Words Words Words
Language has always fascinated me: the way words come to represent concepts (or to misrepresent them,) the ways the things which words represent can change and evolve, and how sometimes the words follow suit, and sometimes they don’t. Words and language are so powerful, so complex, and yet they have no reality in and of themselves. Stripped of context, language is merely a series of letters and/or sounds. In context, however, they can create or destroy whole worlds.
Here I am, a self-identified bisexual woman, writing for The New Gay. The New Gay is intended to be for all of us, for the LGBTQIAetc. folks who may not fit the narrow or stereotypical categories that the word “gay” often conjures in our societal mind, both within and outside of the LGBTQIAetc. communities. The word “gay” is, of course, a loaded one. Gay means many different things to different people. For some, it is an umbrella term encompassing much of the spectrum on sexuality which diverges from “straight.” For some, it is very specific, meaning “exclusively homosexual” applying to men or women. Some people prefer not to use the term “gay” in relation to women, preferring the word “lesbian.” All of these labels are both very political and personal. For some, gay is a measurable element of a person’s makeup: a person may be more or less “gay” depending on any number of factors, from their “level of attraction” to their own gender to their taste in clothes or music.
The term “bisexual” or “bi” is similarly loaded, if not even more so. Bi carries many negative connotations which we who identify as bisexuals have battled for a long time. Someone may be accurately and honestly described as bisexual if they have any attraction to more than one gender. Anywhere along the spectrum that is not exclusively hetero- or homosexual may be described as bisexual. Recently, I heard someone in a conversation speculate that a certain individual might be “gay with a touch of bi” or “straight with a touch of bi.” When I called him out on it, he attributed the terminology to Dan Savage. These sorts of descriptors enter highly problematic linguistic ground, since the categories which one attempts to describe with this language fit solidly within the range of what it means to be bisexual… actually bisexual.
Of course, every person is free to identify as they wish. As I said, all of these labels may be very politically loaded, and it is a very personal decision how one wishes to label oneself, if they wish to label themselves at all. A person may have attraction to the same gender and choose not to identify with the label “gay” because the word carries certain implications and connotations from which the person wishes to distance him or herself. Same with bi. Same with straight or queer or trans or any other label that isn’t purely scientifically descriptive. Some prefer the idea that labels are for soup cans, not for human beings, that the attempt to label or identify at all by these loaded descriptives reduces their sense of self, or the sense others will gain of them as individual, living, dynamic, and fluid people.
Others may see such reluctance as cowardice, as a betrayal of the groups with which such an individual may potentially identify and ally, especially for purposes of advocacy. To a certain extent, the fear of these groups is not unfounded. Public advocacy relies to a large degree on numbers of people identifying with the group being advocated for. Every woman who is attracted to women but refuses to identify as a lesbian is one potential member lesbian activists lose from their ranks, from the number of those for they can claim to speak. Every self-identified lesbian with some attraction to men, or self-identified gay man with some attraction to women who refuses the label “bisexual” is in a sense lost from our movement, and is in a sense complicit in the negativity attached to the term. Distancing is, after all, often indicative of, and easily read as, distaste. The act of taking on, casting off, accepting, or refusing labels, while very personal and, in a sense, relevant only to the individual, is also a way of choosing sides, of declaring or refuting allegiance.
And so, there is a dilemma. The highly personal may have highly public ramifications: the local becomes global. People become pieces in a strategic board game of activism and advocacy, and every pawn counts. At the same time, of course, my life is no one’s but my own, and the same is true of you and yours. Different people have different feelings about what it means to take on a label, to declare or obscure elements of one’s identity with specific words. I went through a phase of despising labels… it was roughly from ages 15 through 22. I could not stand the idea of the box a word creates, which allows the observer to simplify the observed and put him/her/it on a shelf in their mind. The Jew box. The gay box. The bi box. My battle with words during this time went far beyond personal identifiers… it extended to concepts, to events. I still cringe when people say “nine-eleven” because it is a shorthand for an event that for me can never shorthanded. It’s a meaningless soundbite that makes the whole thing seem way too simple, too manageable. September 11th 2001 was not manageable… just like a human being is not manageable.
Somewhere along the way, someone understood my issues and introduced me to Wittgenstein and Derrida, thank God.
I’m older now, and I’ve come to terms with the necessity of language and its flaws and dangers. I’ve learned how to use and play with and subvert language and its paradigms, labels and their connotations and implications. My linguistic needs constantly shift, and I work to navigate those shifts, trying to keep the balance between retaining integrity and communicating effectively. It is a constant battle to ensure that the words with which we are forced to communicate are understood in your mind similarly to the way in which they are understood in mine… which often requires even more words. It never ends, and it feels sometimes like running on a giant linguistic hamster wheel with no way out.
Language is powerful. It is confusing. It can be dangerous. It can be comforting or it can be stifling. What are words but labels? Must we label things, people, concepts, movements, ourselves, in order to understand them? Not necessarily. For communication? Usually. And so, those of us who are not hermits continue to swim through the murky waters trying to find one another.
My point? Respect the power of a label: its power to build and its power to destroy, to reinforce and to undermine. Use them with caution, and try not to judge others in their own attempts at wielding words, especially when they are self-directed. What I call myself may, indeed, affect you and your life, and what you call yourself may affect me and my life. This is important to remember. Equally important, is that what I call myself is, ultimately, about me and not about you.
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