Earlier this year, Merriam-Webster (M-W) dictionary has added the terms “genderqueer,” “genderfluid,” and “transphobia,” as well as the gender-neutral title “Mx.” (replacing Mr. or Ms.) to the lexicon of approved words. As Robin and I finish our preparations for our discussion of polyamory and non-monogamy this Thursday (see the end of the post for more details), this has me thinking about the evolution of language, particularly with respect to a generational gap.
After announcing the new additions to the dictionary (not all of which are sexuality and gender based), M-W tweeted, “People keep (1) saying they don’t know what ‘genderqueer’ means then (2) asking why we added it to the dictionary.” M-W makes a valid point: their role is a reactive one, one in which they examine terms that have been in mainstream language for some time and have reached a critical mass of use such that they should be defined. They do not endorse a particular perspective, stance, or political thought with respect to the concepts language seeks to define; they simply level the playing ground so that everyone is utilizing with the same definitions of terms.
For example: if M-W added the term “alt-right” to the dictionary, it is neither an endorsement of the alt-right (a term I despise, most notably because I view it as a rebranding of Nazi-thought fascism and white supremacy) nor is it a political alignment with them. However, if enough people begin to use that term, it will need to be coherently defined.
I often joke that “every conversation is a miscommunication” in the sense that we all define language- particularly self-descriptive language- in our own ways. By using certain shorthands, we assume that other people’s definitions, expectations, and connotations with certain words are the same as our own. But the reality is, of course, that we use language to communicate and, as such, it is important that we are all working from a similar baseline definition.
It also brings to mind the evolution of language. The term “queer,” for
example, began as a term to describe something “strange, unusual, not the norm,” and has slowly evolved to be a derogatory term for LGBT people, and has further evolved as a reclaimed term of power for self-identification (I, for example, identify as queer) (read more here). And now, of course, we see that evolution go one step further to “genderqueer,” a term that moves beyond the default synonym to sexual orientation, instead defining a broader sense of the term “queer.” In fact, in many ways, this usage of “queer” harkens back to the original definition, in the sense that it is, basically, “a gender that is unusual and not defined within our binary scope.”
M-W’s addition of gender-neutral language does not make the language “more real.” I first came across the term “genderqueer” in 2003-4 at a conference for LGBTQ youth. Non-binary language has been around for quite a while. In fact, I wonder if LGBTQ individuals around my age were exposed to these terms and, now that we have reached the point in our lives where we are part of the public discourse (not just online, but in academic publications, as editors, and as teachers), we are a part of moving our subculture language into the mainstream. It’s certainly possible, although I will not be so bold as to claim that the youth are responsible for normalizing non-binary language.
But our understanding and definitions have changed. I see this not only with concepts like “queer,” but also with non-monogamy. Non-monogamy is becoming more normalized and viewed as a possible, substantial alternate method of relationship. This is a result, of course, of many things: greater access to information via the internet; more open, accepting ideas of sex (hallelujah!); an economic situation in which couples can barely scrape by on two incomes; and the idea that non-monogamy is a viable, long-term relationship structure, not simply group sex in the wild club years (before we settle down) or something to try after 20 years of marriage when the sex life might have gotten a little stale.
This isn’t to say that there haven’t been plenty of non-monogamous couples before the millennial generation’s fascination with it. But that is to say that concepts like “swingers” (which tend to be older crowds); “open relationships” (where there were rules such as “you can have sex but don’t fall in love”); and “polygamists” (which meant you were part of a patriarchal religious cult) are the somewhat notorious archetypes of non-monogamy, and we are seeing those archetypes shifting. Slowly, but they are shifting.
Which brings me to a final point: the definitions in the dictionary are not
always the same as the vernacular definitions. Terms like “literally” are often used as their own antonym (e.g. “I could literally eat a bear right now.” is meant to be interpreted as a figurative statement). Queer, while still meaning “strange, weird, unusual,” was used as a derogatory term long before that was ever included in the dictionary, and “non-monogamy” still makes people think swingers or polygamists, even though the definition is simply “to be in a sexual relationship with more than one person” (although I don’t believe the term has made it into M-W yet. Perhaps next year!).
In addition, we have a certain obsession with what we consider to be
“proper” English- though very rarely in our conversations do we speak with “proper” English. Academic discourse is an important, vital part of our linguistic dialects- but it is only one part. Cultural and regional language- the twang of Southern Appalachia, the abbreviations of text speak, the language of urban street culture in Baltimore- these are just as important (if not more, since they are what we interact with the most). Language can be used to separate “us” and “them”… and used as an oppressive tool. “He doesn’t sound black,” often means that a person of color is speaking in formal, academic English, and the insinuation is that “sounding black” means “sounding uneducated.” The same is often true of those with a strong Southern accent, particularly in mountain region accents.
Formal, academic English is one of many dialects of English spoken in this country, but it is not the most important one. It is a tool, and it is one that is often used in an oppressive manner, to determine who is educated in a certain manner (and thus, considered to be “intelligent”). It is important that we learn to navigate academic language; however, it is also important that we do not utilize academic discourse as a means of silencing others who speak with their own, unique, beautiful languages.
Language is tricky, and I don’t envy M-W the job of defining complex sociological and cultural terms in clear, coherent, concise ways. But the role of the dictionary is to give us all a starting place, a beginning to understanding the language we use to describe the evolving world we live in. Their role is not to legitimize our lives by recognizing new language, but simply to help us refine and sharpen a useful tool for conversation, discourse, and growth.
