Queering words: a field guide (part 2)

Hello. Last time I discussed the two basic rules for approaching the language used by the queer people in your life, which can be boiled down to don’t be a douche, but sometimes we say things that seem reasonable to us without understanding that they’re not-so-reasonable to the audience. After all, empathy, sensitivity and respect aren’t exactly qualities prized in Western society, and privilege makes it hard to develop these traits with regard to minorities. How does one be a genuinely empathic person if one doesn’t have some experience of pain and suffering? How does one relate to that pain if it is only an abstract concept?

I think this is why so many allies complain about misandry, reverse racism, heterophobia, cisphobia and other such reverse/anti isms coming from minorities. Think about it. If you haven’t been hurt, if you live in a society where you are privileged and prioritised, having somebody call you a cracker or a fucking cishet is probably going to feel like a hit to the face. Of course, there’s no systematic oppression behind those words, nothing but a tired, frustrated and hurting minority voicing their pain, but when one has no or little experience of pain, when society is set up to tell you that you are amazing, special and deserving of having every fucking book written about you, it probably feels like oppression. Imagine a spoiled rich kid getting a shock because his parents tell him he can’t have a new iPad after he threw the old one on the kitchen table and cracked the screen. We, who are not rich, just roll our eyes. Allies who don’t share the minority status in question are that rich kid. We minorities know it’s nothing like the knowledge of waking up in the morning knowing that people loathe you so much they deny you basic human rights, a scratch compared to a broken nose, but allies don’t. In my experience, the best queer allies are those who have hard-earned knowledge of oppression in other ways (my friends who understand chronic health problems, mental illness and misogyny, for example). They are the most able to put themselves into my shoes and do what they can to make life as easy as possible for me.

If you know little about suffering yourself? If you have few points from which to begin building your sense of empathy? You get points for admitting your ignorance (something else not prized in Western society), but that is just the beginning. You read, my dear. Read books and blogs by minorities about minorities. Read for the little details in what they say about their experiences. Read the pieces that are steeped in frustration and annoyance, even if (especially if) it makes you uncomfortable. Read the posts that end up in a long derail about fucking sane people who fucking tell me my depression makes my unhappy feelings on any given process invalid and therefore they’ll disregard everything I say as the ramblings of a crazy person. Read the posts where the poster is breaking down in tears because they misgendered themself in dialogue and feel like absolute shit over it. Read the posts about word definitions, word usage among communities and individuals; read the posts about our triumphs and our grief. Many of us are furious, eloquent, beautiful, amazing creatives (how else do we make sense out of the pain we suffer, other than to make art with such meaning?) and we are paving the internet with our stories. Read.

Today, I want to discuss queering grammar.

I’ve touched on this a little with my pronouns essay. However, I inevitably run into well-meaning, even educated allies who seem to think that ‘transgenders’ and ‘non-binaries’ are legitimate words and use them in well-meaning, legitimate dialogue. This tells me we have two problems. Queer people who say that these words are nonsense aren’t being heard, which confounds me because at least once a week on blogs like LGBT Laughs there are posts where we queers laugh at cishets mangling our words – never mind all the queer secrets, rants, submissions and safe-space blogs on Tumblr where queer people discuss cishets and the things they say/do. (There are too many to even begin to list, honestly.) I don’t think there’s much I can do about that other than add my voice to the chorus. The other problem, though, is that I don’t think cishets understand why their word usage is ridiculous, which means they’re not understanding their grammatical function in a sentence. This, as someone with editorial experience and education, is something I might be able to rectify (although I also have the problem of not being heard).

When cishets call me ‘a non-binary’, they’re not just showing a hilarious failure to grasp the grammatical function of that term. They’re not just showing the hilarious results of a high-school English education that shifted from grammar and construction to comprehension. (I’m well aware that my grammar is only as good as it is because I studied Japanese as a second language in high school, read anything that stands still long enough and spent two years learning how to English from expert writers. Yes, that’s a joke.) They are causing me harm. They are, in a world that continually refers to me with the wrong words and turns a blind eye to the pain that causes me, contributing to that agony of not being taken seriously (the lack of empathy and respect). They are showing their ignorance. If you think it’s safe to smile and say ‘Actually, transgender is an adjective, not a noun’, you’ve showing your privilege. Sure, some people apologise, but an awful lot of people tell me they’re trying, or it’s close enough, or nod and make no effort at all. Some people object to the correction.

This is where we need our allies, in fact, to stand up and correct the people around them. This is where we need allies to take on the mission of finding out how to use our words correctly. This is where you can do something positive and vital to make our lives a little bit easier.

So.

Again, I have a rule (at least for English speakers):

Queer terms can be treated as adjectives.

Trust me. It’s a whole lot easier than deciding whether or not they’re appropriate to use as nouns.

