Queering words: a field guide (part 1)

Nothing in these posts is in any way new.

However, I’ve had a few interactions with well-intended cishet allies who have missed the finer details on queer, trans and non-binary language terms and their use, so these words aren’t being said loudly enough to penetrate even those who are open to hearing us. Also, as a queer, non-binary person with editing experience, there may be something I can bring to the dialogue, I hope, that explains why we use our words the way we do.

For once, I’m speaking directly to allies on this post. Most of the time you’re incidental to the dialogue, or I’m talking about you, not to you: I’m talking ‘to you’ in the same kind of rhetorical, laden-with-frustration way I go about much of my dialogue about my experiences. However, I seem to have amassed a collection of cishet ally readers, so this one is for you, because my words matter and because I believe – or hope – my words matter to you.

This post isn’t about definitions (a lack of universality in terms means I’m very uncomfortable writing about definitions) as it is grammar and usage, although I’ll say it straight up: ‘cis’ and ‘cishet’ are not slurs, and I am never open to debate on this.

They are adjectives, often used as nouns, by queer people to describe heterosexual cisgender (not LGBP, not trans) people. (Think how straight people often refer to ‘gays’ or ‘homosexuals’; ‘cishets’ is used in the same vein.) They are a response to words like ‘normal’ which center cisgender heterosexuality and imply our abnormality as deviants from that standard. The only context ‘cishet’ carries is that of history: cishets have oppressed, murdered, raped, imprisoned, delegitimised and silenced queer people for centuries. These crimes still often go unquestioned and unpunished. I’m a queer person in Australia in 2014, and I have still been in situations where the comfort and happiness of someone who speaks homophobia was prioritised over my right to a homophobia-free workplace. I have had people tell me to my face that my pronouns are too difficult to remember and I am asking too much to have them respected. My gender has no legal status or protection. If ‘cishet’ sounds like ‘oppressor’ when I speak it aloud, that is solely due to the weight of history shaping every interaction between queers and cishets. To even imply that these words are slurs is to deny that history and take away our right to name who we are and who we aren’t – it’s not as though, after all, that many of the words queer folk use aren’t reclaimed slurs or technical/academic/diagnostic words, given to us by cishets. I think it’s right and fair that we get to name you in return.

If you can’t deal with this, please try to remember that we only call you ‘cishet’. You called us ‘queer’: strange, different, other, abnormal. The fact that I reclaim it – the fact that I take pride in being strange, different, other and abnormal – doesn’t change the connotation, not when that perceived otherness is still used to deny us basic human rights.

This post, which is long enough that I’m barely going to touch on grammar this time around, looks at the two rules I think vital for any discussion of words and word usage.

Rule one: there is no such thing as universal queer languages, terms or pronouns.

Let go the need for this, please.

Queer experience, while it follows much of the lived reality of being an oppressed minority, in fact involves an intensely personal, individualistic relationship to the words we use. My feelings on singular ‘they’ and why it speaks to me are going to be quite different from those of other queer folk who use those same pronouns. I know, coming from a binary cishet background where words have singular meanings and usages, that this is confusing. As a baby non-binary queer writer, it frustrated me that there was no universal gender-neutral pronoun set in English – how was I to write non-binary/genderqueer characters without one? How were people to accept these words as real and valid without a universal term everyone can (magically) adopt and integrate into spoken and written English?

(I do think accepted gender-neutral pronouns are a requirement in the sense that it’s a step towards legitimising non-binary identities as long as we don’t force non-binary people to conform to universal pronouns, but I also think the debate over the need for one distracts from the truth that we already have one serviceable pronoun with grammatical precedent and a history of use, if we pretend that the ze/hir and derivatives set isn’t in common use online: singular they. Resistance to this usage in formal and written communication, when it is already in common usage, is simply using ‘grammar’ as an excuse to deny inclusion to non-binary people. As a non-binary writer/editor, I abhor the fact that my passion is used and accepted as a reasonable justification to erase my existence. I have no patience for this. It is a viciously binary form of transphobia.)

The fact is that this need for universally-accepted-and-defined terms denies the functionality and legitimacy of the words we have right now. (And, in the case of pronouns, there are many.) It denies our right to choose them. It denies the validity of our choices when we do. If I stand back and wait for the right words, I am silenced. Crooked Words would not exist. My novel project would not exist. Who am I, anyway, to dictate a universal pronoun set or term when the queer experience – especially the genderqueer/non-binary experience – is about stretching the limits of binary (so-called universal, in actuality Western) understandings of gender and the world? Are universal terms not the antithesis of what it means to be queer?

