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Leaving the L-word behind, some gay women opt for 'Gayelle'

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It’s a women’s short-sleeve, heather gray T-shirt, V-neck cut, with the word Gayelle printed in a rainbow of capital letters across the front.

Haven’t seen the shirt, or heard of Gayelle? That may change, as the gay women responsible for the recent linguistic invention continue to spread the word through their apparel and on the Web.

Gayelle, denoting anyone gay and female, is an alternative label for gay women who oppose using the word lesbian to describe their sexuality.

Gayelle’s inventor, Rebecca Benda, didn’t just create the word--she also trademarked it last year, and launched a Web site dedicated to its promotion.

“The choice is yours,” reads Gayelle.org, Benda’s Web site, which offers all gear Gayelle. “Define this decade of the 21st-century with a new word and a new outlook. Go Gayelle!”

Gayelle (pronounced either gay-ELL or gale) is only one indication that a growing number of gay women see the word lesbian as outdated and increasingly derogatory.

“The word lesbian sounds like a disease,” said Julia Goldman, a writer and self-described “queer activist” who lives in New York. “It’s like you’re less than a woman.”

While these objections are not entirely new, they have gained momentum with a younger generation of gay women, eager to control not only their lifestyle, but also their image--and in Benda’s case, the rights to the image.

“I’m not surprised there’s discontent with the word lesbian,” said Sharon Marcus, a Columbia University English professor specializing in sexual theory. “It’s certainly not a word developed by the community that it currently refers to. It’s been around for a long time.”

As a result, some women feel they lost control of the word lesbian, as it has filtered through popular culture into straight men’s imaginations.

“Lesbian evokes this straight male fantasy of two petite blond women, with disproportioned body parts, going at it,” said Nicole Lafreniere, a senior geology major at Waterloo University in Ontario, Canada, and member of the school’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Committee.

“Lesbian is just thrown around a little bit more. It’s not ours anymore," Lafreniere said. "I can see creating a new term that may fit better."

For women who consider themselves transgender--meaning they often identify with certain traditional male characteristics--lesbian might not fit at all.

“Lesbian seems very limited. It's not reflecting what’s out there in trans-culture,” said Davy Knittle, a Wesleyan University freshman who is transgender. “Saying that someone’s a lesbian doesn’t make it clear if they’re attracted to a woman or a biological female."

Some gay women also object to the word because they say it has developed pejorative connotations.

On the Gayelle Web site, Benda wrote: “The word lesbian is so frequently used derogatorily, that to be called a lesbian is almost tantamount to being called an offensive name.”

Thus the emergence of Gayelle, which Benda trademarked, literally taking ownership over her sexual image.

Benda's attorney, Lizbeth Hasse, explained that trademarking a word could advance its common usage.

“Part of it has to do with developing publicity, and putting work into the development of the name,” she said.

Benda, who's from California, did not return numerous requests for comment made through Hasse, so Gayelle.org is the only window to her intentions for the word.

The home page is a snapshot of a galaxy--“the Galaxy of Gayelles”--and contains links to poems and short stories written by “Gayelles.” And then there’s the online shop, selling every conceivable Gayelle product: the T-shirt, dog outfits, stuffed bears, greeting cards, even aprons, all with Gayelle prominently printed on the front.

Despite Gayelle’s marketing drive, lesbian does not appear to be on its way out.

“Most folks identify with lesbian and still find it useful,” said Cindi Creager, director of national news for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, commonly known as GLAAD.

And not everyone has taken to Gayelle, even those who oppose lesbian.

“Gayelle sounds ridiculous,” said Goldman, the writer-activist. “It makes you an offshoot of gay men.

"This is the opposite of what they’re trying to create.”

Gossip blogs and message boards have been discussing Gayelle’s merits recently, with many entries critical of the new word. For some it evokes images of a gazelle prancing through a jungle, or worse, the word’s alternative meaning: cockfighting arena.

These negative reactions might keep Gayelle out of mainstream recognition, or at least the dictionary, according to Erin McKean, editor of the New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd edition.

“The last thing we need is another derogatory term meaning lesbian,” McKean said.

“In short: yes, it's a word. Do I know if it will succeed? No. That's entirely up to the users.”

And those who use gender labels have plenty from which to choose.

Among the words proposed as alternatives to lesbian include queer, once derogatory but recently reclaimed by some; flexual, accounting for the transgender community; and earthling, the original title of the popular Showtime program “The L Word,” and a code word gay women use when identifying other gay women.

Though Gayelle faces competition, and is not yet widespread, that doesn’t mean gay women aren’t open to adopting it.

“I don’t know why they need a new word, but more power to them,” said Abbey Hudson, a Columbia University law student and president of Outlaws, the school’s gay student organization.

“If it starts to be a common word, well then, call me Gayelle.”

E-mail: bpp2106@columbia.edu