Queer linguistics: The journey to reclaim power and fight for linguistic equality
June 5, 2022
As our primary form of communication, language is the cornerstone of how we interact with the world. However, for marginalized communities like the LGBTQ+ community, language has a long politically charged history that continues to influence how individuals and the greater society perceive the queer community today.
Cisnormativity and the gender binary: Its fundamental linguistic presence
Gendered languages, such as French and Spanish, are those with grammatical gender systems, meaning their nouns are assigned a gender. For example, the French word for pool, “la piscine,” is given a feminine gender and is thus treated femininely. In English, the word “pool” has no gender and is treated accordingly.
In some languages, grammatical gender extends past nouns. In French, verbs and adjectives often have a masculine and a feminine form. For example, “il est tombé” would be used to describe a man who fell, but “elle est tombée” would be used to describe a woman who fell. The masculine form of the adjective beautiful is beau, and its feminine counterpart is belle.
“For a lot of English speakers, it’s hard learning a gendered language. It’s hard trying to wrap your head around gendered words because you have to figure out a whole new grammatical structure while also getting used to the mental act of dividing your language,” said Mick Krayn, a genderqueer senior.
Although English isn’t classified as a gendered language, it isn’t exempt from gendered words. For example, words such as actor and host can be tagged with a feminine suffix, transforming them into actress and hostess.
Other words, such as beautiful and handsome, while not officially restricted to certain genders, have gendered connotations. Although a woman can be described as handsome, many often opt for feminine descriptors, such as pretty or beautiful.
However, the gender that words are associated with is not stagnant and often changes depending on societal norms.
“In the past, it was more common to see women being described as handsome, but we started gendering that term later on in the 20th century. There’s no explicit rule in English requiring us to reserve descriptors for specific genders, and these implicit rules gendering certain words often change,” Krayn said.
Despite the fluidity of social linguistics norms, it’s not uncommon for languages to remain rigid in some aspects. Oftentimes, gendered languages act as strict enforcers of the gender binary and can be unforgiving to genderqueer individuals who identify outside of the male-female binary ingrained in many gendered languages.
“If you speak a gendered language but you don’t identify with its gender binary and you don’t have the tools to describe yourself, that can definitely be very detrimental,” Krayn said.
Grammatical gender systems often invalidate the gender spectrum by presenting gender through a limited lens, imposing the belief that there are, at most, only a handful of genders.
“I feel like that’s why there are a lot of cross-dressing stereotypes in cultures that speak a gendered language. You don’t really think of a nonbinary French person; instead, you think of a cross-dressing French man. The gender binary is very pervasive within cultures like those, and their stereotypes reflect that,” said Elliot Sum, a genderfluid senior.
For those whose native language is gendered, exploring the gender spectrum can be difficult and contrary to the gender binary found at the very core of the language they speak.
“When you speak a gendered language but encounter gender identities outside of the male-female binary, you suddenly have to question your entire language. How do we fit this in? How do we change our perception of the gender binary that’s been so integral to our society that it’s embedded in the very language that we speak?” Krayn said.
To counter this, there has been an uprising of movements calling for the introduction of gender-neutral alternatives to gendered languages. For example, in Spanish, an O-suffix indicates a masculine gender, whereas an A-suffix indicates a feminine gender. To remain gender-neutral, some have begun to adopt an E-suffix. While “payaso” would be used to refer to a man and “payasa” would be used to address a woman, with an E-suffix, Spanish speakers can use “payase” to avoid masculine or feminine connotations.
“A lot of people have been using the E-suffix to be more inclusive. It’s a shift in perception; no single aspect of language is set in stone. Not only do we define our language but our language defines us in terms of how we perceive the world around us,” Krayn said.
Other alternatives include adopting words from non-gendered languages or using neopronouns, which are neologistic third-person pronouns that are often considered gender-neutral. While some popular neopronouns in English are ae/aer and xe/xem, the most commonly cited one in French is iel or some other combination of il and elle — the French pronouns for he and she, respectively — according to a study on the language practices of nonbinary Francophones on social media.
Another movement in francophone culture is the fight to adopt a more inclusive writing system. Through inclusive writing, the feminine form is acknowledged rather than overshadowed by its male counterpart. For example, with inclusive writing, instead of referring to a group of students as “les étudiants,” it would be written as “les étudiant·e·s.” Words whose feminine form has a completely different spelling rather than an additional letter follow the same format. For example, a group of farmers would be written as “les agriculteur·rice·s” instead of “les agriculteurs.”
One of the main appeals behind inclusive writing is its push to make the French language less masculine and subsequently remove its patriarchal emphasis on male domination. To refer to a group of friends, “les amis” would be used for an all-male group and “les amies” would be used for an all-female group. However, in a mixed group, no matter how many women outnumber men, as long as there is one man in the group, it defaults to the masculine form, “les amis.” Due to this, although the masculine form is gendered, it is also seen as gender-neutral since it can simultaneously be seen as the default form.
