Language as a force for change: 5 developments that have impacted public discourse on gay rights
Language, as an element, is in itself bristling with complexities. Sitting at the intersections of culture and communication, connection and disparity, it shapes the social narrative of lived experiences, determining the accessibility, inclusion and safety of the spaces it occupies.
Sometimes a cultural revolution, public action or research leads to a collective introspection of the language we use to refer to the queer community. Here are five of those moments:
1. The recovery of an insult
Queer, as a label, first emerged as a slur in the Western world in the 1800s-1900s. Later, following several pivotal historical events (Stonewall, AIDs), the term began to be used defiantly. The magazine Outfest was one of the first to break out of these constraints, in the 1980s, choosing to use ‘queer‘ in their language.
Around the same time, queer theory (Teresa de Lauretis, 1991) and intersectionality (Kimberlé Crenshaw, 1989) developed in academic spaces as a way to resist the racist cis-heteronormative forces that otherwise dictated social studies and research.
Through this, queer communities have come to terms with their lost histories and discovered new ground. (It would also be ignorant to write about the queer language and not mention the gay language which was an actual language: Polari) What was once a phobic weapon has therefore turned into an identifier, a safe space, within which the younger generations, in particular, have found a home.
In India, where taboo is prevalent, it is often used as a more subtle and safer word, due to its lesser-known quality, in favor of the full, easily discernible acronym. Yet it perseveres as a symbol of inclusiveness, dynamism and rebellion.
Pronouns are a natural unit of grammar in almost all languages. We use them daily to designate objects and subjects. In English, in both modern and premodern contexts, the singular they/them has always been used to refer to a person whose gender is uncertain.
Linguists have found its use dates back to the 1600s, in medical texts, possibly as a way to represent the dual presence of conventionally binary biological characteristics or intersex people.
Its modern use marks the liberation from conformism. The same set of pronouns undergoes several unique changes to allow everyone to better describe themselves, and that’s the beauty of this one. It helps to explore a facet of gender identity that is so prevalent in our shared everyday existence. The combinations and inventions of neo-pronouns to find meaning highlight the rotating nature of a language, which is exactly what many transphobic people don’t understand.
A language is made to change. Its entire function and existence rests on the dynamic nature of communication. We invent new words all the time, and when someone with a marginalized identity chooses to be identified by a label, now is not the time to pull out those silly, educational, old-fashioned grammar books.
Read also : What are neopronouns? : Understanding the evolutionary scope of gender language and expression
3. Another point on grammar
The same grammar font conveniently forgets its grammar when using an identifying adjective like transgender, as a noun or verb. Either out of ignorance or outright vehemence, people routinely manipulate the languages chosen by others when referring to individuals from queer and trans communities. In this case, language, sometimes unwittingly and unconsciously, or intentionally, can be used to “otherand dehumanize.
Likewise, inclusive terms such as menstruators and people who menstruate need to be further amplified to nullify hate and promote inclusivity.
An unfortunately much-discussed issue in the feminist space has consistently been the inclusion and exclusion of gender non-conforming, non-binary and trans people. When second-wave feminism introduced the word “women‘ to mark the exclusion of ‘Men‘ of the word ‘women’ in order to be more inclusive – they didn’t include all women.
Women is now used by the TERFs, in order to exclude so many women from the language, generally rooted in racist and transphobic grounds. Womanxnwhich emerged as an alternative, was inferred to be counterproductive and still problematic.
Some reject it on the grounds that it was created by cis women to display their wedding ring, others reject it because it can be used transphobically to ‘other‘. At the same time, there are many who prefer this term and choose to identify with it.
Although the label died almost as quickly as it appeared in conversations, it has served as a talking point within the contemporary feminist movement that reveals how supportive or exclusionary our fellow feminists can be. These labels also serve to remind us how one lowercase letter can lead to paradigm shifts in outlook.
5. A Glossary of Queer Terminology
For too long, this movement has been seen as a “western(although there is plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise) – but it is still, sadly, loaded with Eurocentric and colonial ideals. Yet the movement is slowly but surely emerging in the Indian mainstream.
However, what does the prominence of the English language in queer discourse imply about our current positions? Perhaps there is simply a lack of accessibility in communication on an issue that is still taboo in remote areas, where queer English terminology is unlikely to surface.
This introduces the important intersection between English and mother tongues, class and caste, globalization and post-colonialism. Language must be observed across these consequent divides, as not everyone has the resources to communicate their feelings, identity, and perspectives.
Hence, the Tamil Nadu Gazette publication of a reference glossary shows how regional complexities should be brought to light in the movement. For many people, the Tamil word may also be more in sync with their self-perception than an English equivalent, and it is important to recognize and respect this.
By officially recording these linguistic details, exciting and futuristic sociolinguistic research possibilities are opened up, while preserving existing cultural meanings. These sociolinguistic moments that become our story pave the way for a future of binary deconstructing words, breaking down barriers and shattering stigma.
Read also : What are gender pronouns and why should we use them with precision?