For me, 2020 was a year in which being queer took a back seat. While the pandemic has gone on changing the way I think about being old, white and a woman in a neoliberal world, it hasn’t yet made me rethink what it means to be lesbian.
Don’t get me wrong, I can see that lockdown’s having a specific effect on queers, to the extent that ‘Impact of COVID-19 on the LGBT community’ has its own Wikipedia entry. There are as many young people wondering whether they might be queer in 2020 as in any other year but fewer ways for them to investigate or experiment. And the pandemic is making things even worse for anyone whose queerness has caused or exacerbated their poverty, isolation, homelessness or ill health, physical or mental.
On the other hand, it didn’t take a pandemic to convince me that it’s never easy to be a member of a marginalised group. When I say I haven’t had to rethink what it means to be queer, I mean the pandemic hasn’t forced or helped me to reassess my sense of what queerness is—although now I’m getting started on this optional reassessment, I can’t help noticing that something about my sense of my identity has changed since the last time I looked.
One of the big changes is that I’ve increasingly been feeling as though I’m being asked to identify as LGBT or some even more inclusive acronym—LGBTQQIAAP+, for example. I’m definitely a lesbian and I’m happy to call myself gay or queer but I couldn’t claim to be an ally, asexual, bisexual, intersex, questioning, pansexual or trans.
So where does this leave me? And where does it leave everyone else? Does anybody actually tick all the boxes in LGBTQQIAAP+? That’s not just a rhetorical question: in the 1970s, when people used to use ‘pregnant Jewish lesbian’ as a synonym for ‘ridiculously impossible’, I had a friend who was black, Jewish, lesbian and a mother. But was the term LGBTQQIAAP+ ever intended to apply to one particular person?
I could, of course, sidestep these questions by deciding that the term LGBetc describes a way of organising, not a way of being. Organisations, from trade unions to multinational corporations, are often known by their initials, rather than by their key words, and loyalty to your social grouping is a classic form of identity: people have fought and died for acronyms like the IWW or the WSPU.
Then again, the International Workers of the World and the Women’s Social and Political Union were actual organisations, whose members could meet and debate, set policy and then change it. I’m not sure where I’d go if I wanted to debate (for instance) the idea that the word ‘queer’ is a form of hate speech that should be transcribed as ‘the q-slur’. My automatic answer would be ‘social media’ but that doesn’t seem to be working too well as a forum for debating trans matters, so—in short, I’m not convinced that LGBTQQIAAP+ is supposed to be the name of an organisation, either.
Maybe I should take a cue from Wikipedia and think of LGBT as a community. At first sight, that looks as if it would cure most of my cognitive dissonance. While I can’t say I identify personally as LGBTQQIAAP+, my girlfriend and I have friends who match all of those categories, including the plus sign, which I see as covering the friends who identify as sexual outlaws in ways that aren’t on the current lists. (Furries, marriage resisters, polyamorists.) But our friends aren’t a community. I’m Australian and Vix is British, so most of them have never met. The only thing that binds them all together is that they’re our friends and although ‘friends of Dorothy’ was a famous slang term for queers when I was at uni, I don’t think ‘friends of Gina and Vix’ is likely to catch on.
And the wider world seems just as random. In the regional city where I live, I’ve heard about an LGBT group at the university and seen a youth group advertised at the local library: the internet says there’s also a local lesbian group and a gay men’s group on Facebook. I like living in Wollongong, because we see gay couples in the street several times a year, something that only ever happened once in the eight years when we lived in supposedly-hipster Bristol. But I reckon it would be a stretch to describe any of this as ‘community’.
Although my interpretation of ‘community’ may be too narrow. When I go back to my Wikipedia clue and examine it more closely, I notice that it’s talking about ‘the community’, as if the sense of community that’s being invoked is more abstract and less embodied than I’ve been assuming. So maybe terms like LGBTQQIAAP+ are aspirational. I’ve been thinking of the acronyms as descriptions of places where a wide range of social groupings already live, work and socialise together in some form of community but maybe I should be reading each acronym as a performative attempt to create a particular alliance.
But where does the desire for these alliances come from? I can only guess at the answer, because I don’t share the desire. The alliances that have interested me over the years tend to have names like ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’ or ‘Queer Climate Group’. I can see the value of forming coalitions to work for big general social changes but I’m less convinced that there’s something to be gained from a coalition of sexual minorities, whose interests aren’t necessarily aligned. It’s a lesson I learnt in the now-forgotten sex wars of the 1980s between anti-pornography feminists and sex positive feminists, long before the current terf wars.
My first guess is that the people who keep adding letters to the acronym are trying to make it truly inclusive. If so, it’s an attempt that’s bound to fail, partly because the most comprehensive list always leaves something out and partly because this particular list is clearly based on exclusion, as well as inclusion. Sado-masochism and bondage were integral to the argument of the sex positive feminists of the eighties but there’s no BDSM in LGBTQQIAAP+. And in the counterculture of the seventies, a lot of people listened to the ideas being put forward by the North American Man/Boy Love Association: I can’t see that happening now.
