Comics / Spotlight / Queer Comics

Challenging LGBT Classifications

By Hervé St-Louis
February 17, 2013 - 12:37

Fellow ComicBookBin J. Skyler wrote a comprehensive guide on how to write and describe lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities for journalists. This article was written, first for the staff of ComicBookBin but editors suggested that it be shared to everyone who would stumble upon it. I think Skyler’s article is important but I want to challenge it a bit. Here’s why. I’ve repeated it a few times, but I’m pursuing my PhD in information studies at the Faculty of Information (iSchool) at the University of Toronto, Canada. Part of my first year’s study regiment includes a commensurate amount of philosophy and rhetorical training. I’ve decided to regularly challenge articles written by ComicBookBin writers to push them to revisit their views and opinions. Skyler’s work is impressive and important, but I don’t agree with everything she wrote.

I’m going to use an information studies framework to look into Skyler’s “How to Write Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues: A Guide.” What underscores Skyler’s article is a debate about classification. Classification is important in philosophy. It’s been discussed by philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato, Immanuel Kant, Pascal Descartes, David Hume, Thomas Hobbes, and recently Émile Durkheim and Michel Foucault. Classification exists in fields ranging from physics and chemistry to the arts, comics and music. Classification as perceived by many current thinkers, is seen as a construct built by humans. That is, classification does not really exist in nature. For example, what for a long time was deemed the purest form of classification, the table of elements, where Krypton occupies the atomic number 36 and is labelled with the symbol Kr is also a construct. How so? Well, elements can be classified by their atomic numbers, as in the case of Krypton but also their magnetism or lack of magnetism. They can be described by their acidity or alkalinity. Elements can also be described as their states, such as gas, liquid or solid. Hence, arguing that the atomic numbering is the essential way to describe elements can easily be countered. Arguing that atomic numbering is the preferred classification system of elements provides a lot of information on who is making the claim and how they set their preferences over other classifications constructs.

Hence, when Skyler tells readers and writers at ComicBookBin that using the word “homosexual” to describe gay men and lesbians, she is performing an act of classification through which the organization and representation of entities’ meaning are ordered along a specific construct of her choice. Skyler tells us that the usage of the term “homosexual” is the equivalent of using a term such a “coloured” to describe non whites in the United States. She writes that it is a dated concept that arks back to the clinical description of homosexuality as a mental impairment before the 1960s by psychologists and other health practitioners. Skyler, however, does not provide readers with direct quotes from sources other than her as to why the word “homosexual” is wrong to use. Skyler is performing an act of classification whereby older terms, such as homosexuals are replaced with newer terms she deems acceptable. Her classification is a human construct. It is not an absolute or an essential truth.

Skyler’s classification opposes older classification constructs. It is a direct challenge to the hegemony of certain groups in society. Such a group, heterosexual white men are often deemed the dominant influencers of classification methods that are then challenged by alternative groups. The usage of the word “homosexual” in the literature, by heterosexual white men is also a construct. In that regard, Skyler is completely justified in defeating an older classification construct by favouring one that is fully inclusive of LGBT communities.

However, Skyler’s construct seemed to me too normative and too controlling. If you’ve read ComicBookBin for ten years or know about me personally, you’ll know that I like to poke fun at authority figures and normative stances. I can’t help it. I like to challenge dogma. Skyler introduced her classification method to writers of ComicBookBin because presumably she was annoyed at how we wrote and classified LGBT issues. I am the first one to admit to using the word homosexual to describe gay men in several articles. Before reading Skyler’s notes, I had no clue whatsoever that the word homosexual was even a problem. In fact, I always assumed that the term “gay” was more associated with a specific lifestyle that trapped many men into a specific cultural identity and that the word homosexual freed them of being classified under a cultural construct.

The other reason I was uneasy with Skyler’s classification is because of ComicBookBin’s very culture. At ComicBookBin, writers are encouraged to find their own voices. ComicBookBin is not a left-leaning, rightwing-leaning, mainstream-loving or alternative comics-loving news Website. We cover everything and writers have a level of freedom that they do not have anywhere else. In terms of classification, there are regulations that I have pushed forward, often with little success. But they are based on the usage of proper grammar. For example, I loathe the term DC and strongly encourage writers to use the formal name of the comic publisher DC Comics. I do this because I want to minimize the level of insularity casual readers new to comics will feel. Many comic book news publications routinely use verbiage that is only understandable by hardcore comic book readers. I think this is wrong.

My classification construct is based on using formal terms and the legal designation of firms to minimize friction when readers read news stories at ComicBookBin. There is an element of elitism and populism at the same time. On the elitist side, I prefer proper English. On the populism side, I want to include as many casual comic book enthusiasts in our discussions as possible and minimize the influence of “insiders.”

