say. It’s bad enough to write, but it’s much worse to say, especially repeatedly as you need to do if you’re giving a talk. So you need an alternative word. In many LGBT contexts, people say ‘queer’ in this sort of sense.  Queer in this sense is a reclaiming of a previously insulting term and an umbrella term that can include bi, trans, intersex, genderqueer, asexual, and many other types of, people.

But there seems to be a consensus among people working with older LGBT people that the term ‘queer’ is not generally acceptable. The argument is that people of this generation suffered too much from the use of ‘queer’ as an insult in their younger days to be able to reclaim it now as an umbrella term for sexual and gender dissidents. I’ve no idea whether that’s true (I suspect it’s not for all older LGBT people) but the result is that the term ‘queer’ is not used in this reclaimed sense much in these sort of contexts.

At the seminar, I thought that people were using ‘gay’ where I would, in other contexts, have said ‘queer’. So someone said ‘this is the first generation of out gay people to age into old age’. Obviously this is more inclusive of gay men than of anyone else, but I think you can argue (and the audience and speakers certainly seemed to accept) that this is also inclusive of lesbians. But I think it’s much harder to imagine yourself as a bi person included under the label ‘gay’ and very much harder indeed to imagine that ‘gay’ includes trans (etc.) people. I don’t have a better linguistic solution – I wish I did.

The second form of linguistic slippage that I thought led to the exclusion of bi and trans people was the tendency to talk about the consituency of LGBT older people as being made up of ‘men’ and ‘women’.  Obviously this is exclusive of people who don’t identify straightforwardly as a man or a woman, but more subtly, it tended to equate being a man with being a gay man and being a woman with being a lesbian. This one is easier to fix.

I’m not arguing here that the seminar participants (or indeed other people who only talk about L and G when claiming to be talking about LGBT) intended to exclude B and T people. I’m quite sure that they didn’t mean to. Rather, I’m interested in the way in which language necessarily and unavoidably shapes our realities.



  1. This is one reason why I do little tally charts of speakers’ language: how many times do they use the b-word compared to the g-word and the l-word. Where relevant, I also add the t-word.

    It is very good for seeing who has a clue and who does not. Typically in the sexual health field, the further away from London they work, the better the language.

    Comment by Ian — 9th March 2010 @ 01:33 | Reply

  2. […] More about the picture Filed under: Uncategorized — rememberingmyhat @ 16:49 Tags: Age Concern, LGBT, pictures, queer A reader commented that they didn’t like the picture I’d used in the last entry: […]

    Pingback by More about the picture « Remembering My Hat — 10th March 2010 @ 16:49 | Reply

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