So my second guess is that the acronym is a list of all the causes that are currently approved of by, um, the people making the list. That would explain why it gets my back up. As a lesbian in her seventies, who believes every word she’s heard from Carole Cadwalladr, Jarod Lanier, Jacob Silverman and Shoshana Zuboff and therefore steers clear of social media, I wouldn’t even know where to look for the people who come up with the acronyms and I definitely don’t know how to go about modifying or contributing to their list of approved causes.
Having your identity defined for you is never much fun. I like the identity that I’m being offered in 2020 far more than the identity I was offered as a trainee lesbian in the 1960s but I’d still prefer to choose my own alliances. So 2020 may be the year in which I finally give up on any attempt to identify with the term LGBT, let alone LGBTQQIAAP+, and decide that I’m just a lesbian.
Language is one of the main sites of activism at present, so it’s not surprising that terminology is an important part of my changing sense of queer identity. But activism has to include some action as well and, although there’s been plenty of locally-based queer activism all through the twenty-first century, its defining action would have to be the global campaign for same-sex marriage.
It’s taken me a while to work out what I think about the acronym but I’ve always known what I think of marriage. I never fantasised about weddings when I was a kid—white isn’t my colour and I find rituals stressful—so it was easy for me to internalise the feminist analysis of marriage as a key factor in the oppression of women. Most of the heterosexual couples I know aren’t married: I was surprised to find out that so many queer couples want to be.
With a background like this, I’m definitely not the right person to give an overview of the same-sex marriage debate, so I won’t try to reconstruct or deconstruct the arguments for and against, the way I’ve done with the acronyms. Instead, I want to take a step back, in order to put both issues in the same perspective and see what they have in common.
The first thing I notice from this angle is that in both cases I had the same instinctive response. My basic principle so far has been that (as the internet used to say) I don’t want to harsh anyone’s squee. If it makes some queers happy to get married or define themselves by acronyms, I’m happy for them. If the acronyms go viral and the same-sex marriage campaigns are successful, then that’s a win for someone who isn’t a right wing populist—and don’t we all need to see wins like that at present?
But the second thing I notice is that I’ve instinctively been tamping down my own reactions, in order to protect the happiness of people I’ve never met. The truth is, from the angle I’m standing at, same-sex marriage and the acronyms look more like an own goal than a win. That’s a perfectly reasonable opinion, just as reasonable as making same-sex marriage your priority or defining your identity with an acronym. So why have I been trying so hard to avoid thinking about these issues? Why have I effectively been censoring my own thoughts?
This time the questions I’m asking are rhetorical, although I have two separate answers, one personal and the other political. In personal terms, I’m in the denial stage of grief, putting off the moment when I have to admit that the gay movement I once loved has disappeared into the past. On one level, the Gay Liberation Movement was always a civil rights movement but on another level it was a great place to meet other outsiders. I remember sitting in a gay bar, looking round and thinking, ‘These are my people’, because I knew that everyone had taken some sort of risk to be there; because I knew that we had all resisted some of the things we’d been told about ourselves.
For a while there, I thought queerness was inherently resistive. It took me a long time to realise that once the gay movement had achieved a certain degree of civil rights and social acceptance, queers wouldn’t be outsiders any more. For me, the current focus on same-sex marriage and inclusive terminology indicate that we’ve reached that tipping point, in which case—given that my secret identity is ‘outsider’, not ‘girl who has sex with girls’—it’s time for me to move on.
But where can outsiders go, in an increasingly monetised and branded world? Maybe the answer’s already contained in the question. Fifty years ago, saying you were queer would have caused more of a flutter than saying you were a socialist but those positions seem to have been reversed. At the end of September, for instance, the UK Department for Education forbade schools to use resources from ‘organisations which have expressed a desire to end capitalism’, on the basis that anti-capitalism is ‘an extreme political stance’.
The problem here is that while I’ve been going about my everyday business, I haven’t come across any socialist groups that sound as though they’re looking for recruits like me. But there’s always something to hope for. A few weeks ago I was unexpectedly inspired by Michael Sandel’s new book The Tyranny of Merit, where he argues that politicians like Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and the Hawke-Keating government justified taking on the neoliberal economic policies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan by promising to establish a meritocracy in which minority groups would be given an equal chance to succeed.
If Sandel’s right, then at least some of the gains for queers have come at the cost of implicitly endorsing a slightly more liberal version of neoliberalism—a depressing thought in the short term but one that in the long term reopens some possibilities for queer activists. Instead of working to expand the list of minority groups with a designated seat at the table, we could think about making alliances that could potentially overturn the table. ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Gig Economy Workers’ would play even better than ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’: on the basis of having seen Pride, I’d be prepared to bet that there are more openly queer gig economy workers than there were openly gay miners…
So here I am, slouching towards the end of 2020, still wondering whether queer activism is heading off to a place where I can’t follow it or whether there’s still room in the acronym for people like me. The only thing I can say for sure is that I was wrong when I began by announcing that this was a year in which I hadn’t thought much about being queer. My subconscious has clearly spent 2020 coming up with a whole lot of questions.
Although the definitive answers will probably have to wait till 2021.
Gina Ward lives in Wollongong and as a committed pessimist, she’s still in lockdown, which is giving her a lot of time to think.