GAYBCs: A Queer Alphabet explores the notoriously thorny subject of queer identity, delivering what is often missing from the subject: humour. Published by Greystone Books, the picture book is a play on the constantly evolving language used to define queer identity. The original acronym, LGB, expanded to LGBT in the 1990s, and has continued to grow to include LGBTQIA2S and other iterations.
The title sets the cheeky tone of the book, which is loaded with visual references and double entendres. But don’t be deceived: this short, playful book suggests a deeper message – the ABC books that I read to my two-year-old son never mention my type of family (two mums plus toddler), nor do they support a queer existence.
Rather than stating this directly, Ottawa designer Rae Congdon writes her own definitions in black Sharpie over the top of old heteronormative ones, as if queer identity must scratch out pre-existing language in order to make space for itself. It’s a powerful message for the 21st century, a time when gay rights, at least in the U.S., are one Supreme Court justice away from being extinguished. But this playful erasure of definitions has long been essential to the queer identity.
When I first began to consider my own sexuality as a teenager in the late 1990s, it wasn’t in the form of language at all, but silence. My quietude was spawned by introversion but also fear: being called lesbian was more damning than any other insult. At the time, I naively thought this indicated a failure of imagination. Whereas other insults might use alliteration or a few harsh profanities to drive things home, a signifier didn’t do anything other than name the thing itself. But later, I realized that was the point. The word “lesbian” was so loaded with stigma that bullies didn’t need to get creative.
Queer folk have long found it hard to accept status quo definitions of words because words, or at least their existing definitions, could not be trusted. They might trap or ensnare, leaving their speaker or subject one misjudged glance from violence. We are a culture of words, and if we aren’t happy with the given associations and meanings of our current language, then, like Congdon, we damn well have had to invent our own.
This reappropriation of language is part of what scholar William Leap calls “lavender linguistics” (lavender being a synonym for queer). In his 1996 book, Words Out: Gay Men’s English, Leap looks at the history of what is called “dropping hairpins” – references to stereotypical gay interests that allow a speaker to say, “I’m gay. Are you?” without being outed in an unsafe space.
In the days when being a “homo” was considered a form of psychosis that could land you in prison – which despite the rise of gay rights in North America still occurs in many other parts of the world – it was extremely important to be able to deny being homosexual to the general public, while simultaneously identifying oneself as such to other queers. The word “gay,” which until the 19th century meant “light-hearted” or “playful,” was co-opted as part of this code. Slang became a way to tell others what you really wanted. “It is secretive, a form of protest, and an expression of social recognition,” writes Bruce Rodgers in his 1972 book on queer language, The Queens’ Vernacular. “Secret because it leaves outsiders where they usually are [i.e., ignorant].”
In 1930s London, gay men invented Polari, a list of slang words for everything naughty and queer, to communicate with each other without being arrested for violating Britain’s anti-sodomy laws. A “chicken” meant a young man; “bear,” a large, often hairy man; and “hada” was … perhaps you better look it up.
As a teenager, I remember lying on my bed and devouring literary offerings from those queer theorists who were brave enough to sacrifice both advances and much of a readership in order to document this history and experience. For the first time, I felt seen. The need to be acknowledged and to create stories that do not harm, belittle, or trap its users has always been part of the gay experience. As a solitary teen, I would have welcomed books like Congdon’s, for they were the next best thing to actually meeting someone and having real experiences: knowing I wasn’t alone.
Alexandra Shimo is the author of Invisible North: The Search for Answers on a Troubled Reserve and co-author of the Governor General’s Literary Award finalist Up Ghost River: A Chief’s Journey Through the Turbulent Waters of Native History with Edmund Metatawabin. She teaches creative non-fiction at University of Toronto.