Hearts and Minds Remix

A few years ago a local paper asked me to write a piece discussing the status of Domestic Partnership legislation in Oregon.  I was super excited by the opportunity.

I’d been working in the field of GLBT politics for a few years through some really tough times.  And I felt like I had a voice – something interesting to say.  I’d been writing on the topic for a political blog, discussing the ins and outs of what was going on with the legislature, the electorate, and the community.  And I’d been asking questions.

Ah, the questions.

It seems that people don’t always like it when you ask questions.  But I’m rather inquisitive.  And sometimes sarcastic.  In truth, I think the paper wanted me to write a piece, because I’d stirred up some stuff with my questions about the importance of language.

What they got instead was a discussion about the importance of humanity.

GLBT people have great love and compassion in our lives, regardless of how you label it. We would have to in order to keep our relationships intact through things like constitutional amendments and second-class citizenship. When we share that love we truly touch the hearts of others, because we share with them something fundamental—our humanity.

So here’s my question:  How do we move forward, in a context where the lives of GLBTQ people are considered political and language around those lives is measured, weighed and analyzed to such a great extent?  Is it more important that we consider our words carefully, or that we share our lives fully?  Or can we do both and remain authentic?

3 comments

1 Heather the Rev { 06.09.10 at 12:08 pm }

It is certainly possible to do both! When we remain authentic to ourselves and our unique experiences in the world there is an inherent quality of authority in that. It’s when we focus on trying to prove that our viewpoint is the right one or when we begin to try and force others to deny their humanity in order to make ourselves more comfortable, that we shift from loving the other person to trying to make them a reflection of an aspect of their humanity we want to see, while missing the gift of their total humanity. We move forward with affirmations of respect for the plurality of experiences while simultaneously inviting others into the conversation through love.

2 Gillian Kendall { 06.09.10 at 12:09 pm }

Kristin,
I’m just thinking about some of these same issues, this very week, as I finish an essay for GAY/LESBIAN REVIEW about the process of choosing pieces for SOMETHING TO DECLARE: GOOD LESBIAN TRAVEL WRITING. My main worry and question, this week, has to do with the word for people who change their gender. I’ve used “trannie” because that’s the current colloquial in Australia, where I’ve lived for the last 10 years and first heard the term, but I understand that here in the Land of the Free, that word can be offensive to some people. I am reluctant to use the word “transgender” as a participle (I prefer “transgendered” or “trannie”). I’m working up to an essay on this point — what matters more, clear & intelligent language or people’s feelings? What do you think?

Ha! I’ve answered your question with a question.
Cheers,
Gillian

3 KFlick { 06.09.10 at 12:09 pm }

Gillian,

The issues around use of language and the communities of gender-nonconforming people are some of the most interesting and challenging for me. In the end, I believe that it comes down to self-definition. As much as possible, I try to allow individuals to define themselves using the words that most resonate with them. I chatted a bit about this over at “Ask a Gay.”

The thing is that it’s a challenge to respect that kind of definition on a large-scale basis. It assumes that such a diverse community can agree on terms that work for the entirety. It even assumes that there is a singular community with a singular identity. And I’m not sure that’s so much the case.

When I’m talking about people whose born gender is different from the gender with which they identify, I, personally, use the word “transgendered,” because it’s grammatically comfortable for me. (What a great luxury to choose my use of definitional terms based on grammar.) If it’s a broader discussion, I use “gender non-conforming,” because that’s language I’ve picked up being used by others with more knowledge of the community. And it seems to be definitionally accurate, and descriptive. I will likely move toward using the term “gender variant,” which I’ve heard recently, and seems even more inclusive and neutral.

Is that clear and intelligent languaging? I’m not sure.

Is use of the term “queer” clear and intelligent? Sensitive of people’s feelings? I know it’s a term I’ve adopted because it feels inclusive, and efficient. But I’m not sure it’s descriptive. And maybe that’s why so many of us use it. (Outside of the political and social reclamation of the word.) It certainly evokes emotion for many, whether it’s empowerment or discomfort.

I also think the discussion is different based on the audience. If we’re speaking outside the queer community, the political and social consequences are quite different than if we’re speaking internally. In dialogue within the queer community, the set of terms that we might use is greatly expanded. I had someone call me a “gender-fucker” this week. It made me chuckle. I don’t think it would be the same if it was used in a political debate.

And, I find that it’s the dialogue around use of these terms that is most interesting. More interesting than the use of the terms themselves. Again, a great luxury to say that.

I’m a huge believer in the importance of words. I really am. But, as I noted in the “What’s in a Name” discussion of political terminology, I’m not sure the terms we use will ultimately make our lives more or less palatable to the world at large.

So, to answer the question, “what matters more, clear & intelligent language or people’s feelings?” I think it depends on the desired outcome. If we fail to recognize the importance of evoked feelings behind the terms we use, we risk loss of relevance, and allow ourselves to be dismissed as “fringe.” If we use muted language to advance the acceptance of our community, without buy-in from the community, any gains we make are at the expense of already marginalized individuals.

If we can, however, speak from our hearts, and recognize the willingness of those, both within and outside our community to experience the shared humanity of us all, we’ll find a way to navigate both gently and intelligently.

Thanks for the dialogue, my dear.

Kristin

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