Saturday, May 13, 2006

Families and Similar Groups [II, 23]

Birds of a feather flock together. Gay and lesbian persons are individuals, to be sure. However, in many organizations they tend to form affinity groups, groups that tend to be viewed by outsiders as cliques. They detect each other through the use of gaydar, that sixth sense that enables a gay person to spot another, when the identity might be invisible to outsiders.

The existence of such groups is signaled by terms such as fraternity or sisterhood. Deriving from the Judy Garland role in the film “The Wizard of Oz” is the expression friend of Dorothy. Another term stems from religion, as when one asks, “Is such and such a person church?”—meaning “Is the individual one of us?” The sports world yields on the team.

From the field of transportation comes the Spanish term tripulante, a member of the crew. Originally referring to sea-going vessels, this term is now appropriate for male flight attendants, a profession with strong gay representation. A version of this trope is spreading in the US. In the film "Broken Hearts Club" (2000), a gay softball player remarks to an opposing player, from an ostensibly all-heterosexual team: "We think that one of you is playing on our team."

Of course there are formal organizations. In the United States the first stable gay-rights organizations were the Mattachine Society, ONE, Inc. (which still exists in Los Angeles), and the lesbian Daughters of Bilitis (DOB). Now the leading US organizations are the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). Lambda Legal plays an important role in law reform and the defense of the legal rights of gay and lesbian persons. Often excoriated by liberal gay groups are the Log Cabin Republicans. Despite unhappiness with some policies of the Bush administration, it seems that they are here to stay.

Gay associations and caucuses exist in most universities and many businesses. Robert A. Martin, also known as Stephen Donaldson, formed the first student gay group, the Student Homophile League, at Columbia University in 1967.

There are also phantom groups, often the product of the imagination of homophobes. In the nineteenth century homosexuals were said to form a freemasonry of their own. During the 1950s, when there was much fear of subversion at the direction of the Comintern, homosexuals were said to belong to the Homintern. Even today, paranoia on the part of homophobes tends to attribute an organizational and conspiratorial prowess to gay people that they do not possess (the "gay lobby" promoting the "homosexual agenda").

More generally, one can speak of the gay community and the lesbian community. These, however, are terms of convenience that do not reflect any particular formal organization.

We turn now to mimicry of family relationships. Until recently at least, gay men and lesbians were less likely to form families in the sense of two parents and children. Moreover, it has often proved appealing to move away from one’s family of birth and kin, to avoid questions and to live a more open life in one of the gay meccas.

Accordingly it is paradoxical that some terms have recreated family relationships. Or perhaps it is not paradoxical, since the need for a circle of close friends, amounting to families, is universal.

Uncertainty has been evident in the appropriate term for one’s significant other. Formerly lover prevailed. Now partner is more common. Sometimes husband or wife are used, even if the same-sex pair is not formally married. At one time husband was a common term used by delicate or effeminate men who aspired to a permanent liaison with a macho partner.

The current interest of gay and lesbian couples in adopting children, or having them by artificial insemination, has led to a boom in gabies.

In former years gay men, adopting the effeminacy gambit, would refer to fellow gays as sisters. An older associate would of course be an auntie. Compare French tante, which engendered German Tunte. If effeminate and nurturing, mother may seem more appropriate. In the bear subculture, older mentors are styled daddies. With some homosexual use, the term sugar daddy seems mainly used for heterosexual benefactors.

Churchgoers and others may use the term family (as in “she’s family”) in the sense of a fellow gay or lesbian person.

Some women’s prisons show patterns in which older lesbians will become recognized as mothers, with a group of dependent daughters. None, of course, are related in the biological sense.

For a long time terms like “marriage,” “husband,” and “wife” have circulated in everyday usage, which is sometimes jocular. Now, however, legalized gay marriage has appeared in a number of countries in the industrialized Western world.


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