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What's in a Name?

By Veronica Rosales

"What's in a name?" Juliet wonders in the famous balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, as she ponders why a mere linguistic quirk should be an obstacle to her love. "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet," she decides, settling the issue in her mind once and for all.

But for many groups at Harvard today, Juliet's question remains unanswered. Since the beginnings of language, individuals have used names to define their identities, measuring themselves against others who fit--or don't fit--into particular categories.

Student groups here often rely on an array of labels to describe themselves that is sometimes bewildering. Outsiders often find the distinctions between words difficult to comprehend, but within these groups, emotions over names still runs high.

Take the use of the word "queer," for example.

Many students would immediately reject "queer" as a term of denigration, opting instead for the term "homosexual." But most members of the gay, lesbian and bisexual community tend to disagree.

For these students, "queer" is a term of pride, and "homosexual" an offensive clinical term with an unpleasant history.

"Homosexual," explains Sheila C. Allen '92, co-chair of the Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Students Association (BGLSA), was first used to describe people who needed treatment for what was thought to be a disease or a psychological disorder. Because the term implies a disorder, she says, gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals do not use it often.

"Queer," on the other hand, is a word that now carries intense political connotations, and is often favored by groups seeking to counter discrimination, she says. The term has gained in popularity recently, with the rise of Queer Nation, one of the country's most vocal gay rights organizations.

"Queer nationals"--as the group's members describe themselves--make good use of the word in their trademark chant, "We're here. We're queer. We're fabulous. Get used to it."

"Queer Nation is pretty powerful," Allen says. Their anthem is a strong message that can "deal with people who are not willing to acknowledge gays and lesbians," she says.

"`Homosexuality' originally described a behavior," Allen says. "It wasn't a full identity or culture. Now, there is an entire culture [with] a political movement."

The words generally endorsed by the community are "gay" for males and "lesbian" for females. But "queer" also has its adherents, who argue that their term is more inclusive because it can desribe either sex.

Use of the word queer also implies a difference between gays and lesbians and "straight" individuals. "`Queer national' is a term of pride and recognition of full moral and spiritual equality with heterosexuals," says Thomas B. Watson '91, president of the Arts Organization for the Advancement of Sexual Minorities (ORGASM).

But because "queer" acknowledges a difference, some members of the gay and lesbian community shy away from it. BGLSA co-chair Charles R. Flatt '92 says that people who are coming to terms with their sexuality are often put off by the activist political connotations the word carries.

"People who are just coming out are not ready to hear the word queer. They have to come out in a community where they don't have to change the world," Flatt says.

He also questions the strategy of attempting to fight back against discrimination by "reclaiming" a word which was originally used in a pejorative sense.

"I'm sure bigots are ingenious enough that if the word `queer' is reclaimed they will find another to insult us," he says.

Others say the strategy is working. Sandi Dubowski '92 has no difficulty reeling off a list of once derogatory terms used to describe some gays and lesbians, from "salsa sisters" to the "S&M community." He says that he can't think of any word that would insult him--not now.

But no single term is approved by all.

"It's kind of strange because it depends on who uses it," says Virginia C. Ravenscroft '92. "A lot of people who are really against gay rights use the term and so that tends to make it unpleasant," she says.

Ravenscroft, who describes herself as a lesbian, says she likes the word "queer," opposes "homosexual," but on the whole, doesn't worry about it too much.

"I'm not as picky as I think some people are," she says.

Woman: Spell it with a Y

While gays, lesbians and bisexuals are attempting to reclaim former insults and turn them into symbols of pride, other groups are adopting new words--and even new spellings of existing words--to describe themselves.

Several women feel that they need to take the syllables "man" and "men" out of their name. Their solution? They spell "woman" w-o-m-y-n, using w-i-m-m-i-n for the plural form.

Dunster House residents Davida F. McDonald '92 and Bridget C. Asay '92 both make no secret of their preference for the alternate spelling.

"Please leave a message for these women--that's w-i-m-m-i-n to you!" proclaims their answering machine message.

"Everyday we are bombarded with images of the superior man, of the ruling man," McDonald says, "So we just take a step to knock down this image of the ruling man and just take it out of our word."

"We're trying to define women as separate," says Asay.

Both Asay and McDonald say they tell their friends and acquaintances about how they feel, but say that the spelling question is relatively minor, compared to the other issues facing women today.