Quite honestly, I consider any complaints about too many words (because we have a glorious, wondrous, ever-expanding collection of them) or no consensus in meaning to be petty: are you seriously trying to say that you’re unable to ask someone their preferred terms and remember them?

(Personally, I think it would be a sad, limiting, stifling thing to be cishet and never have the powerful experience of choosing one’s name, words and pronouns. One thing to look at the choices and decide one is cis and find power and beauty in that, of course, but to never explore gender? To deny others the chance to express who they are and the experience in finding the right word to suit? There is something petty and broken in that. It may be condescending, but I feel sorry for those sorts of cishets, so pressured into sex and gender conformity they are threatened by expressiveness in others. That doesn’t excuse the violence they wreck on innocent people – responding to fear by limiting others is a monstrous action – but I do feel sorry for them. I am broken at times, but I am not that broken.)

If you’re holding out for universal terms, readily-defined boxes like ‘male’ and ‘female’ and ‘heterosexual’, you are explicitly telling a queer person that their words aren’t real. (Besides which, we know that ‘male’ and ‘female’ are not in fact the narrowly-universal terms society presumes and projects onto people who are male, female and neither.) You are denying me agency. You got to decide, at some point, that the words given you by society fit the person you know yourself to be. Why shouldn’t I have that same freedom to fit other words, just because those words are varied, individualistic and bend mainstream/cishet rules about sexual attraction, gender and language?

Yes, I am asking you, raised in a mindset of universality, to honour and respect my individuality. I know that what I know and feel doesn’t seem quite real to a binary mindset. I know I can’t explain my truth in a logical, rational way. I don’t need you to understand, though. Acceptance doesn’t require understanding. Respect doesn’t require understanding. Just accept. I know you’re capable of it. I know some truly amazing people who don’t understand and still behave, act and speak as though my pronouns matter.

As a case in point, what is the difference between bisexuality and pansexuality? My answer – that pansexuality doesn’t define me, as a person who feels sexual attraction for many kinds of people, by the gender I don’t have, but some of the definitions of bisexuality do assume my gender via attractions of same and other genders, and I’m not comfortable with that – is by no means true for other non-binary people who are bisexual and have that exact same experience of not being defined by gender. I just know that I am pansexual, not bisexual, and I will protest any dialogue that even implies bisexuality and pansexuality are identical and therefore we non-monosexual folk should just pick a single universal term to describe our sexuality and way of being in the world. For someone else these concepts may be identical, but they are not for me, so please stop projecting your need for universal terms onto my lived experience. Bisexual people are bisexual. Pansexual people are pansexual. We may later decide that the other term suits us better, and most of us operate within a definition of both terms that is similar, but we have the right to choose our words … just as a queer woman can decide to be ‘gay’ instead of ‘lesbian’, a non-binary person can be ‘agender’ instead of ‘genderless’ (or one of the many other words non-binary people can select from) or a trans person can feel they are not in any way queer at all.

There is no universality. I find it profoundly, intensely liberating to operate in a world with so much choice.

Rule two: if a queer person asks you to use or not use a word, term or phrase, do so without argument or question (challenge).

(Rule 2a: if a queer person asks you to use or not use a word, term or phrase in a specific way, do so without argument or question.)

Now, don’t get me wrong. Many of us welcome respectful questions that don’t diminish our agency or knowledge. We want to communicate our realities! We writers are bursting to bring people into our worlds! I wouldn’t be writing a blog, never mind fiction, if that were not the case. Why did you choose singular they over ze/hir or Spivak pronouns, K. A., if you don’t mind my asking – well, I’ll write you a fucking comment essay, seriously, as a writer and an editor with all the thoughts on pronoun sets and my personal relationship to them. I may not write it straight away, because I do suffer chronic pain, but I will write it, and it will be verbose and reflective. I think Spivak pronouns are better for you than singular they – no, please think again. How can you know what is and isn’t better? You, a cishet (or even a binary trans person, at times), aren’t going to have my history as an openly non-binary writer of non-binary works. You can’t imagine my experiences with workshop audiences with regards pronouns, what kinds of reactions I have endured and what decisions I have made as a result. This question, unlike the first, assumes a position of knowledge that is unearned. It invalidates the wisdom I have gained the hard way. It lacks respect.

I ask this in all seriousness, knowing that the fact I am asked is a marker of privilege: what can you possibly add to the discussion?

