“Openly Gay Woman” vs. “Openly Lesbian”

According to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a political group that supports LGBT candidates, there are currently at least 445 openly LGBT people holding elected office in the United States, up from 257 eight years ago.

That stat is from an article in The New York Times about the “trend” of openly LGBT candidates increasingly winning elections nationwide despite the fact that marriage for same-sex couples has been mostly opposed at the voting booth:

Some political scientists say the rise in openly gay candidates’ winning public office is a better barometer of societal attitudes than are the high-profile fights over same-sex marriage.

“Gay marriage ballot measures are not the best measure,” said Patrick J. Egan, a political scientist at New York University who studies issues surrounding gay politicians. “They happen to be about the one issue the public is most uncomfortable with. In a sense, they don’t give us a real good picture of the opinion trend over the last 30 years.”

The article cites the election of openly lesbian Annise Parker as mayor of Houston as the highest profile example of the trend:

HOUSTON — When an openly gay woman won the mayor’s race here this month, it was the latest in a string of victories by gay candidates across the country … Yet in the last decade, an openly gay woman has twice won election as the sheriff in Dallas County, and another openly gay woman was elected district attorney in Travis County, which includes the city of Austin.

I couldn’t help but focus on the phrase “openly gay woman” used repeatedly, especially in contrast to this description of Parker:

Then, this month, Annise Parker, the city controller who is a lesbian, swept to a solid victory in the mayoral race in Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city.

Although alluded to as an “openly gay woman” in the opening line of the article, “who is a lesbian” was the phrase used when Parker was first referenced by name. The phrase “openly lesbian” was never used.

Use of the phrase “openly gay woman” versus “openly lesbian” is not explicitly addressed by the NLGJA stylebook supplement, but the phrase “openly lesbian” is the only one used.

I’m openly gay. I would describe myself that way and I would prefer that others describe me that way. Parker is openly lesbian. I don’t know how she would describe herself or how she would prefer that others describe her.

However, I do know that many women who are openly lesbian would not prefer to be described as openly gay women, notwithstanding Ellen’s 1997 Time “Yep, I’m Gay” cover.

Using “openly gay woman” directly implies the word “gay” as the catch-all phrase to describe LGBT people. Once upon a time that was certainly true, but it hasn’t been universally true for quite some time.

I’d be curious to hear comments from all of our readers on the use of either phrase, but I’m especially interested in hearing from our lesbian readers!

(P.S. Although it also contains the phrase “sexual preference” followed by the phrase “sexual orientation” three paragraphs later, the article was generally well written.)


5 Responses

  1. Why do we even need the word “openly”? If we’re writing a story about someone who is gay or lesbian, then it seems pretty open to me.

    There ARE people we know are gay who aren’t really open. But we just don’t write about their sexuality, right?

    We don’t say the not-very-openly gay Anderson Cooper. So why say the openly lesbian Annise Parker?

    And btw, you can just call me lesbian.

  2. I disagree with the sweeping assertion that “Using ‘openly gay woman’ directly implies the word ‘gay’ as the catch-all phrase to describe LGBT people.”

    It implies that it covers both gay men and lesbians (hence the need to specify “gay *men*” since the gender would otherwise be unclear).

    I know women who prefer “gay woman” for reasons they defend clearly and forcefully, just as I know women who prefer “lesbian,” “queer” or no label whatsoever.

  3. Until everyone is out and until we stop having “firsts,” there is going to be a distinction between “first openly gay” and everything else. Arguably NYC has already had a gay mayor–in the 1980s–he just wasn’t openly gay. There are gay members of the U.S. Senate, they just aren’t openly gay.

    • good point on the firsts. but by using ‘openly gay’ are we implying Houston had a gay or lesbian mayor before but he or she just wasn’t open? or are we just leaving that option open?
      when do we get to drop ‘openly’? when Houston elects a second gay mayor?

  4. Oriol – You might be interested to know that a substantial share of lesbians prefer the term “gay woman” to describe themselves. In a survey my colleagues Murray Edelman, Ken Sherrill, and I conducted with a nationally representative sample of LGBs in 2007, about one-quarter of U.S. lesbians said their preferred term “gay woman” to “lesbian.” More details here: http://www.nyu.edu/public.affairs/pdf/hunter_college_poll_report_complete.pdf (see box on page 11).

    In academic writing, I have found the need to balance the goals of inclusiveness and readability. This usually requires using terms like “LGBT,” “gay and lesbian,” and the catch-all term “gay” somewhat interchangeably.

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