And the two acknowledge that there are definite limits to their use of the alternate spellings. They both say that they would not bother trying to hand in an academic paper using the word "womyn."

"Professors would not know what I was talking about and would think it was a spelling error," Asay explains.

But even in academic writing, gender-oriented linguistic reforms are beginning to appear more frequently. Asay and McDonald say that they now use "she" as an indefinite pronoun in their papers.

"We're all humans so we should all be included," says Jessica S. Yellin '93, who also uses the feminine pronoun.

Advocates of the "gender-inclusive" trend say it is not confined to feminists and their supporters, although they acknowledge that they are a small minority. Most people aren't bothered by the change, Asay says, but a few are threatened by it.

"When you say something like changing the way you spell women for a political reason, people get threatened for reasons that have nothing to do with grammar," says Asay. "It's a much deeper problem than that."

When labelled groups select a term to describe themselves, they are asserting a kind of self-control, Asay says. "That's challenging the power structure."

`Minorities' No More

Ethnic minorities also exercise this power when they choose a name for themselves.

Ever since the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson called for "African American" to replace "Black" for persons of African descent, the new term has become increasingly prominent nationwide.

McDonald, who describes herself as African-American, says that the distinction is important because it conveys a sense of heritage and culture.

"It's an example of people redefining themselves," McDonald says.

But there are some who avoid the term studiously.

"I always describe myself as Black because I don't really identify with Africa," says Shataia L. Brown '94.

On the other hand, she says that she is not particularly attached to the older term, explaining that when she was younger she "thought it was stupid because that wasn't actually my skin color."

Like "Black," the word "Hispanic"--currently used by government agencies to describe almost anyone who speaks Spanish--is coming under fire from those who say the term is too vague.

"Hispanics," they explain, can be people who have lived in the United States all their lives. Or they can be recent arrivals from Nicaragua. Their ancestors may have hailed from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Spain or any one of a number of places around the globe.

"If you are talking about generic terms it's all right, but I would never describe myself as Hispanic," says Hilda M. Alexander '90-'91, who is a Mexican national.

Because the term is so broad, many so-called "Hispanics" choose to describe themselves with names that are more appropriate to their specific backgrounds. Individuals of Mexican descent, for example, call themselves "Chicanos," while those from a Latin American background often favor the term "Latino."

But these terms also have their critics, who say that they don't like the extra connotations they carry. "Chicano," for example, is often associated with a radical political movement of the 1970s.

John J. Gomez '91 says he was brought up in a conservative neighborhood where the term was frowned upon. His parents also criticized "Chicano" because it sounded too much like "chicanery."

"I never liked the word `Chicano' because it sounds derogatory," Gomez says.

Geography also has a lot to do with the words that people use, says Carlos R. Perez '91. Persons of Mexican descent in Texas tend to dislike "Chicanos," but California is full of them, he explains.

"Usually people don't call themselves `Chicano' unless they know about the movement," Perez says.

Students whose ancestry is a little more complex often have a little more trouble describing themselves. Luis R. Rodriguez '94, the president of the Freshman Black Table, calls himself a Black Hispanic. A native of the Dominican Republic, Rodriguez says he prefers to be specific.

"You have to know what you are talking about," he says.

Most ethnic groups say they prefer to be described simply by their place of origin. Individuals of Asian descent, for example, are lobbying against the term "Oriental," which they say conjures up inaccurate images of exotic locales. "Asian" or "Asian American," they say, accurately describes their background.

"Native Americans" are waging a similar campaign against the word "Indian," which is associated with cowboys and the Wild West and has nothing to do with their actual origin.

Even the term "minority" now has its critics, who say that the word forces individuals to be judged by the "majority" standards. Many of them also note that the majority of the world's population is made up of so-called "minorities."

"People of color," is now the term of choice for many of these onetime "minorities."

"I don't like the term `minorities' just because it's false," says McDonald.

But even as participants in these debates thrash terms around, most acknowledge that no blanket name will be perfect. Every name encounters resistance at some point.

Brown says that at times, she simply wants to give up on the idea of assigning names to groups, but that ultimately, people want to have labels.

"The whole concept of classifying and categorizing people can be hurtful," she says.

"I'd rather not classify at all," Brown says. "But a person sometimes doesn't have a choice."

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