Happy Pride Month! This month, we honor the memory the 1969 Stonewall riots, the series of demonstrations that catalyzed the LGBT civil rights movement. As with Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I honestly think we should be celebrating LGBT identities year-round. (And won’t it be cool when we don’t need to have recognition months anymore, because no one is marginalized?) But for now, it can be nice to have a month to remind us to reflect on and recommit to our support for one another. Sort of like a way to hit refresh on respect!
Today, I want to talk briefly about language, specifically the ways that language can empower and disempower people in non-dominant groups. Historically, LGBT communities especially have had to deal with their identities being misrepresented in language. Words are never “just words.” Words convey our thoughts and beliefs; whether we are conscious of it, they betray our values. Reexamining our language and making sure that it truly reflects respect is the first step toward advancing understanding—which, in turn, puts us on a path toward achieving justice.
My personal goal this month is to educate myself on gender and sexuality. I realized that it was a weak point of mine, during a conversation I had last week with my boyfriend’s grandmother, on a humid night in rural Rhode Island.
His grandma asked what exactly “transgender” meant. She acknowledged that in the Deep South, where she grew up, no one talked about gender or sexuality. She wanted to educate herself more on the subject. As I tried to answer her questions, I realized that talking about gender was hard for me. I explained haltingly, having to pause while I searched for the right words.
It’s hard to talk about any kind of marginalization, especially if it’s about group you’re not a part of. The language that we are taught in school was predicated on certain social norms. For example, we’re taught that the only two choices for a singular third-person pronoun are “he” and “she,” implying that you must be one or the other. American English has no word for a gender-neutral third-person pronoun. So people who do not identify on a binary can circumnavigate by adopting “they” as a singular third-person pronoun.
But if you, like many English speakers, didn’t grow up accustomed to using “they” as a singular third-person pronoun, you’ll probably trip up the first few times. That happens! When we challenge the social norms on which language was built (i.e., that there are only male and female genders), we also need to challenge the limits of our language in ways that speakers might not be used to.
The key part, though, is practicing and talking about people the way that they want to be talked about. Adjusting vocabulary is a simple but powerful act of respect. In one of my favorite TED Talks, lesbian political pundit Sally Kohn insists that we replace the vague term “political correctness” with what she calls “emotional correctness”: the way we speak about people should correctly reflect how much we respect them. That is, if you truly respect people of color, Native people, people with disabilities, and LGBT people, then you would to listen to them, understand their concerns, and learn how they want to be referred to. Not so complicated, right? Right!
I’m far from an expert on talking about gender and sexuality, though I’m hoping to get a little bit better this month. If you are not a part of the LGBT community and plan to write about LGBT issues this month, I recommend looking into these resources: For writers, don’t miss GLAAD’s resources on the respectful representation on LGBT people and issues in the media. A friend of mine also recommends this guide from The Radical Copyeditor, specifically about transgender people.
Last but not least: Grandma Halliman, thank you for asking your questions that night at the dinner table. Your compassion and sincerity inspired me to educate myself on the blindspots in my own awareness. I’m really proud to look up to a woman like you!