Words are like spells. There’s a power to them and they have different layers, different meanings, depending on who you are, how old you are. Language is constantly changing but we’re just not aware of it until we stop.
At school I was called a poof or a pansy or a fruit, occasionally queer. I read indexes in books to find anything I could about homosexuals after I read an article about men who love each other in Woman’s Own. Later I went to Britain’s Gay Liberation Society’s meetings and rejoiced in the language of the gay world, of dykes, fags, marys, nancies, butches and femmes, binks and twinks.
Queer used to really feel like a slap in the face, a hard, harsh word that was like an assault before the trendies took it as a badge of pride. Sexual politics is a febrile, changing territory and badges tell a story about identity too.
The Greek symbol lambda used as an identifying badge had a brief outing as the secret symbol of gay life (as an alternative to the labyris woman’s axe symbol) but political activists took on and reclaimed the pink triangle which the Nazis had forced gays in the concentration camps to wear. The pink triangle for my generation was to become an urgent symbol of Aids activism in the bold graphics of ACT-UP and the reminder that silence equals death.
Gestures are another way of speaking of sexual difference and the hand on hip, pursed lips and knowing glance of a queen was often unmistakeable. When a straight person wanted to signify gay, a stylised and definitely contemptuous flip of a limp wrist said it all.
At the trial of Gay News editor Denis Lemon at the Old Bailey in the summer of 1977 I saw a whole courtroom of bewigged barristers eagerly clutching a copy of a dictionary of gay slang called The Queen’s Vernacular, a colourful and extraordinary document steeped in the richness of the theatrical language of polari (gay slang) mixed with prison lingo and gypsy argot, packed full of delicious nonce words and neologisms. Much of this slang is mainstream now, some never spoken except by the most flamboyant and rarified elderly connoisseurs of camp.
The British Film Institute’s London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival is starting a debate about what to call the festival. It had a precursor in 1977 with a season of films called Images of Homosexuality. The first festival was called Gay’s Own Pictures in 1986 and in its third incarnation it became the BFI London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.
Some institutions prefer ‘Gay and Lesbian’ but we prioritise the Lesbian. In the discourse of diversity lesbians and gay men are now lumped together in a four letter word LGBT which gives no hint of difference or sexual preference, is unchallenging and politically correct, a neutered short-hand for a range of different interests and desires.
The BFI London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival is a broad church. Under its banner a very wide range of sexual interests and identities have found a home. Some of our patrons have asked why we have kept the same name for the festival for a quarter of a century. Some younger people don’t like the word gay and feel it describes a middle-aged and narrow view of what it means to be non-hetero in the 21st century.
Do we need an alphabet soup which is decipherable only to the few? Should we name each section of the community we want to support in a London LGBTQQICCAPPPGA Film Festival (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, celibate, curious, asexual, polyamorous, polymorphous, perverse, genderqueer, and allies)? Or should we go for a word like Pink or Purple, Rainbow, Pride, or Diversity?
Would the new name last more than a decade?
We need a poet or a branding genius, someone who can pluck from the air a catchy title like a Festival of Sexual Difference or Church of Queers, Homosexuals and Friends. Bisexual men and women, and the whole range of trans men and women, are rejected in many parts of society and the name of the festival doesn’t currently address some of its programming interests.
We are a broad church and we want to listen to those around us who share our interests and believe in the power of cinema to enhance all our lives, to help us understand our divergent identities, whether mired in the gender binary or glorying in the polymorphous perverse. Is language capable of expressing the richness and power of sexuality in one memorable word or phrase or do we need a rebrand, a logo which, like the rainbow flag or the Aids ribbon, just is?
Throughout the LLGFF our pre-screening trailer explores some of the meaning of words and asks: what’s in a name?
The LLGFF have commissioned a film to inspire people to consider the name. (It stars T’nia Miller, and is directed by Aleem Khan and Fariyal.) See it here:
This article originally appeared in Gay Star News.