4 min

Reclaiming the ‘G’ word

Gay men have disappeared from their own institutions

I continue to be ascribed all sorts of strange motives in writing my last two columns, including attempting to start a backlash aimed at destroying the nascent movement for recognition of trans rights. There’s been a lot of name calling on’s comments section.

One very positive thing that emerged from the online discussion: the trans people who participated, and those gays and lesbians who wrote in, all distanced themselves from the concept of a hierarchy of oppression. That is, they didn’t argue that trans people are more oppressed than lesbians or gay men and so their struggles for rights and medical funding should receive a disproportionate share of resources (attention, time, money) from local and national gay and lesbian groups. So, I’m going to suggest that there’s an apparent consensus that those who make the “hierarchy of oppression” argument are being written off as a lunatic fringe of bleaters. Of course, now that I have written this, we will hear from some of them.

I noticed one unfortunate online comment that came from a former gay men’s health worker whom I much admire. But I think he’s very wrong this time. This is what he wrote: “If I can’t help to shake off the shackles of gender oppression first, then I don’t wanna be part of your narrow-minded, simplistic sexual freedom movement.”

I can agree with some of the sentiment behind his point. It’s fair to argue that as part of a progressive coalition we should be concerned about gender equality, sexism and allying with feminists where we can find common ground (ie: where they don’t challenge our sexual freedom and our right not to be censored).

But to suggest that we ought to be working on gender issues as a higher priority than our own sexual freedom issues is misplaced. My first priority is to win the right to choose our sex and love partners on our own terms — or as the Pink Triangle Press mission statement puts it, to “honour lust” and “set love free.” It’s sexual oppression that is our primary adversary, and eliminating restrictions on consensual sexual expressions of any and all kinds will of itself make for a much better world.

Imagine a world where all kinds of people can express themselves honestly and enjoy what turns them on without guilt. Imagine a world where everyone unpacked the nasty mix of self-repression, fear and judgment that is today foisted on people from birth and limits their personal development in many areas, extending even beyond sexuality itself.

We all know of people whose sexual uptightness negatively affects other areas of their lives and their relations with people. Others far wiser than me (such as Jane Rule) have written of the connection between sexual hang-ups and war, family violence and even desecration of our environment.

Sadly, the letter writer is far from alone in wanting to put on the backburner his own oppression. Gay men have done this repeatedly in the past two decades and it is a misplaced and counter-productive move.

Take Pride, for example. Or rather, Gay Pride — or Gay & Lesbian Pride — as it used to be called. Why did we drop the “gay?” Well, some of us wanted to downplay connection to sexuality so that more corporations would be comfortable sponsoring our Pride groups and entering the parade (read: to get more money). Others caved because of the trend to transform our identity into a series of consonants — but GLBTTTQI* Pride would look like we were nuts (hmmm — if the shoe fits), and Queer Pride sounded too leftist and angry and that would be a turnoff for corporate sponsors. So we just eliminated all identity from the festival and settled for “Pride.” Pity.

Gay men did it to ourselves in the battle against AIDS, too. In the early years, when it was clear that it was a “gay disease” in the North American context, we directed aggressive prevention efforts at gays. By the 1990s, recalls leading AIDS campaigner Barry Deeprose of Ottawa, “to have the word ‘gay’ in a project proposal was the kiss of death.” So, gay men working on AIDS issues strategized that to keep government funding for research and prevention, it was important to get bureaucrats and politicians to care about those at risk. They didn’t care about gays. So the strategy was to argue that other more desirable political constituents were also at risk and so should be targeted. The theory was that if more money came into the fight, and if more people cared about those with AIDS or at risk of getting AIDS, there would also be spin-off funding and care for gays.

It didn’t work out that way. The strategy’s lasting legacy was an actual decline in the money going to AIDS prevention efforts aimed at gay men (almost to zero in some parts of the country for more than a decade), and increased money going to campaigns aimed at low-risk people — like married heterosexual women. And surprise! Transmission rates began increasing among gay men. Though well-intentioned, notes Deeprose, the strategy of disentangling the words ‘gay’ and ‘AIDS’ had backfired and came to hurt our community. Today, some AIDS activists, like Deeprose, are becoming increasingly vocal in reclaiming AIDS as a gay disease, arguing, “Funding should be proportional to risk and incidence.” If that were the case, most prevention and treatment money would focus on gays.

Deeprose points to another, more recent form of the gay vanishing act — the trend to using the acronym MSM, or men who have sex with men, instead of the word gay. It was imposed on our community by the medical establishment (epidemiologists) and pathologizes our sexual expressions. “Indeed, we were seen only as vectors of transmission,” he says. “Gay men accepted this label without a word of objection — we simply rolled over and accepted it, perhaps fearing that objecting might result in further cutting of the miniscule portion of funding that was directed to us.”

But since the late 1990s, gay men have worked to reclaim the word gay and set aside MSM. Deeprose himself has had success on that score among both local and provincial health organizations and funders.

So that’s three examples — de-gaying Pride, de-gaying AIDS, de-gaying same-sex attraction. What’s going on? In essence, gay men have disappeared from their own institutions. Is it just bad strategy dressed up as leftist progressivism that leads us to erase ourselves on the public stage like this? Or is it internalized homophobia and deep-rooted shame? Whatever is behind it, it’s time to stop it and push back.

Read previous columns by Gareth Kirkby: