A Note about Identity Terms

Navigating the world of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer (lgbtq) identities, spaces, and cultures requires constant interrogation, vigilant patience, and a blended sense of hopeful wonder and frustrated cluelessness. Jess ’98 shared, “I think ‘queer’ is not . . . an umbrella [term]. Well, . . . it functions that way also, but queer identity as a specific thing . . . that’s been solidified in the last ten years—that maybe wasn’t true before? Like being adamant about being queer and not gay.” Jess’s equivocation about the meanings of queer involves defining, undefining, questioning its construction, and then positioning it against another identity (gay) to give it its meaning.

At the same time, Ruth ’90 pointed out, claiming an identity “depends on location and translation”—i.e., who you are speaking with and where. She also expressed her frustration with having to self-identify but understood it afforded recognition as well: “Our movement is about fighting stereotypes and fighting oppression—and yet here we are in these little, little boxes.” As much as I too hate these boxes, I rely on the identities given by participants during our intake conversations (as many shifted over time or even during interviews) in order to express how they saw themselves. Building on the conversation around terminology offered in chapter 1, here I reflect and sometimes expand on other language and terms used in A Queer New York.

To identify or self-identify are ways lgbtq people commonly recognize an individual’s agency in defining his/her/their own identity or identities.[1] I use the popular lgbtq acronym to refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer people when I speak to gender and sexual minorities. My use of the “lgbtq” and “tgncp” acronyms are lowercase to signal that, while this acronym speaks to my participants’ identities and those they most often referenced in our conversations, it does not fully represent Two-Spirit, intersex, questioning, and other gender and sexual identities. This acronym does not include many others, but I keep to it as it is the nomenclature my participants most often used and includes the most of the identities with which they identified.

The most often used identity among participants, lesbian, describes a woman (broadly and self-defined) who loves, partners with, is attracted to, sleeps with, and/or has sex with another woman (broadly and self-defined). Those that identified—either exclusively or not—as “lesbian” in the 2000s often mentioned a connection to a historical category and series of oppressions, as well as its use as a political label that prioritized women’s experiences. Queer is a more fluid term that encompasses a nonnormative sexual and gender identity and/or politics that emerged through late 1980s and 1990s activisms, and has grown in use since the 1990s; the concept emphasizes plurality and a refusal of categories rather than reductionism or fixity. About half of the participants who came out in the 1980s and 1990s generation found that the queer identity now afforded them the ability to more fully represent themselves. Similarly, those who did not use “lesbian” mentioned they felt an essentialized identity attached to women alone refused trans and genderqueer bodies, or that it was “old-fashioned” in a new queer world.

Other identifiers are equally essential to urban lesbian-queer life. Dyke was employed to indicate a more radical, political angle because of its derogatory connotations. Participants across generations argued that they were constantly “reclaiming” the dyke identity, and I include it in the subtitle of the book to participate in that reclaiming. Participants rarely used gay, stating they felt it referred more to men. As white, middle-class Eva ’98 shared, “It’s like, well how does somebody obviously do gay? ’Cause sometimes [when] I’m in certain circles I’m like obviously gay. I mean, it’s not as if I don’t feel that way, ’cause I certainly do.” In the 1980s and 1990s, “lesbian” and “gay” became increasingly common terms at the expense of the medicalized homosexual, a term that held negative connotations for all. Throughout the period addressed in this study, there was also increasing renegotiation and refusal of the bisexual identity. Bisexual defines those people who love, partner with, are attracted to, sleep with, and/or have sex with people of both sexes. As my participants’ stories attest, bisexuals are often disregarded or unwelcome by lesbians and queers, or anticipate that they will be. As an example, after a lifetime of dating women and trans men, multiethnic, working middle-class femme Dana ’98 no longer felt she had a voice in my research project when she began dating a cisgender man. Even when I encouraged her return, she expressed worry that other participants may not be welcoming. One participant identified as asexual, meaning that they had romantic but not sexual relationships.