However, given the rigid and carefully monitored nature of the French language, inclusive writing has received significant institutional backlash. One of its most notable and ardent adversaries is the Académie Française, France’s supreme authority on the French language, known for its history of ruling conservatively.
“Faced with the aberration of inclusive writing, the French language finds itself in mortal danger,” the Académie said in a statement.
A prominent factor behind the Académie’s decisions is the linguistic bond and sense of shared culture and identity that many Francophones have. This collective pride often manifests itself in the strict regulation and standardization of the French language, where even the smallest changes are often looked down upon. Due to this, some Francophones have also expressed concerns over appearing uneducated when using neopronouns or other gender-neutral alternatives, as they do not comply with the language’s already existing structures and words.
“I feel like the French language wasn’t constructed to be accommodating. Not a lot of people are willing to accept linguistic change through social influences,” Sum said.
Oftentimes, according to Krayn, the push for gender inclusivity is seen as a “direct attack on people’s culture.”
“The gender binary is so ingrained in a lot of these cultures that anybody trying to make change or create the tools that they need to describe themselves are met with a ton of backlash because people are very protective of their language,” Krayn said.
For many languages, especially gendered ones, the gender binary is an essential figure embedded into the very basis of their culture and, subsequently, language.
“Cisnormativity presents itself in gendered languages because the gender binary makes it seem like there’s no other way to approach gender in the first place,” Krayn said.
Internal and external pressures plaguing the LGBTQ+ community
Lesbian. Gay. Bisexual. Transgender. Queer.
These are just a handful of labels used to describe the gender and sexuality spectrum. For many, labels can help enhance or articulate one’s experience and journey with their queer identity.
“Labels don’t define who you are; they’re just used as a way to more easily communicate how you identify,” said Amber Enthoven, a transgender woman who graduated from Carlmont last year.
Despite the helpful nature of labels, others have struggled with the pressure that comes with finding and choosing one.
“I think that labels can be really helpful, but they can also be very limiting. I’ve had a lot of people in my life who’ve come out as one label, changed their minds, and then changed their minds again. That’s completely valid, but that constant changing happened because they felt pressured to put a label on their queerness,” said María Valle-Remond, a genderqueer senior.
Valle-Remond has also felt this same pressure.
“Labels made me feel like I wasn’t valid because I kept changing my mind, but it’s not actually changing your mind — it’s discovering more about yourself. Sexuality and gender are fluid, but when you feel pressured to put a label on it, it feels like you have to stick to that label no matter what. Feeling anything outside of whatever label I had at the time made me feel fake or not valid,” Valle-Remond said.
This pressure can also be, in part, attributed to mainstream media’s limited representation of the LGBTQ+ community and rainbow capitalism.
“Companies have taken over pride month and made it very palatable to straight audiences,” Valle-Remond said.
This extends past companies’ direct actions like selling rainbow-colored merchandise or changing the colors of their logo and has spread to other aspects of pride month, such as pride parades. Recently, there have been growing concerns over what is considered appropriate at pride.
“There’s this whole debate on whether or not kinks should be allowed at pride. While I understand all the concerns about how that appears to children, this type of sexual activity is so integral to queer history. Removing it for the sake of protecting children not only perpetuates the stereotype that queer people are predators and queerness is inappropriate for children but also suppresses a huge part of the queer community simply because it’s not acceptable to mainstream society,” Valle-Remond said.
This debate and the questioning of the appropriateness of the LGBTQ+ community is not new; other venues and platforms, especially mainstream media, have and continue to face this same issue, exacerbating the lack of queer representation in society today.
“The reason why we don’t have a lot of queer representation, specifically in film, is because of the Hays Code, which basically said that that you couldn’t show anything ‘unsavory’ in film, which included gay people. You couldn’t be explicit about being queer, so queer coding was birthed as a way to get around that,” said Lillith Farrell, a transgender sophomore.
However, despite this workaround, queer coding can have detrimental effects.
“A lot of companies have the tendency to queer code villains. If the only representation that you’re getting in mainstream media is that gay people are evil, I would say that’s arguably worse than no representation at all. However, because the queer community is starved for representation, there are companies that will try to skirt the line between including representation and keeping their profits,” Farrell said.
Even when characters in mainstream media are explicitly depicted as members of the LGBTQ+ community, they are often trapped in a one-dimensional portrayal of their identity. For genderqueer characters, this often manifests itself in the false pretense that gender expression is limited and genderqueer people must conform to a specific image, most frequently ones characterized by complete androgyny or the ability to present as cisgender, also known as passing. This limited representation of genderqueer individuals in mainstream media has bled into today’s genderqueer community and is often a reflection of the treatment or pressure they face.