One of the best things about sharing this mission with Malachi is how he brings both a younger and a more sexually diverse vantage point to my awareness. For example, recently he mentioned that Merriam-Webster had added “genderqueer” to their dictionary. And then I discovered they also added “cisgender.”
This is really good news!! Both terms are relatively recent additions to the vocabulary, arising in the LGBT community as part of the ongoing need to find, or create, terms that describe the lived experience of people whose lives had been kept largely under wraps. Merriam-Webster, and other language authorities, are once again helping to open closet doors too long kept nailed shut.
Genderqueer is a way of “relating to, or being a person whose gender identity cannot be categorized as solely male or female.” Cisgender refers to a person whose gender identity corresponds to their sex at birth.
I am cisgendered (“Congratulations, you have a baby boy,” the doctor said to my mother in the delivery room).
And in some ways, I think of myself as genderqueer. Every time someone looks twice at me because of my dangly earrings, which most people would consider feminine, I am reminded that although I have male genitalia and body hair I also am feeling “girly stuff,” too.
Nor is this drag—although I have nothing against doing drag, and have enjoyed some good times in drag on special occasions in earlier years. This is me.
In 1994, I wrote a poem, and it still reflects truth about, in, me.
My Two Ears
I said to the women who asked,
I wear two earrings because I have two ears.
Unable to choose between them,
not knowing which ear properly deserves adornment this year,
the simpler thing to do is an earring in each ear;
but then I know the simple is not always simple for those
whose simple is different from one’s own.
The woman wondered not only why I had an earring in each ear
but why like my ears the earrings were a matching set.
Earrings like that she said are for women.
I told her I bought them at a shop called Czarina.
She decided I was not a woman
but a man wearing earrings in the feminine mode.
What kind of man does she think I am,
is she confused because I break the rules
which determine for her who is a man and who is a woman
or does she merely think me a strange man who disobeys,
or a stupid man who does not know—
I wear two earrings because I have two ears,
two lovely ears between which I will not choose.
I’d like someone to nibble on one and then the other
and then the other again,
not showing partiality to one ear more than the other,
just a desire for my ears,
or most deliciously perhaps two someones taking turns
nibbling one on one ear, one on the other
while I moan and giggle in gratitude.
They could even remove the rings if they’d like;
I will replace them later for another woman (or man or child).
Everyone needs a man wearing rings in each ear
if only to ask,
why are you wearing two earrings in two ears?
This poem reflects my genderqueerness (a term I did not have in 1994) as well as my involvement in the Radical Faeries in the 80s and 90s, which is where I really got in touch with, and learned to live in, my own sense of being queer. Although I am not currently active with the Faeries, my faerie/queer spirit burns strong and true yet today.
In case you don’t know about the Faeries, I often describe them/us as a loosely-knit gaggle of free spirits who are often irreverent, playful, even as spiritually inclined, mostly gay men but some bi-men and occasionally women, too). Lots of Faeries wear drag or simply skirts or caftans and the like, and go naked often, too. For more information, click here or here or here). Wikipedia says Faeries are “a loosely affiliated worldwide network and counter-cultural movement seeking to redefine queer consciousness through spirituality.”
Queer. Queer consciousness. What do those terms mean? Malachi and I wrote about our understanding of Queer on October 26, 2016 in “Queer Is a Verb” (click here), and I don’t want to restate all that was said there. If you did not read it then, I encourage you to do so now.However, it is important to me to say here that I experience, and practice, queerness as a disruption of norms that, while they may be useful in ordering society also serve to stifle new ways of understanding and relating to reality. That is why I am pleased that genderqueer is being mainstreamed. It’s an apt way for me to explain myself, sometimes to myself as well as to others.
At the same time, it is queer, and certainly Faerie-like, to say that it is not Merriam-Webster that makes the term acceptable; it is the actual lives, experiences, emotions, and passions of genderqueers that do that. The dictionary is not the authority on but the recorder of social change, offering a reflection of what already is before it is recorded.
Genderqueer gives us a way to see queerness in personal terms. I often think of other forms of queerness, such as local Catholic house church gatherings that are led by women—claiming their faith against the patriarchal Rome-centered curia. To me, this is an example of queerness because these groups don’t get caught up in arguing with the power structure so much as undermining it by living their own faithful Catholic reality.
To me, that can be called spiritqueer, something that brought Metropolitan Community Churches into being. When Troy Perry asked when he should start a church for queer people, he heard “Now.” That is, was, in my view, God’s undermining the rules most of God’s people, and certainly their leaders, thought were from God.
That’s queer. Praise God!
And God is waiting on us to claim our heritage, and queer things, queer church, queer our country, some more. I hope you will think about how you can contribute . . . I have some earrings I could share.
We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!
What do you think influences your sense of your own body, your relationship with your body? And what influences how you see and evaluate the bodies of others? What bodies are most sexy for you? Is your own body sexy for you? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
Join Us Third Thursdays!
Please join us THURSDAY, December 15th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.
Sacred, Not Secret, Part 2: Beyond the Norm
We invite you to join us on Thursday, Dec 15th for the second part of the series, “Sacred, Not Secret” where Malachi Grennell and Rev. Dr. Robin H. Gorsline continue to discuss alternative expressions of sexuality and intimacy from a Christian perspective. On December 15, they will begin to explore non-normative relationship structures, focusing on non-monogamous relationships. This one-hour workshop will examine different aspects of non-monogamy, as well as discuss ways that we can be more open and inclusive to non-monogamous families in our churches and communities–because do not doubt that you know and interact with such families, in church and elsewhere.