Tag Archives: Communication

Our Queer Language

Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”

Speak my language

This post is about the difficulty of defining sexual orientation.

But it is also about the struggle to create a decent (that is, successful) resume for a tough economy. Indeed, it is even more broadly about the challenge of adequately presenting identity at all.

The word “queer” seems to be in fashion in Vermont. I see it used by RUI2, Outright Vermont, and many of the people I have encountered, especially youth. Of late I’ve taken to using the word myself, identifying as “queer” rather than “gay”.

The word “queer” of course has a mixed history, being both a pejorative as well as, perhaps ironically, a word of pride. Sometimes its status as either appears to ebb and wane through the decades; at other times it appears to possess both characteristics simultaneously.

In effect, it is a queer word itself.

Yet it also seems to be the best word we currently have.

The LGBT community has a serious letter problem. Or I should say the LGBTQ, or maybe LGBTQAA, or is it LGBTQAAI or LGBTQ*? Indeed, those of us middle-aged remember it as GLBT, the L and G getting switched somewhere along the way.

The addition of each letter is supposed to make it more inclusive, but in a way it defeats itself, especially if we are not careful in our thinking. It reminds me of the debate about adding the Bill of Rights to the Constitution of the United States, where it comprises the first ten amendments.

We have inalienable rights. The ninth amendment itself is very clear on just how broadly this should be interpreted:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Yet we tend to gloss over its stunningly bold and arguably sweeping statement of the individual and focus instead on the comparatively weak checklist quality of the other nine. Focus to the point that we give those other nine entries in the Bill of Rights some kind of comprehensive status rather than viewing them more accurately as emphatic.

Likewise with LGBT (or GLBT). Its original intent may have been to be more like the ninth amendment in its scope. However, Each letter represents a category that, like the Bill of Rights (with the exception of the ninth), inevitably leaves something out; leaves someone out. So the “solution” has been to add more letters.

But each of those letters becomes yet another unintentionally narrow category – another checklist box – that may or may not quite accurately fit the person. In many ways I am such a person, though I’ve commonly used “gay” as the best fit.

I have had sex with women. Two, actually, which is still plural, but is less than the number of such encounters I have had with men. Still, less or not, that sexual history is part of me. It is also a part of me that I could “get it up” for a woman.

Yet, I do not consider myself bisexual according to my understanding of the word. For the “getting it up” I mentioned has less to do with attraction, arousal, or desire, and more to do with the mechanics of body, blood flow to penis, and the manly urge to ejaculate.

Sure, there was some attraction, arousal, and desire present in the opposite sex encounters, but it was situation-driven rather than because of orientation.

“Gay” seemed to be a closer fit, encompassing my spontaneous thoughts of such things. With a woman I have to deliberately think about whether or not she is attractive, whereas with a man such notions arise automatically and instantaneously.

So I’ve usually described myself as gay.

But for whom is that term necessary? Defining myself as gay does nothing to facilitate my own understanding of self and it does not change my history in the least. I am still who I am, who I was, and who I will be.

Instead the definition is for the benefit of the world at large; an attempt at conveying who I am to others who are not me.

Yet, whatever word I use is going to be colored by the experiences of the reader, who necessarily can only understand it as a category; a category that will not – can never — have quite the same hue as my own understanding of it.

Such is the problem of language in general. It is adequately functional at best and highly dysfunctional at worst. If I say think of “chair”, we are both thinking of the same thing and yet not of the same thing. For your thought of “chair” brings to that particular neuronal firing all of your previous chair thoughts, constructing it accordingly.

Typically such disparity is close enough for government work.

If I asked you to sit in a chair, I likely wouldn’t find you sitting on the floor due to an intractable misunderstanding of the term. On a day-to-day, we can make corrections, too, that alleviate some of that discrepancy by being more precise: “Hand me a screwdriver… no, I meant the Phillips screwdriver.”

Neither my coloring nor yours changes the reality of chair or screwdriver. Likewise our back and forth refinement of such terms only affects our alignment of language to one another and not the underlying object itself being thus referenced.

Resumes present a similar issue. I have certain work experiences I wish to convey. Did I collaborate with team members or did I communicate with them? Did I coordinate that program or manage it? Did I write content or create it?

All of those action words are true, yet they fall short of the elusive whole truth. The unchanged reality of what I have done – the chair and screwdriver of my work history – gets put into a category that limits it, sometimes to detrimental effect:

The employer might assume you can’t do work A because the terms they associate with doing work A are not present in your resume. I’ve been trying – quite unsuccessfully so far – to tweak my resume with each new application in such a way that I can generate a favorable response; one that, in my eyes, more accurately reflects the breadth and depth of my capabilities.

A resume, at its core, is an expression of identity; a work identity. A sexual orientation is another one. And of course there are innumerable others, all of which get continually tweaked during communication as we attempt to convey who we are in the best, most clearly understood, way possible.

Queer is much broader and inclusive than the paint-by-letters of LGBTQA-Z. For me, it encompasses the entire spectrum of gender attraction, identity, and expression. For I cannot think of anything more wonderfully strange and beautifully odd than the underlying diversity that is inherently present by us each being unique.

Of course, that might instill the comment that “straight” people should fall into that category as well, indeed making everyone queer.

Well, yeah, in a perfect world I think they should and think they would. For in a perfect world, everyone recognizes everyone else as being sovereign of their own selves; recognizes and respects that sovereignty.

For now, though, the world is queerly imperfect.

So when I write “queer” protagonists I am writing characters “outside the norm”; however, for them queer is the norm, as it is for me. We’re just waiting for the world to catch up.