Breaking through the binary

American English constrains self-expression


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

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

“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

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

“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.”


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