March 19, 2013

IconQueer, bicurious, pansexual: how we love to hate labelling ourselves

Are you lesbian? Gay? Queer? Bisexual? Nonstraight? Questioning? The BFI London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (BFI LLGFF) have decided that maybe it’s time they changed their name, and they’re looking for suggestions for what it could change to.

LLGFF is not the most elegant of names, and as well as being rather a mouthful, it’s not particularly accurate. It’s not just a festival of lesbian and gay films, because people don’t always fit into those two neat categories.

Sexuality is a spectrum, and it’s as difficult to divide and categorise as the spectrum of light. Where does blue end and green start on a rainbow? There certainly aren’t just 7 colours – just take a look at Crayola names, or the amusing and slightly insane colour survey from XKCD.

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender, or LGBT for short, is often used a catch-all for people who don’t fit into the box marked ‘heterosexual’. But not everyone fits in that either. What about people who feel ‘bisexual’ is too binary, or ‘lesbian’ too permanent? Or the people who don’t consider gender particularly important – either their own or other people’s?

‘Queer’ is heralded by some as the magic word that ends all these problems – a wonderful umbrella term that encompasses everyone who isn’t 100% heterosexual. Many people love it and use it quite happily, but for a significant minority it will always be a term of abuse, and no amount of reclamation and rehabilitation will make it fit back into polite society.

The LLGFF have got a real challenge on their hands. All organisations that speak to non-heterosexual audiences face the same problem – Lesbilicious included. We took the decision early on to use ‘lesbian / bisexual’ to refer to all women who don’t consider themselves to be straight, but we do sometimes say ‘lesbian’ instead – and in doing so accidentally exclude readers who don’t identify as lesbian.

So what’s the solution? An alphabet soup of acronyms, which may include more people, but may enrage others who feel it’s empty politically correct posturing? Or a random word that excludes everyone and no-one, explains nothing and confuses everyone?

Whatever LLGFF do about their name, most people will probably think it’s the wrong decision. In a way, that’s positive. People are complex, and so, inevitably, if there are an infinite number of ways that people can define themselves, there will never be one category big enough to fit us all.

What label do you use to describe your sexuality? And what do you think the LLGFF should change its name to, if at all?

6 Responses to Queer, bicurious, pansexual: how we love to hate labelling ourselves

  1. Bex says:

    My preference is for the word queer as it covers my sexuality and gender but i recognise that it doesn’t fit for some people especially those who are of the generation that grew up with it being jsut an insult prior to any reclaiming. My suggestion would therefore be LGBTQI (LGBT Queer Intersex) , which is the acronym used by a lot of organisations now that are trying to be more inclusive beyond LGBT.
    However I do think its abit long as a main title so I would pick a different title that is related but not necessarily a specific identity. The equivalent film festival in Vienna is simply called ‘Identities’ obv not take the same word but something similar and then have LGBTQI film festival as a subtitle.

  2. catrina says:

    i think labalize it would be a good name legalize it seems to be working for the pot smoking community so maybe labelize it could work for us…..

  3. Jen says:

    It’s true there are a generation who will be put off by that word, but for me there’s another problem with ‘queer’ as a solution to the ‘alphabet soup’ complaints.

    To take an example of another London based organisation, Stonewall, they have always called themselves “LGB” when seeking funding but overwhelmingly their work over the 20-odd years they have been operating has focused on L&G: reports, speeches, press releases and so forth have frequently talked about ‘lesbian and gay’ and dropped the “bi” – even though there are more bisexuals than there are lesbians and gay men put together. (There are other biases in their mix too but let’s keep this short and simple!)

    Because they do refer to bisexuals specifically in their mission, it’s been easier to challenge the imbalance in their work and message. Where the more marginalised strands of LGBT+ are subsumed into a broad “queer” arc, it would seem to me that it’s likely those kind of imbalances will be easier to perpetuate: the hierarchy of voices within our communities is less likely to be challenged.

    What does this mean for LLGFF? Changing of names is an important symbol, a statement of intent – but what they give time, space and the spotlight to will be more important.

  4. Siobhan says:

    I think a lot of this debate-in general, not just here-dances around the question of identity politics, it’s uses and it’s limitations. Gestures towards unity and inclusion are less relevant and useful now that a socially acceptable face of LGB identity has emerged (white, patriotic, monogamous, productive, liberal-not-radical etc.), to the exclusion of those who don’t check the right boxes. As what it means socially to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, or queer changes, a lot of people feel the terms no longer apply, or perhaps actively excludes them.

    The “alphabet soup” debate has rattled on for a long while. “Gay” was a catch-all, or at least claimed to be, until women asserted their notable differences. The acronym debate focused on ordering: GLB rejected in favour of LGB to reject emphasis on gay men. Any version with “T” can be a frustration for heterosexual trans people, lumped in with and expected to support a series of fights that may not be their own. The “T” really is for “Tokenism”, it seems, for a lot of organisations. I love “queer”, but it, too, has limitations. I’m sure new term will emerge to take its place.

    There’s also a push for more discreet categories, as opposed to more universal solutions, as people attempt to redefine and assert their own communities and identities. Internationally, we have femmes, dykes, babydykes, butches / buchies, bois, women-loving-women, OWLs, bulls… ad infinitum? Within all that, there’s a lot of code switching going on: the level of “accuracy” of a self-label will be dependent on the context. We know that, and it shows that identity politics is still useful in places – but that we’re eager to reject it in others.

    As for the film festival, perhaps a throwback to that kitsch but somehow irrepressibly apt symbol, the rainbow-or spectrum as Milly suggests-works best? Evoking “all the colours of…”, the possibilities seem endless, as they should be. We just need to break them up in order to make something watchable… So, the BFI Prism Festival?

    • Milly Shaw Milly Shaw says:

      Yes I’d agree – an acceptable face of LG life does seem to have emerged (I don’t even think that the B sits there comfortably) – the ones who look and act most like ‘respectable’ hetero people, the ones that David Cameron wants to get married.

      By the way, what is an OWL? Only With Liquor? Ordinary Wizard Lover?

Milly Shaw


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