The quest for equal social and legal representation has traveled from church to courtroom and everywhere in between — but in many ways, inclusion for the LGBTQ community begins and ends with the language we use to concoct social meaning.
Joshua Raclaw, a sociocultural linguist and Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado Boulder says language is closely connected to culture.
“A lot of anthropologists view people’s language and the categories of that language as expressing viewpoints intimately tied to the culture of that language,” he says.
The American English language often adheres to binaries to articulate the world, which can be problematic for individuals who do not identify with one of the two normative or dominant descriptions.
“We have a society and culture that understands sex and gender in terms of only two,” Raclaw says.
In reality, there is a huge population of people who identify outside the male-female, heterosexual binary — whether it is an individual’s biological sex, sexual orientation, sex or gender identity, sexual behavior or gender expression.
“If you’re in that third category, it is really, really difficult to identify yourself in your everyday life, because your language does not accommodate for your gender identity,” Raclaw says. “So people in the U.S. who don’t fit into a binary gender — people who may identify as androgynous or gender queer, for example — when they don’t see themselves as being fully male or female, how do they talk about themselves using language?”
Gendered binaries erase, marginalize and ostracize individuals who do not identify as strictly male or female, Raclaw says. The fact that language reproduces archaic notions of normalizing sexual behavior or identity makes the fight for equal representation in society, or articulating one’s own self-expression, an even more challenging task.
The gendered assumptions of the English language can be found primarily in pronouns, formal salutations and references to romantic partners.
“It’s very limiting,” says Kevin Correa, the assistant director of CU’s GLBT Resource Center. “Language itself is limiting. It’s almost — I mean, we need new words, because the words that we have are so limiting.”
The creation of a gender-neutral pronoun has been suggested and is implemented in some circumstances. The Queer Initiative, an advocacy group at CU-Boulder, released a pamphlet that explains and provides examples for usage of a third-person singular pronoun that includes the gender identity — or absence thereof — for all individuals.
Perhaps the most common substitute for the gendered pronouns “he” or “she” would be using “they” as a third-person singular. The Queer Initiative provides the following example in its pamphlet: “They laughed. I called them. That is theirs. They like theirself.”
Breaking and reconfiguring the English language is a suggested remedy, but Raclaw says the mainstream adoption of a gender-inclusive language will require an increase in social consciousness as well.
“I don’t know if you can do that just with language,” Raclaw says. “I think you need to start with a larger cultural change, which possibly is as impossible, but it’s a very difficult thing to try to change that.”
Adopting a more inclusive language starts small. By using the words “partner” or “spouse” instead of “husband” or “wife” in reference to intimate relationships, assumptions about the nature of these partnerships may steadily be erased, experts say. Asking people how they wish to be identified, regardless of their perceived orientation or gender identity, could help eradicate the asymmetry of language.
“Unless someone’s indicated their preference to me, it feels important not to scrutinize my assumptions on their experiences of gender,” says Aicilia Lewis, one of the executive directors of Out Boulder.
Correa says that at the start of all group meetings at the GLBTQ Resource Center on campus, attendees go around and share their preferred gendered pronoun.
“I think honoring people’s own language is huge,” Correa says, “because there is not a universal language. Part of the problem is there’s so many ways of identification, of understanding, of experiences, so we try to encourage people to ask people how they identify and sort of what language they use, and to honor that and respect that, and not impose our own language upon other people.”
The movement to reclaim terms that were once seen as derogatory has caused a large shift in the way binaries constrain identity. An example of a word that has shifted meaning over time is “queer.” The word has been used as a discriminatory term against individuals who identify as homosexual, but has been reclaimed by many organizations and individuals in the GLBTQ community.
“Some people hate that word because it’s been used so often negatively against people,” Correa says. “Others have reclaimed it — people who like the word, people who don’t like the word.”
Correa says that the first step is to ask a person how they self-identify, and what the word means to them, and then use the individual’s chosen language.
Raclaw says he sees reclaiming words like “queer” and shifting its meaning from negative to positive helps get around the binaries in language that stigmatize certain identities.
Lewis says that she is always the first to pick up the phone when legal forms or documents require checking a box for male or female.
“I always make a call, and that’s part of my advocacy,” Lewis says. “When we were flying — we all went to do a conference together — I called to ask if I have to identify gender as part of the TSA requirement.”
Speaking out and drawing attention to the gendered implications of language, as well as self-modifying, are some of the first steps to promoting inclusion.
“One benefit that we have, compared to some Romance languages, is that at least objects don’t have a gender, so I think that does make it a little bit easier for us, for English speakers,” Correa says. “We don’t have to worry about what to call the couch.”