Today’s gender pet peeve: why does being polite in so many languages have to require gendering?
I mean, in historical terms, I know the answer. Gender has been infused into everything we do as a society for so long, and manners are just one part of society and culture. A lot of languages use gendered terms to refer to people, and so it make sense that polite forms address would follow this pattern. But it’s still annoying.
Earlier in the day I’m writing this post, I had a server who called everyone they presumed to be female “my lady” or “my ladies.” Not only gendering, but ownership, too! Gee, how refreshing. It was particularly cringe-worthy when he did it to folks of color.
Slowly, queer communities are starting to come around on this language. Terms like “Mx.” are available, and neutral terms like “friends” are being used in place of “ladies and gentlemen.” But the mainstream is still going to Mr./Ms./M./Mme./Herr/Frau/Signore/Signora everyone, and it’s frustrating. Personally, I think misgendering is much more rude than “casual” forms of address!
It’s always one of the most frequent questions I get when I talk about personal data and gender: “I understand that calling someone by a first name avoids the gendering, but my boss insists that we need to address people politely if they’re giving us money.” And sadly, this is frequently where things come down. My only answer is to keep pushing, try to demonstrate the impact (including financial) of misgendering, and hope that the culture will continue to evolve so that “casual” forms of address are no longer inappropriate. Or hey, if nothing else, ask folks how you should address them! When you collect addresses, offer a “prefer first name” choice next to all your salutations. That way, nobody gets offended.
- Some discussions a couple of months ago on Tumblr and Twitter challenging the emphasis on birth assignment in discussion of trans experience
- Philly Trans Health being super bro-y, and my own experience of feeling really terrible about myself at a trans conference that’s supposed to be about affirmation
- I’ve personally been getting “Sir”-ed a lot lately, and have been experiencing more intense dysphoria than usual.
In recent years, I’ve pretty much stopped referencing my birth assignment, except in private with close friends. What medical transition steps I have or have not taken are basically none of your g-damned business. Sometimes I’m not 100% sure about this, because there are some spheres where birth assignment could potentially matter (what I feel dysphoric about is sometimes related, and also the fact that trans women are far more likely than men to experience violence and other negative outcomes of being trans probably also applies in some cases to AMAB genderqueer folks—the recent discussions by Merritt Kopas, Tobi Hill-Meyer, and others around how “gender weirdness” is policed when AMAB are particularly chilling). But generally speaking, it’s often possible to talk about trans experience while focusing on actual gender, rather than birth assignment, and often better to do so.
What I find interesting is that as a non-binary femme trans person, I default to taking “Sir” as a compliment. I then feel kind of unsettled about it, but gendering me male, as a person who presents femme, is pretty much the only mainstream way to acknowledge my queerness in public—and being acknowledged as queer in public is very important to me. While “Sir” and masculine language doesn’t fit me at all, when I’m presenting femme, I have a sense that it acknowledges at least some difference, however backwards that is.
In recent weeks, I’ve noticed quite a few faux pas in headlines describing some segment of the queer population. My guess is that the writers didn’t really think their terminology through, so I’d like to offer a little guide that might be helpful, especially to those who are not part of the queer community, in deciding what language to use when describing us.
- Don’t use the whole alphabet soup to refer to a specific population. The term “LGBT” means “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.” It’s appropriate when referring to those four groups en masse, and at no other time. Often, the “T” is simply thrown in, as in “today, LGBT New Yorkers gained the right to marry.” While the marriage law did affect many transgender people, I don’t think that’s what the writer means there. It’s okay to say “gay, lesbian, and bisexual” or “gay and lesbian” if that’s what you mean. Even better with marriage is to simply say “same-sex couples,” which describes the exact population. Throwing in transgender people just to be politically correct is actually harmful, because you’re not referencing that population. If you do include the T, then include it: don’t be the group that holds an “LGBT” event and then excludes transgender people at the door.
- If you want to refer to the whole population, then use an appropriate term. I like “queer” because it can be used to refer to a range of gender and sexuality minorities. It works well when you’re not referring to specific populations, but to everyone who’s marginalized in this way. Of course, keep in mind that the goals of each population under this umbrella are not the same (see #1). Some like LGBT, LGBTQ, QUILTBAG, etc., but I tend to find that the alphabet usually leaves someone out. Others use trans/queer or queer/trans. When I say “queer,” I’m including trans, but that’s a matter of personal choice.
