CN: discussion of “Queer” as a slur, mention of queerphobic abuse, mention of medicalisation & criminalisation of queerness, use of disablist term
Language is a powerful force that has undoubtedly shaped the development of humanity. It gives us in effect a certain kind of telepathy: the ability to read the thoughts of others and to project our thoughts into the minds of others. We do this by combining and producing strings of symbols with conventionalised meanings, and as a linguist I am driven to understand the form and structure of this human system. But as a queer person I am interested in how language helps us form and communicate identity, why this power is important and what its limitations are.
I am a gay man. If a speaker of English reads this, they will broadly understand what I intend by that string of symbols; that I identify as a man and I am attracted to people who similarly identify. The symbol “gay” can mean anything I want; words after all do not have inherent meaning. Why do I choose it? People already use that symbol to mean an identity similar to the one I am trying to describe, so it seems convenient to use it. I am also happy with “queer”, but not everyone is. Words might have a certain meaning, but patterns of use can create additional associations for us. “Queer” has been (and still is) used as a slur against LGBT+ people. For people who associate that word with experiences of abuse, they may not feel comfortable using it. “Homosexual” is synonymous with gay but I prefer not to use that term to describe myself; for me it carries associations of a darker era when sexuality was more poorly understood, viciously criminalised and unnecessarily medicalised.
The choice of label is a deeply personal one. We ultimately want to describe ourselves in terms that we are comfortable with. We each have a unique set of experiences and associations that condition how comfortable with a given label we are. So a crucial point of labels is that we have the ability to describe ourselves; no-one can dictate to us what label is appropriate for our identity. There is a tendency within and outside the LGBT+ community for some people to complain that labels like “non-binary”, “genderqueer”, “pansexual”, “aromantic”, etc are too complicated and unnecessary. They may patronisingly remark: “You’re just trying to be a special snowflake. Why can’t you just label yourself gay/lesbian/bi/trans?!”. In these instances, people try to make others use labels of identity that make them feel comfortable. Their point is of course vacuous: we can use language to describe the world around us and ourselves. If the conventional meaning of a term doesn’t match reality (e.g. the conventional meaning of “bi” doesn’t describe how you are attracted to people), then why shouldn’t one use some different label to describe this state of affairs?
Why should some people be uncomfortable with the labels we use to describe our identity? One obvious possibility is that they don’t accept the existence of that identity or they believe it to be in some way morally unacceptable. Alternatively, there are some socially liberal people who neither deny our identity nor think it is unacceptable, but argue that some things simply don’t need to be labelled (note that this never applies to their own identities that don’t require labelling!). I’ve already dealt with why I think this poorly reasoned, but it is worth understanding why people might be uncomfortable with the very act of labelling. In almost all instances (barring onomatopoeic words), the meaning of words cannot be deduced from their form. Had I not encountered the word “dog” before, I would have no way of understanding its meaning. We must, in effect, crack the code in order to understand what a word means. We need to be let in on the convention. That means language can be used to control information exchange – one might not choose to let a person in on the convention. Up until the 1960s, a special code language called Polari was used amongst the queer subculture, having originated amongst actors/circus performers/sex workers/sailors, etc. From diverse lexical roots such as Italian, Romani and London slang, people could discuss a limited range of topics in such a way that would not be transparent to the “outsider”.
This is how language can help form group identities: you are in the group if you know the convention. Humans generally don’t like being on the outside of groups, being excluded from socialising. So when we use new terms in some ways it puts a barrier up between us and others. Of course this need only be a temporary barrier, because if we share enough conventionalised meanings, we can simply explain what we mean by this novel term in other words. Even when they do know what it means, they might still not be happy. Since they don’t need to use it very often they might find it difficult to remember and would prefer something more easy to recall. Indeed, because they don’t use it very often, it can’t be used to tag them as a member of a group. These concerns about group identity can be found wherever language is used, intersecting with issues of race and culture. These human sensitivities are ancient and maybe hard-wired into us. Exclusion is a very human worry.
The power to exclude seems quite negative, something to be avoided. But the example of Polari is an extreme case of how the language of identity need not be so transparent. Not allowing others access to the convention can be a form of protection, barring them from prying into the most intimate corners of who you are. Remember that for many LGBT+ people it is just not safe to openly declare their identity to certain groups, maybe even their family and friends. Even when they are out, having this conventional barrier can help create spaces which marginalised communities can call their own. More than that, using language in this way is a kind of resistance to the compulsory homogeneity of identity and presentation that cisnormative, heteronormative, romantic, sexual society enforces. So while it remains valuable to educate people on your identities by explaining what they mean, having a language for queer folk can be protective and help to form communal bonds. This has parallels in the struggles of minority cultures (with minority languages) and for people suffering under a racist society.
Language does have its limitations. When I say I am gay, that doesn’t convey everything about my sexual identity. It fails to express my detailed preferences, it fails to express my slight aromantic tinge, my preferences in light of breaking a gender binary, etc. The label is a communicative convenience and it needn’t convey everything about who I am. People can learn more about my identity by getting to know me; I shouldn’t have to lay out all the inner workings of myself for their perusal. Some people might want to highlight all these nuances with extensive labels, and the choice to do so is completely their own. But the function of language is not just communication, as powerful as that might be. Being able to label ourselves can make our identities feel more concrete, even if the label we use won’t express everything it could (or even if it seems communicatively superfluous). Being able to form larger community identities and resistance to oppressive power dynamics is something that should not be overlooked, though we should be mindful of how language can contribute to oppression. The power to create spaces that people can feel comfortable in, even if only small islands of sanctuary, should not be ignored either. Though language can be used as a weapon against marginalised groups, it can also be used to create mighty edifices to resist and ultimately help topple the oppressive status quo.