“Even though there are times where I’ll occasionally identify under the umbrella term transgender, I recognize that I will never experience the hate and danger that openly transgender people do because at the end of the day, while I may feel like something, I may pass as something else. I think that there’s this huge issue of passing privilege,” Valle-Remond said.
However, privilege within the queer community extends past presenting as a certain identity. Race can also play a critical role in the severity of discrimination that a queer person may face.
“White genderqueer people will never experience the hate or violence that comes with being a genderqueer person of color. They might face some sort of discrimination, but it will never necessarily be the same level of oppression that is systemically present in the lives of queer people of color,” Valle-Remond said.
According to a study that analyzed queer Canadian women of color’s perceptions of how white privilege shapes the LGBTQ+ community, the researchers found that oftentimes, queer women of color reported feeling invisible or were discriminated against on a more frequent basis than their white counterparts. Additionally, most mainstream media representations of the queer community focused solely on white people, further alienating queer people of color.
“Queer liberation and the liberation of people of color intersect; you can’t have one without the other. That’s why it’s so important for queer white people to recognize that they are white before they are queer. You can’t replace your whiteness with your queerness,” Valle-Remond said.
Taking back power: The fight to reclaim slurs
Despite the positive or politically charged energy of queer vocabulary today, some words carry a darker history.
“Especially in the 1970s, queer terminology was full of slurs so a lot of people were ashamed to be queer, which is really valid because of all the hateful words surrounding the queer community. However, during and after the gay liberation movement, more people started to reclaim those words and take back the power behind them,” Valle-Remond said.
The gay liberation movement, a social and political movement that took place from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, was characterized by radical beliefs and actions centered around empowering and fighting for the rights of the queer community. Amidst this, discussions on queer slurs began to take place, and the idea of reclaiming them was popularized.
“There’s been a lot of debate and discourse over who can say slurs and which ones. For example, I’m in strong disagreement with the idea that bisexual women can use the D-slur because that’s a slur that’s used against lesbian and bisexual women are not lesbians,” Valle-Remond said.
Reclaiming slurs is the act of a marginalized community taking a disparaging word formerly used to negatively target their identity and identifying with it, thus negating its derogatory connotation and taking back power from their oppressors.
“If you want to reclaim a slur, it has to be very clear whether or not you can reclaim it; the lines can’t be blurry. You have to be really clear about its history, where it came from, who it’s been used against, and how you identify with it. Slurs aren’t quirky words to reclaim for fun; they have meaning behind them,” Valle-Remond said.
Despite the feelings of empowerment and pride some may feel after using a reclaimed slur, others may feel uncomfortable with its usage due to its derogatory history, while some are indifferent. Across the LGBTQ+ community, attitudes toward reclaiming slurs vastly differ depending on the person, their experiences, and a multitude of other factors.
“As long as people don’t have bad intentions when using a slur, I don’t really care if they use it in a joking or non-harmful way. For me, the intent behind the words is what matters,” Enthoven said.
However, the context and environment in which a slur is used can greatly affect one’s comfort levels. Enthoven recalls an experience she once had online with slurs and the difference the environment in which it occurred in played.
“Had it happened in real life, I would’ve felt physically unsafe and worried for my safety. However, when this sort of stuff happens online, there’s not as much of an immediate threat unless you’ve been doxxed,” Enthoven said.
The extra blanket of security that the internet offers often goes both ways; based on his own experiences, David Diaz, a junior, has noticed that he encounters hate speech more frequently in online communities.
“I feel like slur usage is a lot more common online because people censor themselves less. There’s less accountability for people’s actions because there aren’t any consequences,” Diaz said.
Still, despite the many nuances slurs and their users can carry, the ability to reclaim a slur can be very liberating for some. In many cases, the act of reclaiming a slur has also become a way to make a political statement.
“For a lot of people, queer has taken on more political meaning. Their sexuality isn’t just who they love; it’s who they are. The term queer has been reclaimed to make it very clear that the LGBTQ+ community’s goal isn’t to assimilate into the straight community; it’s to stand out,” Valle-Remond said.
Echoing this sentiment, Valle-Remond remembers a conversation they once had with someone regarding Harvey Milk’s legacy and the impact of his activism. Milk, California’s first openly gay elected official, was known for his queer activism, although his approach was considered controversial to some.
“The guy I was talking to was explaining how Harvey Milk and everybody else in the 1970s perpetuated the belief that queer people were exactly the same as straight people but the only difference was who they loved. He strongly disagreed with that attitude and was like, ‘No, that made us feel like we had to act straight to be valid,’” Valle-Remond said.
Despite the long, complex history of queer activism, activists have greatly propelled the queer community and their rights forward.
“I think activism is a very brave way to make change because there’s always been a lot of pushback and violence against change. I think that people who not only protest for their rights but the rights of their entire community are incredibly brave for putting their lives on the line for something that they believe is right and should change. I think that’s very powerful,” Diaz said.