Thursday, May 11, 2006

Inversion [II, 33]

Gay men and lesbians are commonly perceived as defying society’s gender norms. More particularly, it is claimed, they do this through the assumption of the qualities, appearance, and the constitutional determinants of the opposite sex. While the term inversion(e) was only coined to express this concept in Italy in 1878, the underlying idea of gender-role reversal is much older. Those who subscribe to it differ as to whether to attribute the inversion to biology or to culture.

However that may be, lesbians are deemed mannish, while gay men are commonly perceived as effeminate. The former concept inheres in the word dyke, especially as intensified in such variants as bulldyke and bulldagger. Some would regard the tomboy as an incipient lesbian. That not all lesbians adhere to this model is indicated by the butch/fem contrast. In the public perception, though, the butch lesbian is the only type there is. Fems are generally ignored, or considered suitable material for heterosexualization at the hands of a dominant man. Selective perception bolsters the stereotype.

With male homosexuals the stereotype of gender reversal is even more prominent. In fact it may be deemed a basic constituent of homophobia. The flamboyance of some young queens lends support to the stereotype. But it is a product of selective vision, nonetheless. Until recent times use of make-up was considered inappropriate for the male gender role. Exaggerated make-up formerly served as a marker for gay men (slop queens), though only a minority indulged. British and American queens sometimes address each other with feminizing vocatives, as “Well, Mary” and “You go, girl.” And of course cross-dressers have long been with us.

Classical antiquity had a number of terms to designate effeminate behavior: kinaidos, pathicus, malakos, and mollis. The latter two mean “soft” in Greek and Latin respectively. In Latin virago meant a mannish woman, though not necessarily a lesbian.

In early modern Europe powerful men affected the company of minions, pretty young men. Whether sexual relations existed or not, gossip attributed a catamite status to these favorites. Of course these types also figured in more plebeian settings, as with the she-men and mollies of Restoration England.

The twentieth century saw a profusion of terms to indicate various aspects of the effeminate-male concept, including swish, flit, and sissy. While the expression derives from a frivolous television skit, Arnold Schwarzenegger has popularized girlie men in a political context, a label that seemingly combines effeminacy with laziness and cowardice.

French tante, auntie (borrowed in German) suggests an older queen. There is also the diminutive tatie. English auntie has probably been invented independently.

Sometimes the feminine aura of a term is no longer obvious. While it has had a long history, the most immediate source of the homosexual meaning of the term gay is the nineteenth-century British usage, “a loose woman; a prostitute.” Before being brought into service for homosexual men in the early twentieth century, faggot was a term of disparagement for a slatternly, unattractive woman.

A common ploy is to adduce actual female names such as Mary Ann and Nellie. Pansy is a “two-for,” combining a woman’s name with the term for a delicate flower. Italian supplies checca from Francesca. Maricón, the most common name for a male homosexual in the Spanish language, derives from María.

A somewhat different matter is the American expression friend of Dorothy, reflecting the gay men’s adulation of Judy Garland in the seventies and eighties. (Garland’s most famous role was Dorothy in the film version of “The Wizard of Oz.”)

The procedure of turning male names into female ones may be applied ad hoc, so that someone named Fred becomes Frieda, while Patrick turns into Patricia. Many of these coinages are ephemeral, indeed unique. One young man, now a distinguished lawyer with the surname Levin, became Lavinia. In Spanish one can alter the masculine ending –o to –a, or simply place the feminine article before the name: la José (although Josefina works also).

Both gay men and lesbians feel the need from time to time to resist the inversion assumption. Male resistance is seen in such terms as butch, macho, clone. Among women, fem, lipstick lesbian.


Post a Comment

<< Home