- Don’t use one term as a proxy for another. Lately there has been a lot of discussion about websites requiring people to identify as male or female. This gets characterized again and again as a transgender issue. Certainly, some trans people would like to identify as something other than male or female, but many of those affected by this issue identify as genderqueer or some variation. Instead of using the term transgender, it might make sense to describe it as an issue affecting non-binary genders, gender minorities, or non-conforming genders (I don’t love that one, but that’s for another time). I’ve also seen many “genderqueer” communities that are all about trans issues. It’s important to understand that genderqueer is a specific term with a specific meaning, not a proxy for transgender.
- Describe subsets of a queer population accurately. This is a problem in pretty much every area of activism, not just the queer bubble. Don’t say, for example, that “gay people have more money.” The ones with the money are mostly white, cis-gender gay men. If you’re doing academic research and the population you’re studying is white, young, middle-class, students, or some other subgroup, say so. The queer population as a whole has been done a tremendous disservice because those of us in a position of privilege tend to ignore huge subsets of the population–particularly trans people, youth of color, homeless kids, etc. It’s important to be clear and take note when you are making a statement that does not including one of these or another group. Define the subset clearly, then make your point.
One of the trickier things about queer movements, unsurprisingly, is finding the words to describe ourselves, our community, and those around us. Words are incredibly important to many people in terms of self-definition and claiming membership in a community, but the words to describe gender and sexuality are often new and have different definitions depending on who you talk to.
One thing I just saw at work, though, in an interesting CDC report on health disparities, is a definite linguistic gaffe.
Although Healthy People 2010 specifies that health disparities include “differences that occur by gender, race or ethnicity, education or income, disability, geographic location, or sexual orientation,” only a limited number of regularly published national- or state-level health reports include information on sexual orientation (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, or heterosexual identity) as a demographic variable for comparison.
Since when is “transsexual” a sexual orientation? There are some differences in opinion on the meaning of words like transsexual and transgendered, but I’m pretty sure most people commonly understand “sexual orientation” to relate in some way to sexual desire and/or sexual partners. Trans* identities, on the other hand, refer to an individual’s gender identity. Can we get this right, CDC? It’s bad enough to lump “T” in with “LGB,” while simultaneously ignoring trans peoples’ needs and priorities. But I think it’s even more egregious to suddenly refer to trans* as a sexual orientation, as if trans people didn’t have sexual orientations in addition to gender identity. It’s part of a broader trend of ignoring the sex lives of trans people and assuming that a trans person’s identity is entirely constructed around hir gender identity/transition. To me, it feels dehumanizing.
As a writer, blogger, and activist, I think I have a certain responsibility to think about how I express myself. Whether I’m writing a post or an article, having a casual conversation, or replying to a Tweet, it’s easy to use language without thinking about it. We all talk in the feminist and queer communities about how harmful societal norms are–whether it’s the pervasive use of “crazy” as a negative term, the way rape culture is subconsciously taught and accepted, or the societal pressure on women to be thin and “pretty.” A lot of us end up with increased awareness of certain types of language through activist communities, and I love how this happens and very much encourage everyone to blog or just talk about terms you notice people using that support the kyriarchy.
Today, I want to talk about a particular group of words that I find harmful and am working to eliminate from my own speech. The words I’m thinking of are associated with the garbage–from words that describe what we take in (“junk food,” “trashy books”) to words that describe what we are (“trailer trash,” “sloppy seconds”). These words, in my experience, tend to apply primarily or only to things that are associated with poverty or “low” culture. When a middle or upper class person talks about things in the first category, it’s common to speak of guilty pleasures and indulgences–“I know I shouldn’t eat so much junk food; I’m putting trash in my body but it’s just so good.” This kind of language implies that 1) we should be guilty about things that are labelled “trash” and 2) these are a temporary deviation for middle and upper class people, ultimately linked to individual responsibility.
I could go on for days about what’s wrong with the way we talk about individual responsibility in Western capitalist countries, but to stick to my main point, what sucks about this kind of language is that it implies that people who consume such things should be guilty, and further that they are bad people because of what they consume. It’s not a big leap from “junk food” and “trashy magazines” to trailer trash, or from saying someone’s clothes are trashy to saying that she is trashy.
