Gay or queer? Prostitute or sex worker? Transgender or trans?
Language teachers know this: first we build the concept, then we teach the word. Show the students a carrot then teach them to say ‘carrot’. Mime stretching then teach the word ‘stretch’. But what if language works the other way too? What if the words we use limit and define the way we think and behave? What if our vocabulary changes the way our brain works – and sometimes it’s the word that comes first and not the concept?
The terms we create, modify and use change the way we understand the world and that changes the way we behave in it. How could we talk about gay, lesbian, poly or bi, if we couldn’t talk about straight? How could we talk about transgender if we couldn’t talk about cisgender?
The word ‘prostitute’ for example, is absolutely different to ‘sex worker’ which is different again to ‘whore’. And the effect these words, and their connotations, have in the real world could not be more dramatic. See someone in the street as a ‘whore’ or see them as a ‘person at work’ and I promise you something different will happen even if it’s just in your thoughts.
A single person, might be described as ‘Transgender’, ‘Transsexual’, ‘Trans-feminine spectrum’, ’M to F’, ‘Assigned male at birth’ or ‘Woman’ but the connotations are radically different depending on who says it and when – and how much the speaker knows about the words that they’re using. And you can be sure that the person being described will have some preferences as well if we take the time to ask her.
‘Fat’ can be an insult, it can be a reclamation, it can be political, it can be personal. It’s all about the context. So getting it right is important, but as a person who grew up working class, I have an idea of how elitist all this precise use of vocabulary – which often oversteps into language policing – can seem.
Sometimes new terms have come directly from academia that can give them an acrid taste that lingers in the mouth. Sometimes they are older terms, re-envisioned in new ways with entire histories behind them. And for those who don’t know, it can sometimes seem like people are proudly going around using slurs at each other. Sometimes, honestly, the way our movements talk can seem so jargonistic and self-referential that I fear we might be working ourselves into a linguistic cul-de-sac that will cease to have meaning to anyone else. Maybe it feels comfortable to be on the inside of that, but it can also look more like ghetto building than wider social transformation.
But let me restate for the court: I think words are massively important.
As a linguist and language teacher, as a trans-competency educator, as a trans woman in a deeply transmisogynist society, really, I know. It’s just, it can get very complicated.
For example, coming back to sex work, many politicised people in the industry (certainly not all) call ourselves sex workers. I find it a pleasantly accurate term. It emphasises that sex work is work (yeah, duh!) and its clean, technical feeling doesn’t carry as much historical baggage as other words that have been floating around for centuries. I personally can’t really hear the word ‘prostitute’ anymore because to my socialised ears, it has nothing to do with sex work and everything to do with the clichés, stereotypes and tropes attached to it.
It smacks of offensive chat shows and musicals and criminalising legislation.
But I tend to be more forgiving if a working class person says it because there’s a good chance it’s the only term they’ve heard. Equally our precious ‘sex worker’ can sound pretentious and dishonest in the mouth of a radical feminist who actually hates our work and those of us who do it (we call them SWERFs by the way – Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminist – another acronym to add to the pile). And – of course – as a sex worker, I can call myself a whore any day of the week, but if someone else does, I’m likely to slap them. And not in a fun way.
I’m not saying that these personal rules are consistent or even particularly fair. But all this is very important and getting it wrong, or right, can have real world consequences.
Another example is the old ‘what does queer mean anyway?’ debate. I have many, strong opinions about this which I’ll leave for another post, but I do have an anecdote. When I lived in Bristol I ran a community massage clinic which for a brief time became a collective of three. During that time, as part of making connections with other groups in the area, I contacted a gay men’s support group and presented the clinic. As between the three of us, we fell all over the map in terms of gender and sexuality, I referred to the clinic as ‘queer’ – ‘queer’ as an inclusive term for non-cis and/or non-straight, ‘queer’ as in the struggle around gender and sexuality which has been using the term for at least the last three decades.
Anyway, his (I’m guessing at this person’s pronoun) response was this:
“i must take issue to your kind of language that you use in promoting your service, and that is the word Queer, we in the in the qay community NEVER USE THE WORD QUEER. We are GAY not queer.”
I admit I was surprised. Queer as a slur in the UK is so old, I’m not sure I’ve even really heard it used that way during my adulthood. For me it was reclaimed so long ago, it’s basically historic. Also, I was referring to the clinic as a queer service (none of us identified in the slightest as gay), certainly not this person, his groups or his precious gay community. And by the way, that same gay ‘community’ i.e. industry, actually has co-opted the word queer and uses it regularly to promote its bar nights, condoms and rainbow themed pink-pound commercial bullshit. It’s a bit more edgy than gay as a marketing word, maybe a bit more sexy. Take a walk in the gaybourhood in Brighton, ‘queer’ is really very popular.
Of course I apologised in case using that particular word had offended him and I clarified who I was identifying when I used it. And of course I never heard back. It made me think though, how much difference the choice of a word can make and how differently these two words – words which Google apparently still thinks are synonymous – can be interpreted.
One final time: words are really important.
They can make us feel safe or unsafe, seen or unseen, judged, accepted, loved, hated or ignored. But I also don’t think that they’re the beginning or the end of fighting oppression.
Actions, often, really do speak louder. Sometimes I don’t even care which term someone uses to talk about me or my gender if they prove themselves as a partner in my struggles. That means much more to me than being seen to be really cool and up to date and a great ally who’s ’all over their language shit’ (and all of us would do well by reading Mia McKenzie’s brilliant article on Ally Theater).
After all it’s not a popularity contest, people, it’s fighting oppression – don’t be so damn insecure.
And despite best intentions, language activism easily slips into cliqueyness. As the person at the edge of the playground her whole life, the person who barely spoke to other humans for her first 17 years, I should be used to being on the outside looking in, but I’m not. Not quite. And again and again, in place after place, I’ve seen radical movements build themselves into ghettoes and use language as a weapon to police the borders of those spaces. And the people inside, the ones who were educated enough and had enough free time and access to learn all the right terms in the right order, gain a bonus sense of superiority in the process.
But the last thing our radical, transformative movements need is more access barriers. Some groups are proudly closed, only open for those who fit the defined criteria on the door. I’m not against that, maybe that has a place – for the safety of marginalised groups particularly. But for the rest of the spaces that are trying so hard to be open, inclusive, accessible – and all those other idyllic sounding words – language is there. It’s all over our walls and filling the air: changing, constantly.
So be mindful, please, cautious even when it’s necessary. Obviously don’t go around offending people if some reflection and work on the way you speak or write could change that. But you won’t get points and you won’t get a prize for getting it right and you won’t earn love just for not being offensive. I also don’t get points when I get it right: that’s just the basics. When we have that covered, the real work can begin.