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I love language. I love its power, beauty, and flaws. I adore etymology, linguistic anthropology, linguistic semantics, and collecting interesting quotations. Some of my most-prized possessions are books, including a signed, first-edition/first-pressing of Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird.” Language can do more than any other force on Earth, for good or otherwise.
You may not be familiar with this word, but it’s a fun one: argot. An argot is a special vocabulary of a particular group. They can be very useful as a tool for group cohesion and identity. For example, asking “When does the narwhal bacon?” is used by Redditors to identify themselves in public to other Redditors. (I don’t feel bad about spilling the beans because only Redditors even know what a Redditor is, anyway).
Lots of groups do this in lots of different ways. In cases where there is some kind of motivation to keep the information secret unless you know how the other person will take it, you can use argot and see what happens. An old-fashioned term for this among gay people is “dropping bobbies” or “dropping hairpins.” For example, you can mention Brokeback Mountain and see if your conversation partner reacts negatively or not. Argots work in much the same way: Among other things, they help LGBT people & allies identify each other in conversation without asking directly.
If you don’t have a background in LGBTQ issues, you may be inadvertently causing offense. I presume that, if you are causing harm unintentionally, you would like to know about it. So, that’s why I’m writing this.
I sometimes see even otherwise well-educated people make errors in this realm. I do it myself! I understand that it’s not out of malice and I hope no one blames people for honest mistakes. But in the interest of correcting these things, I want to point out a couple of misused terms I’ve noticed floating around the interwebz and in conversation… No one is upset here, but I think that by educating people about this, we can all live a little more peacefully.
Not all people, even among LGBTQ activists, agree about the correct or incorrect use of all these terms, or as I like to say, “Homosexual does not mean homogeneous.” If you’re unsure, ask! Even the “stupidest” question will be well-received if you make an effort to come across as sincere and genuinely curious in your inquiry. Most of us – if not all of us – are very understanding people who desire to get along and help everyone become more educated about this. It’s just a matter of consciousness-raising, and patience is a big part of that. We’re not out to get you if you say the wrong word or something!
It seems to me that a lot of people are either 1) unaware that they are causing offense or 2) aware that they may be causing offense but don’t know what words to use instead, and are afraid to ask, for fear of offending someone. I can’t speak for all LGBTQ activists when I say this, but I would much prefer you ask and show me that you are at least trying to have empathy, than to say nothing.
It’s perfectly okay to talk about this stuff and we don’t mind if you bring it up (if we have the time and are in the mood to discuss it). In fact, a lot of us appreciate your interest, if you’re respectful and sincere about it.
A lot of us activists enjoy talking about these things, especially people like me, who are interested in linguistics. In linguistics, this is called “lavender language” and it has its own jargon flush with highly-charged semantic underpinnings. No one expects you to know all of this as if by magic. But if you’re trying to forge a friendship or conversation with a foundation of respect, it really goes a LONG WAY to get the details right, and I hope to help with that in my post today.
Let’s start with “LGBTQ” itself. This stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (or Transsexual), and Queer (or Questioning). Some people leave it at LGBT (or sometimes GLBT); others append one or more Qs, and -I or -IA for intersex & ally. I have seen LGBTTQQIA in print (for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual,Transgender, Transsexual, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, & Ally), although personally I think that’s too unwieldy to be useful. I prefer “LGBTQ,” or when referring to allies like me, “LGBTQ ally,” but you are unlikely to offend anyone if you stick with “LGBT.”
This is a huge topic and obviously I’m not going to be able to cover everything in one post. A lot of LGBTQ activists will probably disagree with me about this or that aspect of lavender language, and that’s okay. I encourage further reading if this topic interests you. For now, without further ado, here are some pointers for those interested, but afraid to ask:
Why is this important for skeptics?
Lots of reasons. First of all, much of what Western society has historically considered “normal” romantic relationships is based on Christian dogmatic pronouncements on the topic that are not in line with real life. Humans are not, and never have been, monogamous, two-gendered, two-sexed animals. The trumped-up idealization of a male/masculine paired with a female/feminine in a lifelong relationship with no premarital sex and no masturbation, no exceptions, is more-or-less unique to Judeo-Christian cultures. It’s archaic, harmful, and it denies our heritage and sexual expression as intelligent animals. It’s also not even true within Judeo-Christian cultures, even though a lot of Christians pretend that it is, the same way many of them lie through their teeth about, for example, masturbation.
Throughout history and throughout world cultures, other genders have been recognized, and sexual relationships are not really expected to be 1) monogamous or 2) life-long. Not that we can’t have cissexual lifelong relationships with no premarital sex and no masturbation if that makes us happy and feel comfortable in our bodies doing so, but putting pressure toward these characteristics as a cultural norm for everyone is not only harmful to our nature for many people, but it makes a lot of people very unhappy, trying to live up to expectations that may not be realistic or even healthy.
It’s like blaming someone for not being able to fly. Some animals can do that, like falcons or hummingbirds or pterodactyls, but it’s just not in our biology, much as we might fantasize about it in our dreams and in comic books. Lots of people would be very happy to try out flying, and consider it a success as far as their lives are concerned, but it’s just not a realistic expectation given our biology.
But we can do lots of things that falcons and hummingbirds and pterodactyls can’t do. We can write books, we can use computers, we can fly to the Moon! It takes all kinds to make the world go ’round. THERE IS NOTHING INFERIOR OR UNDESIRABLE about not identifying with the two-gender/two-sex “model,” nor with the lifelong-monogamy model, nor with the no-premarital-sex/no-masturbation model. These things are just not part of what makes us human. I say we embrace it!
There is another, very important reason that these issues matter to skeptics, and this will be the subject of Saturday’s post.
Until next time,
Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, he posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.