Elitism is easy not to notice when you’re raised to value education, health, etc. and to look down on “guilty” or “nasty” habits. I know I tend to talk a lot about “guilty pleasures” or be embarrassed about certain books or music. So here’s a challenge to those of us who were raised in that environment, or for whatever reason find ourselves boxing habits into “good” and “bad” categories. Let’s try to think about these problems when we’re writing, and especially not to use words like “junk” or “trash” to describe habits or people. Also, let’s try to avoid the trap of talking about how people are “victims of their environments” or using the language of pity when talking about access to education and culture. This kind of language assumes that culture has an innate value, that people who don’t have access to “high” music, literature, food, or clothing are stuck with “low” forms. It ignores the inherent value of these things and ascribes unnecessary guilt to their consumption. Taste is a matter of individual preference, so let’s all make an effort to stop demonizing others’ tastes and start questioning the origins of our own.
This is something that’s been bugging me for a while when I read blogs of all sorts, though especially those in the personal development and food spheres (two categories where I’m guessing the average blogger has an above-average income). I keep seeing little throwaway sentences that make assumptions about the class and income of whoever’s reading. For example, exhortations to give to charity that are designed to make the reader feel guilty, or posts about cutting back in a recession/when unemployed that urge readers to give up the gym membership and stop shopping at Whole Foods.
Now, I realize that Internet access is a barrier, and that people online as a whole are going to generally have more money and be more likely to live in the “developed” world than the world population as a whole. But with the advent of free Internet access in libraries and other public spaces, the saturation of the Internet in workplaces, and the availability of cheap netbooks with free wifi, there are a lot of people online who aren’t middle class and don’t have disposable income. Thus, this whole guilt language about giving to charity or making “small” purchases has to go, as do blog posts about financial advice that only really apply if you were making about $40K/year before the recession.
I’m not saying that these posts aren’t valuable, just that like any writing it’s a case of knowing your audience. Instead of using language of guilt to make people donate to charity, highlight the good works that your charity of choice does and let people evaluate for themselves whether they’re able to give this year. If you are giving financial advice for middle class people, be explicit about it. Include a note that your tips are directed at those who have plenty, or those who have been employed for a while pre-recession, or singles. Basically, don’t be like this writer.
There’s been a lot of talk about birth rape lately. I first picked up the thread of the discussion with Cara’s post On Birth Rape, Definitions, and Language Policing, a post which incidentally got a big fucking “Amen” from me.
But even questions of technical definitions and what exactly it is that we wish to eradicate in fighting this thing called “rape” aside, I do know one thing for sure. When women come forward and start saying “I was raped,” when they find the power to use that word to describe their own experiences and open up to share their trauma with the world, responding with “no you weren’t” — with whole blog posts about the subject, in fact — is about the worst possible way that a person can do feminism.
Cara’s writing here in response to a slew of recent posts that challenge a woman’s right to use the term “rape” to describe traumatic birth experiences. These include What Is “Birth Rape?” on Jezebel, Amanda Marcotte’s Bad Birth Experiences Aren’t Rape, and The Push to Recognize “Birth Rape” on Salon. Scare quotes. How to know something really good’s coming.
Joking aside, I wholeheartedly agree with Cara when it comes to the problems with feminists policing language in the way these bloggers do. You kind of have to step back and ask why those fighting against the term birth rape are so adamant about claiming the word “rape” as this one specific, identifiable thing, when last I checked, third wave feminism’s stance toward rape focused on highlighting the blurriness of language in this area.
Rape, as I understand it, is about violation. It’s about, most importantly, lack of consent. And I feel that those who are saying that doctors aren’t sadists, that poking and prodding and restraining and cutting women is medically necessary for childbirth, are missing the point. I feel that those who say “but this isn’t like rape in the Congo!” are missing the point. It doesn’t matter whether x experience and y experience are the same, what matters is how a woman experiences x or y. What matters is that a woman is tied down and screaming “no!” and she’s ignored because birth is supposed to be painful and difficult, because we have this cultural understanding that pregnant women are supposed to go to a hospital and lie down and take whatever’s dished out.
This is a cultural problem. And whether x, y, or z act have the same cause or effect, they’re all tied up in this culture. This is a culture that restricts a woman’s right to give birth in whatever way she chooses, and tells her to hurry up because the obstetrician has somewhere to be. This is a culture that views rape in wartime as unfortunate but an acceptable consequence of a kind of violent conflict that is accepted as “normal.” This is a culture that constantly questions the power of women and trans and gender queer people to use language in the ways we see fit. This is a violent, power-wielding, out-of-control, rape culture.
It’s our right to tell it like we see it.
At the moment, I’m working in the subscriptions office of a major symphony orchestra, and I’ve found some trends emerging in the past four months or so when it comes to the spin callers and patrons place on gender (and sexuality). This is just a list, maybe intelligent thoughts will follow:
- Husband: “You’ll have to talk to my wife. She’s my secretary/social secretary/the family secretary.”
