This isn’t nor shouldn’t be news to anyone who has ever met me. Yes, I get offended quite easily. I would prefer those around me not to use derogatory words or actions. Usually, I open a dialogue as to why I have those feelings and how the two of us can come to an understanding. Less often, I snap and speak harshly toward another human.
This writing is the first step toward opening a dialogue discussing how language usage, gender norms, and behavior can create change. Knowledge is the first step toward social inclusivity, which strives to provide a space for all humans to feel safe. I do this in several ways: reflecting on my language and its effects on the listener; researching gender, queer, and sexual spectrums to best comprehend those around me; and incorporating this language and research into behavior that supports and respects humans regardless of ability, gender, or sexuality.
I can assume that if you are reading this, you are a human and use language to communicate. Your expressions may look, sound, or feel different from mine, but we all use them to express needs, wants, and emotions. Because I am only fluent in English, I will use that as my platform. In this section, I want to discuss several words, phrases, or connotations that really grind my gears. When I hear these words, I look at the person who said it, and usually ask, “Is that word the best choice to describe what you’re really feeling?” Or, “There are hundreds of thousands of words in this language. Is that the most thoughtful one you can come up with?” Or, seldom, “Your ignorance annoys me. Choose a different word.” These words span ability, gender, and sexuality. Every human has a right to feel safe in conversations and discussions.
A. Retarded: I have pioneered for this word to be taken out of everyday vernacular for longer than I can remember. It has become a colloquial term for anything or any person that is not up to the speaker’s expectation. Basically, it suggests that humans with non-traditional learning abilities are “less than.” There is the argument that, “everyone uses it that way. It has lost the negative connotation, so it doesn’t matter anymore.” It hasn’t lost its negative connotations; there is often a note of derision when used. It does matter. By allowing this term, we look over the marginalization of a particular group of humans based solely on ability over which they have no control.
B. Pussy and Man Up: As in, “Jeez, don’t be a pussy. Man up.” I’ve just started changing my use of this word due to an enlightened conversation with a friend of mine. Let’s just be clear; pussy is slang for vagina. By saying, “Don’t be a pussy,” one makes a lot of assumptions about vaginas and those who have them. It proposes that vaginas or females are beneath their male counterparts. It is like saying, “Oh, you’re scared? You must be a woman,” which sets up dangerous gender expectations for our future. In a separate, but equally important vein, “Man up” is derogatory to both men and women. It gives the listener a very clear idea of expectations for men, and what they must do to be a “man.” It also suggests that only men can be strong in both a physical or emotional way, and women cannot attain that strength. Ever.
C. Dick: This is my newest one yet! I was talking with some folks on Saturday and it dawned on me that I can’t campaign for inclusive language that only targets my gender, orientation, or ability. Just as “pussy” declares that women are weaker than men, “dick” perpetuates the idea that humans with a penis are rude, impatient, or generally bad people. That is just a bold-faced lie. I have met at least one man-type human who wasn’t like that.
D. Fag or Dyke: It seems almost silly that I need to reiterate that this slur is hurtful and still very offensive. Often, hate drips from these words used to cause pain or condemn someone. In some countries, governments (e.g. Sudan, Brunei) enacted laws stating that death is the most suitable punishment for homosexuals. In many others, queer people continue to be second class citizens within the legal system. Conversely, some people use fag or dyke as an endearing term. This opens a discussion of reclamation, which suggests that people within the targeted minority group (e.g. homosexual men and women) can take a slur and use it in a positive way to show empowerment. I take umbrage with this because it greys the line between who can and cannot toss it about, “I’m not gay, but I’m an ally. I am showing solidarity in reclaiming it.” In my opinion, one cannot reclaim what was never theirs.
This is not meant to infringe your freedom of speech. You are welcome to use whatever words or phrases suit you. However, I would invite you to think deeply about your word choice. Imagine whom it affects or has affected. I encourage you to move gaily forward in your own discussions of language and inclusivity. Of course, if you have any questions or comments about any terms or ideas in this, please feel free to contact me.
Coming next: thoughts on gender norms and inclusive behavior.