(I think any declarations as to the so-called ‘ease of use’ of one pronoun set over another is in fact transphobia and binarycentrism: it is simply disguised as the universal pronoun debate. It is an act of telling me that my words are not correct enough for general usage, and you had better believe that I take offense to this invalidation. Every person will believe one pronoun set or another to be more likely to be accepted by mainstream readers/speakers, and while non-binary people have individual relationships (preferences, a feeling of rightness) to the words we use, cishets’ preferences are just as individualistic. I can assure you, thanks to my experiences with test readers and workshop groups, that if I were to change my pronouns to accommodate every cishet’s opinion on best practice, I would be changing them every single day. I’d be changing them in every single publication I write. I have found no one set that is read or remembered better than any other by cishets or queer folk alike, and every cishet will in fact give me a variety of reasons as to why they think their preferred set should be universal. This is why I have adopted a point-blank position of refusal, both in my pronouns and in the pronouns I use for my non-binary characters, to change the gender-neutral/non-binary pronouns I use for any given character/work. Changing them will not result in a universal or near-universal ease of reading. Ease of reading, however, will be vastly improved by an audience’s willingness to accept multiple pronoun sets … and you will only gain that through reading lots of fiction and non-fiction works using gender-neutral/non-binary pronouns. If Crooked Words is inaccessible to you? Read it three times. Read Melissa Scott’s Shadow Man. Read posts on Captain Awkward. Read non-binary blogs by non-binary bloggers. Read my novel when it should come into being as an actual book. Read until our words become second nature. Read.)

I’m not telling you to not ask questions, although certainly stop to think whether or not your question can be answered by a Google search first. (Questions like what are gender-neutral pronouns, for example, aren’t personal and can be solved through the proper application of a search engine.) I think a lot of us appreciate questions that are individualistic in nature; questions that are general tend to garner resentment and frustration because that information is already extant.

I am telling you to respect a queer person’s thoughts and feelings on the language used to describe and articulate their identity, and questioning isn’t – in the same way explanations aren’t an expression of sympathy – an expression of respect. It’s an expression of privilege.

It’s a failure to be an ally.

It doesn’t matter if other queer folk use that word differently. It doesn’t matter if you think they’re wrong. You, as a rare, awesome ally in this horrible world, need to give us what society at large doesn’t – the right to self-determination. For binary and non-binary trans people in particular, this is all the more important given that our medical and legal identities are defined and determined by people not ourselves. Cishets, most often. If you want to be an ally to us, you need to listen to what we say and use the words we ask you to use how we wish you to use them. Sure, ask politely and respectfully for clarification, but don’t ask with an assumption of knowledge; don’t ask to open up a debate. Just try your hardest to use the right words, however unfamiliar they might be.

Because there are no universal terms, and because most of us use our words in the same way queer folk use different words, and because we have all been subject to an array of different experiences, we’re all going to have a variety of opinions on the words we want used and how we want them to be used. You may have noticed that I call myself a queer (noun). I’m fine with that when it comes from me and other queer speakers; I like how it avoids any statement of gendered words. I want to be somebody’s queerfriend, one day. If cishet folk call me ‘a queer’, ‘a gay’ or ‘a non-binary’, though? Well, that usage had better not be said to my face, because I can’t stand my queerness being rendered as a noun, and it is just as offensive as calling me slurs. (This might be because I’m yet to hear a cishet person refer to ‘the gays’ or ‘the queers’ without something homophobic to follow. ‘Queer people’ isn’t homophobia free, but it’s a far better start.) Other queer folk might be fine with it. I’m not. Is it grammatically inconsistent? Sure. That doesn’t matter. I get to tell you how you use the words to describe me, and I expect you to care about me enough to avoid a usage that hurts and upsets me. Likewise, I often refer to queer people as ‘queers’ in a general sense, but if someone in specific tells me that they also hate this usage in reference to them no matter who says it, I need to stop. Then there are the people who find ‘queer’ too hateful a slur to reclaim and should never be addressed as such. I could go on and on…

If you’re not sure about a usage? Ask. That’s a kind, considerate and respectful act of support. Hey, K. A., do you mind if I call you ‘genderfree’? Awesome. (And not at all.)

It all comes back to something that seems very simple in theory and difficult in execution given our social training and background: we listen to what people have to say about the words they choose, and we use the words as they ask. We don’t comment on or challenge why they ask what they do. We do ask if we are unsure, because we don’t want to hurt anyone by using the wrong words. We try our best to remember. Revolutionary, right? It shouldn’t be, but it is.

I’d like to believe that nothing, in this post, is beyond anybody’s ability to carry out.

Respect, my allies.

(Next post: I want to lay out, as an editor, how queer terms function in terms of grammar and what common usages we need to avoid because they are both offensive and a failure of basic English sentence construction.)

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2 thoughts on “Queering words: a field guide (part 1)

  1. Pingback: Queering words: a field guide (part two) | Queer Without Gender

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