- Callers assuming that the wife might be home during the day but the husband will only be home at night.
- Callers saying “is your wife home?” or “is your husband home?” without any evidence that the relationship between the male and female member of a household is indeed husband/wife.
- Callers assuming that “partner” means opposite sex.
- Callers suggesting that a patron bring a date to the symphony, as opposed to a friend or family member.
- Wife: “My husband’s in charge/has all the control/etc.”
- Husband: “No, she doesn’t want that” or “Honey, you don’t want that.”
We were talking today in my human rights course about the “First/Second/Third World” system of categorizing countries, and also about the “Fourth World” of marginalized groups such as indigenous people. Obviously, using the number system means you’re making a value judgement, but I also object somewhat to the use of the terms “developed” and “developing” to create a dichotomy that I also feel is value-based. I use those terms sometimes when it comes to economics, but I’m uncomfortable with them. It’s not just that we’re calling some nations undeveloped or underdeveloped, but more that we assume “developed” is a good thing. The right to the development presupposes that everyone wants the kind of development that we have reached in our society, as I mentioned in a previous post, and ignores not only “side effects” but also the kind of broad conceptual/perceptual shifts that are inherent in this terminology.
So what are the alternatives? A lot of people use the terms Global North and Global South, which are a little more “accurate” than East/West, but they still ignore the vast differences among “Global South” countries. Another problem to any form of geographic or value-based classification system is that it ignores disparities within a country. Some scholars, for example, have pointed out that labelling the U.S. or European countries as “developed” ignores the right to development that women living in poverty in these countries have to seek development on their own terms. When you frame development in this way – the right to seek out your own well-being and ways to earn a living on your own terms – I think we’re really hitting on something.
This relates to another point that I made in my law of war seminar last week, related to the question of whether the international community should have been involved in Rwanda or not. One student repeatedly stresssed that based on state sovereignty, we should only intervene if the country wants us to – “If they ask us.” My problem with this, is that though I think culturally appropriate tribunals and decisionmaking are a good thing, I also think that we need to be wary of using this vague “they.” There is no “they” in a situation like that. When women were being subjected to mass rape, and many were traumatised and extremely fearful, it is difficult to say that we should simply ignore the situation because “they” don’t want us to get involved, or because women have forgiven the perpetrators. Perhaps they have, but I do think that it if women have no resources, no medical help, don’t feel safe, etc., we need to ask if the “forgiveness” claimed by men in power is genuine. I’m not saying that paternalism is a good idea, but I am saying that it’s important to consider the varying experiences within a culture and to take those experiences into consideration when offering “development” or other assistance.
John Dickerson has a short piece up on Slate about rhetorical wars, the next one of which appears to be war on the economy. Oops, I’m sorry, that’s war on the economic crisis. My mistake. Anyway, in my National Security Law intersession course this week, one thing we talked about was whether the war on terror is any different from the other rhetorical wars on drugs, poverty, cancer, etc. or if it’s just another phrase in the presidential bag of tricks. I’d say yes and no.
In some ways, it’s like all the other rhetorical wars, in that the word “war” announces a policy priority and commission of resources. It’s intended to make those who are doing whatever we’re at war with a little more afraid of us in the case of something like the war on drugs, and to make victims believe that we’re serious in the case of the war on poverty or the war on cancer. The war on terror does announce a policy priority and commission of resources, and it is supposed to make terrorists fear us and Americans feel like the government is doing something to protect us. But that’s not all.
While other wars may have done this to some extent, I think the war on terror sets a new precedent in terms of using the “war” as a justification for actions that may or may not be legal or otherwise socially justifiable. Increased surveillance? We’re at war! Questionable interrogation techniques? We’re at war! If Congress doesn’t give the President more and more authority, then it looks like it’s on the wrong side of a war, and that’s something you don’t want to be. It’s also fuzzy because while Congress has not actually declared war on terrorists (something it doesn’t have the legal power to do as the enemy has to be at least somewhat identifiable), it has authorized the use of force against those responsible for 9/11 in the AUMF. We’re actively fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the President is allowed to do whatever is appropriate and necessary to track down the Al Qaeda people responsible for the 9/11 terrorist plot. This means that the rhetorical war gets the added brunt of being associated with a real war, and sometimes the two get disturbingly enmeshed. For example, it was easy to call Iraq just another battle in the broader war. But Congress authorized force against those who had attacked us first; it never declared a wider war or referred to the war in Afghanistan as an opening battle.
Things to think about.