Be forewarned, this three-part column’s topic is controversial. Also, I am far from an expert on it so be prepared that I am nearly guaranteed to offend someone. Some may be offended by my bluntness or their own closed mindedness and ignorance of the actual world we live in. Tough. Others may be offended because they feel that certain topics are not appropriate for a public forum where children or the sensitively minded could be exposed to it. Get real. Still others will be offended because I have made an error or erroneously misstated something in a very complex, dynamic and ever changing schema. This last offense I can understand and apologize for.
The topic of conversation this time is LGBTQ issues in life and in the film industry.
There is a lot that can be said about LGBTQ issues. Recent films such as The Danish Girl and Amazon’s Transparent show the subject matter is ripe fodder for dramatic interpretation and, if done well, critical acclaim. But to tell the story well, one must understand the complexities involved and because these parts of our society are viewed from so many skewed perspectives, often with dire consequences, we must take great care in how we tell the stories and treat the human beings impacted by the telling.
In this first column we’ll start to set the ground work for discussion with definitions and an overview of how the topic is handled in general with the public, the law and government. In the second column we’ll finish defining things and provide more in-depth legal and social perspective. In the final part we’ll get specific on how the LGBTQ community fairs within the entertainment industry itself.
The LGBTQ letter soup
What does that string of consonants mean? Spelled out it stands for the combined concerns of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer communities. Here’s the first controversy. Some people leave off the Q. Some people think the bulk of concerns are only for the first two letters and the rest can get lumped in without much extra consideration. From my perspective, all the letters matter because each of these classifications include unique aspects of that group that are not represented or duplicated by the others. The group en masse does have enough commonalities to warrant their association with one another but their individuality should not be overlooked.
Before we continue I want to acknowledge that clear discussion is hampered by a major, unavoidable obstacle. Our language. Many of the words used to describe issues in these instances are rife with confusion and misunderstanding. They denote one thing and connote another. Where possible I will use the words that convey the most direct, correct intention and note where the emotional baggage may need to be left behind. When necessary I will use accepted words completely wrong for the context but they are the best words available that convey the underlying issue. Because of the ever-evolving and fluid discourse about these topics I will not always get the words right. For that I apologize. The intention is to get the underlying meanings right. So to start with a bunch of wrong words.
Sexual orientation, the term used most frequently for discussion of these matters, is unfortunately a horrible, horrible phrase. It has truly nothing to do with the act of sex and isn’t an orientation that can be changed like steering a ship to point in another direction. Celibates have a sexual orientation. Transgenders have a sexual orientation before, during and after transitioning which doesn’t change. Sexual preference is just as stupid. The term connotes that there is a choice involved among alternatives of equal or what is more usually meant by the person using it, “better” worth. Poppycock.
Likewise when dealing with gender terms when we discuss transgender issues the proper general term is gender identity which is a person’s inner and personal sense of being a particular gender. It is completely separate from that person’s sexual orientation or biological sexual organs and chemistry. And the astute will notice it is specific to the individual and can only be determined by that individual alone, not by society, government, peer pressure or the color of a baby’s bedroom.
Our language has trouble containing the trueness of the state of affairs of many things and so, as it often does, settles into biased and prejudicial structures to perpetuate a status quo that has never been “the norm.” Research has proven that those simple answers just don’t exist. Take, for example, groundbreaking research tomes like the Kinsey Reports about sexuality. It is often overlooked or conveniently forgotten that one of its most significant findings is that there is no clearly definable “normal.” That makes study of the so called “abnormal” really difficult (can we say frivolous?) to try to define and wrongheaded to classify as anything other than “perfectly fine, just different from me.”
So, if our language sucks at trying to describe the world, what terms should we use and how should those terms be understood by those who hear them?
What’s in a name?
What words we use to describe a thing initially carries the weight of those intentions brought into the mix by the one who first names it. Words can change meaning from their origins, often considerably, but definitions try to tie down a thing into a particular interpretation. In order to understand something there needs to be a definition of it, but, understanding that definitions start from a perspective which may have an agenda behind it allows the observant and careful to weigh those definitions for our own understanding of the thing so named. But without names we’re at a loss to discuss even the simplest concepts. So, words we must use. Just take in everything with a suspicious eye.
Underlying many of the terms encompassing the LGBTQ jumble of term meanings are some underlying broad definitions. Heterosexuality and homosexuality. These terms, though simple seeming, have held a lot of connotational baggage through the years. Both were first officially used to describe long established, observable phenomena in the clinical text Psychopathia Sexualis by Richard von Krafft-Ebing in 1886 and in subsequent editions. Heterosexual, when broken down into its etymological roots, is made up of Greek for “different” or “other” and Latin for “sexual.” In simple terms it is an attraction of one to another sexual orientation than your own. At least the first two letters of our subject matter’s jumble depend on the definition of another often mistaken as controversial word defined in that same tome. Homosexual is made up of Greek for “same” and Latin for “sexual” coined in the late 19th century and clinically taken to apply to either a male or female same sex interest.
Time and changes in society can distort things of all natures to the whims and intentions of others. During this period some in society were turning away from acceptance of homosexuality as the part of society it has always been and casting it as something less desirable by those in power (or who wished to be.) The term homosexual was adopted to put a name to their target. But colloquially it is more often intended to mean just male such interest. For the female-to-female sexual interest they coined another term.
It is rare to find the origin of a commonly used, nominative term actually tracing its origin to an individual. Sappho of Lesbos was a widely admired and renowned poet in the ancient Greek world whose works are sadly nearly all lost now. And not much is known about her actual life apart from her fame recounted by so many others. Nine volumes of her poetry were housed in the famous library at Alexandria where she was considered one of the nine influential lyric poets. Her poetry was reported to cover many different areas, among them love in all its forms. She was quite famous during her lifetime and her renown continued long after her death sometime around 570 BCE. But time can be cruel to writers. First her works fell out of fashion and so they were reproduced less and less. The fact that the particular dialect of ancient Greek she wrote in is hard to translate meant fewer copies still. It is a testament to her radical fame and likely stellar craftwork that she is remembered at all, and then only in pale reflections of the person she was and the things she might have actually written. In the 19th century her name (both of them, in fact) became associated with female homosexuality.
According to various sources, the word gay being taken as meaning homosexual or more specifically self identified male homosexuals, though in sparse use in the early twentieth century, wasn’t widely adopted until the 1950s or so. Being gay in society and Hollywood has taken some tough roads. We’ll discuss more detail in later columns but both venues have focused on gays as sources of ridicule and shame and fascination in turn. Hollywood has even captured the dichotomy occasionally in its better gay issue focused films like Milk and Philadelphia.
One of the few constants in the universe is that societal norms change. What is forbidden for one age could be embraced in the next. Once we get through the rest of the definitions and into the meat of LGBTQ issues we’ll see how that change has effected things. And in the last part we’ll be ready to discuss more in depth Hollywood’s take on it all.
Read Part 2 – Legally Speaking, It Depends: LGBT – the BTQ et al.
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