gayelle

Two lesbian friends of mine alerted me tonight to a new word: "gayelle."

It's a fascinating attempt to coin a new word. The people over at gayelle.org (a.k.a. sapphicchic.com) are claiming, apparently seriously, that because the word "lesbian" is now old-fashioned and has negative connotations, it's time to replace that word with a new, hip, sophisticated, 21st-century word. And the one they came up with is "gayelle"--"the feminine form of gay meaning homosexual."

Also, the word "bisexual" contains the word "sex" and used to be sometimes used to mean "hermaphrodite," so the gayelles have decided (with the help of a little intersex-phobic phrasing like "freak of nature") that bisexual women should have a new term as well. They somehow came up with "sapphysapphia" (although their explanation fails to explain why they think that term should have anything to do with being interested in men too), which word they note is composed of only six different letters; if you put those letters in alphabetical order, you get "ahipsy," which they've altered to "hipshe." So, all you bi-dykes, better get used to calling yourselves hipshes from now on. (And presumably non-bi women aren't hip.)

On the one hand, I'm tempted to mock them. To me (and to the lesbian friends who mentioned "gayelle" to me), the terms sound silly and goofy and not even remotely hip. (One of my friends suggested that "Gay-El" sounded like a resident of Krypton; the other noted that "gayelle" is only one letter off from "gazelle.") Also, the gayelle folks say that "The word lesbian is antiquated" as evidence that we should stop using it, while they say (in a positive tone) that "Sappho" is "A well known name from antiquity" as a reason to use that; really, none of their arguments in favor of their new coinages make much sense to me.

On the other hand, language does change, and new coinages and new uses sometimes do catch on. After all, it wasn't all that long ago that people were still lamenting the loss of the perfectly good word "gay" to those awful homosexuals who'd appropriated it.

One thing that kinda bugs me politically about the "gayelle" thing is that it's kind of the opposite of reclaiming a word. The queer community has, to some degree and in some contexts, reclaimed a variety of words (including "queer") that used to be fairly universally derogatory; I'm a little sad to see people saying "that word is sometimes used derogatorily, so let's stop using it." (Interesting that the word "dyke" doesn't appear anywhere on their site.) Then again, this kind of language change happens all the time too, when once-polite words become derogatory. And for that matter, I myself have spent time agitating (mildly) for a new coinage; I invested a fair bit of energy into the gender-neutral pronoun "ta" in the '90s, before switching to gender-neutral "they."

I'm also mildly politically bothered by the gender politics I see in "gayelle." By creating a feminine form of "gay" (and why not "gayette," anyway?), they implicitly suggest that the word "gay" is exclusively male (which is, to be fair, how many people use it)--but they also suggest that the word for a homosexual woman should be a derivative of the word for a homosexual man. Wouldn't it be better to come up with a word that's not derived from an exclusively male label?

One more issue with "gayelle" is that the word's already in use. Googling for it, or looking in Urban Dictionary, reveals that the current most popular uses (at the time of my writing this entry) are:

  • A community TV station in Trinidad & Tobago. (Which at first I thought was a queer station, given the slogan "At Last We Own Television" and the current top-of-page ads for "The Freedom Walk" and (in pink) "Gayelle The Channel presents ... Phagwa 2008.") (I'm thinkin' if women are going to start using "gayelle," then men should switch to "phagwa.") (Yes, I know that Phagwa is an ancient Hindu festival. I'm being culturally insensitive for the sake of a joke; sorry.)
  • A Caribbean term for a cockfighting arena (I kid you not). Okay, cockfighting or stickfighting, but "cockfighting" is funnier in this context.

I'm left still uncertain whether this whole "gayelle" thing is in fact a joke, in which case my hat's off to the people who put it together. But the site is very straight-faced (as it were), and they're apparently even running radio ads on queer radio, which suggests to me that if it is a joke, it's a very elaborate one.

(Note: I'm pretty sure that some people who don't know me are going to encounter this entry, so I should note that (a) I'm a bi man, so I don't get to tell lesbians what they should call themselves, and (b) I use terms like "queer" and "dyke" casually and positively; no derogatory connotations should be inferred.)