Recently, Caitlyn Jenner made history by asking us to “Call Me Caitlyn” on the cover of Vanity Fair. Rapper Iggy Azalea’s appearance in Pittsburgh’s Pride parade was nixed because of her past homophobic tweets. Nothing makes us feel more respected or more dissed than the words people from politicos to singers to pundits to preachers use to describe us. Especially in the LGBT community. Few things are as difficult, or essential, for us scribes, queer and hetero, than to pen language that’s respectful of those whose stories we’re telling.
Take the word queer. Today, I love the term! It’s been embraced by many in our community — particularly young people. The word, which originally meant strange or odd, has been reclaimed to be an umbrella term for the LGBT community. Why do I like using queer? Because, as a writer dealing with space limitations and seeking to avoid repetition, it’s a short and apt description of LGBT issues and people. Personally, as a poet, I embrace being a bit odd. As a lesbian, the word gives me some wiggle room. If I say, a man’s attractive, I don’t have to explain.
Unlike queer, other expressions, once commonly used by respectable folks about LGBT people, such as “homosexuals” are, thankfully, falling out of use. Gay icon and comedian Kathy Griffin talked to NPR about how she might have referred to herself as a “fag hag” in her old comedy specials. “Things change,” said Griffin, who performs at the Kennedy Center on June 20, “over time you go, ‘that community has changed. It’s not cool … I personally made the choice to go, ‘you know what, I’m not gonna say that anymore.’”
We’re now in an era of change, debate, creativity and backlash over the words we use to denote gender. The long-awaited emergence of transgender people and issues onto the national radar, is making us see how meaningful a pronoun can be. “Language is power,” Jennifer Finney Boylan, the first openly transgender co-chair of GLAAD’s board of directors and a writer, told the New York Times.
Many of us have been the target of homophobic slurs. Yet, I’d wager that most of us who are cisgender (not transgender) can’t imagine how hurtful it must be to be described by a pronoun that doesn’t represent who we truly are. No matter how hard I try, I’m not sure that I’ll ever totally sense what this would feel like. Many of the transgender men and women who I’ve spoken with have said that journalists often use inappropriate pronouns to describe them. “I appreciate that you asked me what pronoun I wanted,” said a transgender woman, who talked with me for a story on aging, “a lot of reporters don’t ask.”
Fortunately, the powerful impact of the pronouns and other terms we use is beginning to hit home not just in our community but in mainstream culture and media. “I have always confused sex and gender,” writes Mary Norris, a copy editor with The New Yorker, in her new book “Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. “So many things in language can never be explained, except by custom.”
The difference between sex and gender “leaped out of the textbook” and became personal for Norris when “my younger brother [Dee] announced that he was transgender,” she wrote. “The pronouns turn out to be in our marrow.”
One night, Norris and Dee were at a bar. “That’s his,” Norris told the waiter, who wanted to know if the cheeseburger was for Dee. “‘It feels so hopeless,’” Dee said, Norris wrote. “You say ‘that’s his’ and don’t even know you’ve said it.”
We have a long way to go. Yet, thanks to Caitlyn, Dee and countless others in the LGBT community and our allies, we’re changing the language that’s vital to the marrow of our being.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.