The terms woman and man became increasingly de-essentialized during my research period and in the years since. I apply them in the broadest sense to invoke my own participants’ connections to these terms. I use transgender and gender non-conforming people (tgncp) to encompass those who identified as genderqueer, butch, masculine-presenting, transgender, andro/gynous, and so on. Trans encompasses transgender, transsexual, and transvestite people but is most often an abbreviation for transgender identity, denoting those who do not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of gender. I do not use the term “trans” to identify all tgncp since some of my participants identified as “butch and transgender” or andro at one time, and now as trans; I hope the use of “tgncp” allows for a longer and more inclusive temporal pull. No participants identified as intersex, having biological characteristics of both sexes.

Fags, fairies, and dandies are derogatory terms reclaimed by gay men and also claimed in the 2000s by some lesbians and queers in my study. These identities help to articulate more feminine masculinities that were otherwise undefined. Futch developed as a crossover to unite “fag” and “butch,” even though now it also stands for a butchy femme or femmey butch. Usually distinct from butch, a boi was a younger, masculine-presenting, genderqueer person assigned female at birth. Boi often identified young butches or trans men who were still early in their transition. Those bois journalist Ariel Levy spoke to for a well-publicized New Yorker story described preferring less relationship responsibility and enjoying casual sex in comparison to older butches.[2] “Bois” could also refer to sexually submissive or more effeminate butches, pointing to the ways in which masculinity has again been reinterpreted by lesbians and queers, and/or “bois” can be used to refer solely to masculine-presenting Black and Latinx women.[3]

Cisgender or just cis, a word not yet common in our 2008–2009 conversations, describes “people who do not identify with a gender diverse experience.”[4] Butch describes lesbians and queer women with a more traditionally masculine gender presentation. AG, ag, or aggressive is a newer identity deployed in the 2000s by, for, and about more masculine-presenting Latina and Black, working-class lesbians and queers, similar to if not descendent from the stud identity popular among the same group in the 1980s and 1990s. Femme claims a more traditionally feminine-presenting identity, often queering the meanings and portrayals of femininity. To be feminine does not mean one is femme; to be masculine does not mean one is butch, stud, or aggressive/ag/AG. Genderqueer, coined in the mid-1990s, refuses a gender identity and/or label, and/or does not ascribe to only masculine or feminine gender identities. Since my period of study, genderfluid, gender non-conforming, and gender non-binary (a.k.a. non-binary or enby) are used more often. As Blaise ’02 noticed even then: “There’s been some kind of shift from binary definitions and recognizing possible limitations and oppressive . . . forces saying, ‘These are the categories [bangs table] and you have to be in one.’” Androgynous and/or andro identities blur and often queer appearances and embodiments of that which is read as masculine or feminine.

These identity terms are described to the best of my ability and surely fall short of the rich complexity and diversity of their use in New York City over the past twenty-five years. As mentioned in the preface, I did not discuss my burgeoning trans identity with participants—I often worried I would be judged for it, not just among participants but the public in genral. However, looking back, I now understand that disclosing it would have made possible different types of conversations, and limited the possibility for the others I recorded here.

[1] See also Clare Farquhar, “‘Lesbian’ in a Post-Lesbian World? Policing Identity, Sex and Image,” Sexualities 3 (2000): 220.

[2] Ariel Levy, “Where the Bois Are,” New York, January 12, 2004, nymag.com.

[3] Cf. Gayle Rubin, “Of Catamites and Kings: Reflections on Butch, Gender, and Boundaries,” in The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader, ed. Joan Nestle (Boston: Alyson Books, 1992), 466–82; Jack Halberstam, Female Masculinity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998); Esther Newton, Margaret Mead Made Me Gay: Personal Essays, Public Ideas (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000); “About bbh,” bklyn boihood.”

[4] Eli R. Green, “Debating Trans Inclusion in the Feminist Movement: A Trans-Positive Analysis,” Journal of Lesbian Studies 10, no. 1–2 (2006): 231–48.

The above is reprinted from “Appendix I: Identity Terms” in A Queer New York (NYU Press: 2020).