Even nouns like ‘lesbian’ function just fine as adjectives. When you use ‘transgender’, ‘non-binary’, ‘gay’ or ‘asexual’ (among others) as adjectives, you don’t have to conjugate, change or modify them to make them work in a sentence. If you are in doubt as to whether or not a word is a noun and an adjective (‘queer’, for example, is widely used by queer people in both its adjective and noun formats; most other queer words are also regularly used as nouns, albeit more often by cishets) chances are high that you can pick the adjective form and still create a grammatically correct, socially-considerate sentence. Even better, you can use them just as they are without thinking about whether you need to add an ‘s’ or an ‘ed’ on the end. No confusion or second-guessing!

The rule is simple: just add ‘person’ to your sentence. These words all work correctly with words (nouns) like ‘person’, ‘people’, ‘folk’, ‘human being’, ‘boy’, ‘girl’, ‘woman’ or ‘man’. I like ‘person’ because it doesn’t define anyone’s gender, but you may want to define someone’s gender, in which case ‘man’ or ‘woman’ apply.

I am a queer, non-binary, pansexual person.

(Or: she is a sexy transgender woman. He is a fabulous asexual dude. They are a genderless, pansexual zombie. Ze is a genderfucking mage.)

Shall we break this shit down?

‘I’ is the subject of the sentence, the pronoun or noun whom the sentence is about. Everybody knows this; most of us just don’t think about it.

‘Am’ is the verb, the doing word. Again, you know this, and you don’t need to think about it. In this sentence, it’s telling the speaker that I exist. Nothing particularly exciting, and fairly implicit, but still grammatically essential.

‘A’ is an indefinite article, itself an adjective (specifying which person). This you probably don’t need to know, unless you’re really into grammar. You know by instinct when to use ‘a’, ‘an’ or ‘the’. It’s the difference between ‘do you want an apple?’ and ‘do you want the apple/s?’. The first sentence implies there’s many apples (or queer people) as potential objects but we’re concerned with one; the second implies, at least in that situation, that there’s only one specific object we’re concerned with – or we’re concerned with, if there are many objects, all of them.

‘Queer, non-binary, pansexual’ are adjectives. Adjectives modify nouns and pronouns. Right now, they are, along with our ‘a’ (which deals in number/specificity), specifying/defining which kind of person I am. ‘Person’ doesn’t say anything interesting about me, so we jazz it up with other words, adjectives that add extra meaning to our nouns: ‘I am a tall, sexy, green person.’ If you’re ever confused about what is and isn’t an adjective, there’s a simple test. Pick basic words you know are adjectives – red, blue, hot, cold, happy, sad – and swap them in a sentence. ‘I am happy’ becomes ‘I am pansexual’ easily enough, because they’re both adjectives. It doesn’t become ‘I am depression’ (although I surely feel that way right now) because depression is a noun.

(And this is why the casual saying of I am totally OCD is grammatically incorrect as well as offensive, by the by. People are not their diagnosis. People have their diagnosis. And if you’re saying this without an OCD diagnosis or the possession of traits belonging to said diagnosis, please knock it off. We don’t need mental illnesses trivialised.)

‘Person’ is a noun. It’s a thing, a position or a concept: beach, summer, happiness, depression, weather, vampires, cat, queen. It can be singular (zombie) or plural (zombies). Nouns are useful words for specifying what something is, but sometimes they need a little help, which comes in the form of adjectives (which narrow down or define broad nouns like ‘person’ into something closer to the kind of person I happen to be).

To use an adjective in a sentence like this, you don’t need to change or modify the word. They aren’t verbs, which take a few forms (singular and plural, past and present). They aren’t nouns, which often have singular and plural forms. You need to do exactly nothing but follow it with any of the nouns I’ve mentioned above.

Now. What if you can’t or don’t want to add ‘person’ to your sentence?

Fair question. ‘Person’ is a clunky word, after all. It doesn’t actually add much if you’ve got a specific subject in mind. Not a worry, though! We have a sentence structure for that, too: Ze is queer.

Yes, that’s the same structure. We have our subject, the pronoun ‘ze’. We have our verb, the linking verb ‘is’. We have our adjective, ‘queer’. The trick here is that ‘is’ (or ‘are’ if we’re using formerly-plural pronouns in the singular like ‘they’ and ‘you’) in this instance is a linking verb, which basically means it connects the subject, ze, to the adjective, queer. The adjective modifies the subject (which is a pronoun or noun, of course). It functions slightly differently to the way we use other verbs (I know, English is inconsistent). ‘Is’ isn’t always a linking verb, either. However, it is perfectly appropriate to construct a sentence consisting of a noun or pronoun, a linking verb (is/are/was/were) and an adjective (queer, green, angry).