However, I feel that Skyler’s classification unduly restricts the voice of other writers. Because it is motivated by a need to reverse a dominant discourse, it therefore manifests an objective that may not be shared with other writers at ComicBookBin. At ComicBookBin, we have had writers who were on the extreme left and some who definitely were right of centre. I welcome all of them. Personally, I find the rainbow of terms defined by LGBT too cumbersome and too elastic in its attempt to include everyone and make everybody happy. I will admit that I find placing lesbians before gays a trivial matter. It feels like overbearing political correctness and I don’t like it. ComicBookBin is not about political correctness. It’s about comics. That writers choose to classify terms as suggested by Skyler is something I will leave to each of them to decide. I will not adopt the full range of Skyler’s classification because it’s too heavy to use for me. Also, I am not convinced that terms such as “homosexual” are deemed as derogatory by many gays. It sounds as something that queer theorists debate among each other as opposed to a feeling shared by the gay population at large about the term homosexual being insulting to them. Skyler’s classification has certainly educated me, but I can choose my own classification construct just as Skyler does.

What I am concerned about is using terms that flagrantly insult specific groups. For example, Skyler mentions the terms “faggot, dyke or tranny.” To these terms, I would add Negros, Paki, Wop, Chink, honky, Jap.” Were a ComicBookBin writer to use these terms outside of a historical or critical analysis context, I would definitely feel uncomfortable and would denounce it.

One of my biggest criticisms of Skyler’s article is that it talks down on people instead of including them in the discourse. We have a lecturer lecturing readers about what is acceptable language and what is not. The rebel in me right away flared up with what I deem a patronizing language. Skyler’s classification did not include groups which were not part of the LGBT in the discussion. In a weird way they were excluded from the discourse and became the other which Skyler has tried to deflate.

How we classify entities is important because that language influences every other subsequent actions. For example, the concept of race in the United States is an important and broken construct where skin colour has little to do with the genetic makeup and differences between specific groups. For example, blood types run across all human-created racial groups. Where one race starts and where it ends is often difficult to determine. Many “whites” in the United States have more African genes than “blacks.” I would argue that a classification construct where the term “queer” replaced all of the “LGBT” spectrum would probably be more useful as all encompassing class and that specific terms could be used to address specific groups. Competing class constructs have to show they are better than the constructs they replace. I find that LGBT and the specific placement of specific terms such as placing lesbians before gays, as part of a feminist discourse is of no interest to many people. Why not, place transgender individuals and bisexuals before lesbians and gays? Both classes are non-gender specific and the most vulnerable and little researched entities of the four classes. I’m not trying to insult anyone, but why not use the term TBLG instead of LGBT?

Classification is often about power relationships and the creation of hierarchies. Some classification constructs preserve a tree approach, where different classes are parallel to one another. However, traditionally, classifications organize classes into a hierarchy. For example, fishes are below amphibians that are below reptiles that are below birds that are below mammals. Within mammals, humans are often put at the top of the hierarchy. Within humans, gender, race, age, religion or sexual identity have been used to classify classes against one another. For example, men in many traditions are seen as superior to women. Europeans are often seen as “better” than Africans. Religions exclude groups from other religions as the other. Heterosexuals, as Skyler described are seen as the norm, while anything else is seen as the other.

However, classification is often about the nodes and the connections that unite different classes and what they have in common. Perhaps because of my very limited familiarity with the LGBT studies and queer theory, I find Skyler’s suggestions constraining and overbearing. As the publisher of ComicBookBin, I wanted Skyler to tell her side of the story but I don’t want her side of the story to become the official guideline of writers because for one thing, I personally disagree with its prescriptive nature. I felt that if I did not write this response to Skyler’s article, that it would become the new dogma here. I don’t like dogma but I understand that very few writers would ever share their feeling here for fear of offending Skyler who is an authority in her field. At the same time, Skyler may have felt that she was tricked into writing this article only to have me criticize her afterwards. There’s a possibility that Skyler did not think she would be challenged so soon. Perhaps if she expected that, she would not have written this article.

Nevertheless, Skyler’s article is important in setting the discourse on LGBT topics. She is the dedicated columnist on that area at ComicBookBin. Because I’m the founding publisher of ComicBookBin, even if I don’t want to use that power, writing this article, I directly challenge Skyler’s take on LGBT issues and she cannot ignore this. I want my own contribution to this discourse to matter as well, because I come from a different perspective than Skyler. As I’ve written several times above, I do not share her vision on everything she wrote and part of what defines me as a person, is how I poke at dogmas wherever and whenever I can. As a PhD student, that streak has been encouraged even more by my peers in academia.

These two articles are important to the world of comics, in light of DC Comics’ decision to retain the services of writer Orson Scott Card as the writer of the Adventures of Superman. Scott Card has been a vocal critic and genuine gay-basher for decades. Although DC Comics may want to pretend that his politics are his personal business, Scott Card has been very public in his support of anti-gay organizations and very blunt in his attacks on gays and gay issues. Scott Card has his own constructs that classify gays negatively.  The belief that Scott Card can be objective in his duties as a writer of a purely qualitative phenomenon such as comics is ludicrous as stated by DC Comics. DC Comics, another ComicBookBin writer reminded me, has a sketchy history with minorities already and should perhaps strive to distance itself from the perception that it’s anything but an old boys' network. Were DC Comics a paragon of inclusiveness and openness on all issues such as race and sexuality, inviting Scott Card to write for its most important character, Superman would only solidify the liberal openness of the organization. But DC Comics is anything but a paragon of tolerance and openness. It tries to be, but use checkered steps to open its comics to other populations. Were Scott Card bashing another group such as blacks or Jews, he would never have been hired by DC Comics.

Last Updated: April 9, 2021 - 22:22

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