Again, we can test to see if a sentence is of a linking verb construction: ze is mountain is obviously wrong because ‘mountain’ is a noun. Ze is yellow is totally fine, because ‘yellow’ describes the subject ‘ze’.

To test this, take an adjective – I like using colours for maximum ridiculousness – and try casting it in sentences where we usually use verbs or nouns (or people mistakenly use adjectives as verbs, in the case of the first example). ‘She is purpled’? Looks ridiculous, right? Nevertheless, if I had a dollar for every time I read or heard someone describe trans people as ‘transgendered’ as if the word is a verb and needs must be used in the past participle – she is transgendered –  I could afford to put all my books online for free. Likewise, the construct whereby transgender becomes a noun – [a] transgender/transgenders – looks ridiculous with the word swap: ‘She is a purple’? ‘They are purples’?

Queer words aren’t complicated. If you treat them as adjectives, you don’t have to change anything.

But, you say! But some of them are used as nouns!

Yes! They are. (And they still don’t require the ‘ed’ ending, unless you’re using them as a verb: They queered grammar. Unless you know what you’re doing with both sentence structure and queer terminology, don’t do this.)

Here’s the crux: using queer words as nouns is similar to the effect of not using person-first language with regards people with disabilities. Yes, that’s a link to links and PDFs about person-first language in disability, but understanding the theory will help your communication in general. (By the by, if you call me ‘a depressive’ I will fucking end you.) When you’re referring to a queer person as a queer, you’re defining them by that queerness (and not any of the other things they may embody that might be far more relevant to the discussion). You think I want to be pointed out as ‘the queer’ in a classroom about fiction writing? The queer in question might be just fine with it (or fine with it coming from certain people), but when you’re referring to queer people in general, as someone not of the community, you’re going to tread on far fewer toes if you use queer words as adjectives. It follows the same concept of treating our identities as aspects of/modifiers to our personhood as opposed to defining us solely (which words like ‘an asexual’, ‘the transgender’ or ‘a bisexual’ do). There is no danger in using our words as adjectives. None.

(Remember, too, that noun-usages like ‘the transgender’ and ‘a queer’ or ‘a bisexual’ have a long history of being spoken by cishets as a prelude to trans/homo/biphobia. ‘The gays’ is most often said by homophobes. I’m sure that you might not mean these usages to sound awful, but the fact is that when you use them, you’re using a phrasing that has caused harm to queer people, and if you want to be an ally who both doesn’t cause harm to the people you support and takes your job of educating seriously, you need to think about how comfortable the community in question is with your words. I don’t appreciate being called ‘a non-binary’ by people who are supposed to be supporting me, not when I feel othered and pathologised by that usage. I’m not a non-binary. I’m non-binary. It is an umbrella adjective used to describe my approach to my gender, not a noun.)

As I said last time, this is inconsistent. Individuals tend to use words as they prefer. Plenty of us use many of these words as nouns. ‘Lesbian’ is a noun (although I would recommend the phrase ‘queer women’ for general usage of things relating to queer ladies because bi and pan women deserve to be included) because of its etymology. I am a queer. Cishets, though, have no way of knowing which word is fine and which is going to offend, so why even worry about it when you can just treat our words as adjectives and ask any preferences in usage of the individuals in question?

I know. Queer words are strange words. They’re not used in the mainstream world. We’re not used to reading them; we’re not used to using them. This brings us up short … but it shouldn’t. There are so many blogs out there who use queer language. There are books packed full of queer words. If you are stumbling over queer words, you might be betraying a lack of understanding about grammar, but you’re also betraying the simple fact that you haven’t read enough about us to know how we speak. If you are the kind of ally who fights for us, who writes about us, who takes up our dialogue, you owe us the basic human decency of getting our words right. How can you be an ally if you can’t manage our language? Please. Go and read some more. Read until you get it right. Spend time in our worlds listening to our voices. Not the worlds of those who talk about or educate others about us but are not us: our worlds. Learn the subtleties of our language. Yes, we have no real consistency, and what is and isn’t acceptable even within the community changes all the time (as we learn more about the harm our words can do to the most vulnerable in our community), but even that isn’t a problem as long as you’re willing to keep on reading, listening and learning. It’s not as though mainstream language doesn’t evolve at the drop of a hat, so why should ours be any different?

I’ll be honest. I’m damn tired of ‘transgendered’ or ‘a transgender’. Seeing ‘a non-binary’ (without ‘person’ to follow) written in the posts of someone who genuinely wants to help and educate others about my experience of gender makes me want to curl up and cry.

Please stop hurting us.

 

(And because this is a grammar post, there will be some inevitable, horrific mistake. That doesn’t invalidate what I have to say any more than it does my skill: we editors know that there will always be that one awful mistake. Such is life.)

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