Queering Language

The dictionary is not the authority on but the recorder of social change . . . .


14947937_10100747005631839_8991378826366585167_nEarlier 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.


revrobin2-023One 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).

merriam-websterAnd 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—
oh enough—
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.

Workshop description:

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.

As Metropolitan Community Church strives to move forward and maintain relevance with shifting social mores, the MCC Office of Formation and Leadership Development offers Sex, Bodies, Spirit online on the third Thursday of every month at 3 p.m. Eastern Time. This workshop is approved as a continuing education course for MCC clergy (.5 credit for each session) and focuses on equipping and empowering leaders to bring these conversations to their communities. Although a primary focus is on clergy education, everyone is welcome to attend and participate.

What’s Your Body Language?

Can we not grasp the divine origins, the godliness, of our bodies—every part, every orifice, every appendage, every organ, every inch of skin?

by Robin Gorsline and Malachi Grennell

Introduction: How we talk about something can be, at times at least, as important as what we say about it. The language we use often says something about how we feel about the subject; likewise, our language is often impacted by our audience. When it comes to sex, the language, the terms we use at the bar drinking with friends, or with a sexual partner, may not be the same ones we use a classroom, at church (if we ever talk about “it” at church), or in print. In writing this blog, we have struggled with our language around bodies and sexuality, trying to speak to an audience that is ever fluctuating and changing. This week, we decided to explore the tension inherent in our “body language” and how we can bring the sacredness of our bodies and sexualities together with the vernacular language that is so often branded as “dirty”.

Malachi GrennellMalachi: Cunt. Dick. Pussy. Cock. Ass. The vernacular language describing different arrangements of genitalia may feel comfortable for some, while others find those words distasteful and prefer more clinical language, such as penis or vagina (or, in some cases, vulva). Language can be a tricky, complicated landscape to navigate. Perhaps we are more comfortable using words that describe our own anatomy, while those words that define anatomy different than our own might feel more awkward or foreign, particularly if we gravitate toward same-sex tendencies.

For myself, for example, the word “pussy” used to make me feel really uncomfortable, and not at all something that would describe any genitalia I have. Whenever I heard it used, it reminded me of watching heterosexual porn: some cisgendered man with a particularly prodigious member penetrating a petite cisgendered woman growling, “You like when I fuck that pussy?” while going at it.

Perhaps that’s too graphic of an image, although the reality is, many people watch porn and, in my experience, a considerable amount of porn, includes some aspect of “dirty talk.” It feels almost humorous to imagine that same situation wherein the man instead says, “You like it when I penetrate your vagina?” That feels less… sexy, less rough, less… something.

Basic RGBHaving the vernacular language to discuss our genitals contributes something to our language and I think it’s an important component in how we talk about our bodies and our sexualities- as well as how we use our bodies and sexualities to denigrate one another.

There seems to be a time and a place to use certain language, and it’s something that Robin and I have struggled with in writing this blog. We are, after all, writing about bodies and sexuality, yet tend to favor the more clinical language of penis and vagina in our writing. That has been a conscious choice, but sometimes, it has felt awkward and clunky. So, like everything else that we struggle with, we’ve decided to write about the language itself.

I remember my partner, Kase, coming home one evening while he was in his last semester of nursing school. He was working with a group called the Western North Carolina Community AIDS Project (WNCCAP), and the person he was primarily working with gave workshops to different at-risk groups about safer sex practices. Kase was telling me this story because, at the beginning of the workshop, the man stood up and said something to the effect of, “I’m going to be talking about dicks and pussies in this workshop because people aren’t talking about penises and vaginas when they’re fucking.”

Many of the students in Kase’s nursing program were scandalized and offended. “That’s indecent and inappropriate,” many of them said. “I can’t believe he said that!” It made them incredibly uncomfortable…and yet. The workshop wasn’t for them- they were helping out at a location for high-risk individuals, and the workshop was aimed at people who were doing sex work, who were homeless, who were addicted, and part of the way to make that information relevant to that population of people was to use the language that was appropriate for them.


So when it is appropriate to use certain language? I’m not sure there is a good barometer. I don’t like the idea that language like dick and pussy is only applicable to high-risk populations- that is not only classist and creates a correlation between risky actions and risqué language, it’s also simply not true. Personally, I’m more excited and interested to listen to a workshop about cunts and cocks than penises and vaginas.

Perhaps, for many, the language feels intimate and personal, something that shouldn’t be shared publicly. “Suck my cock” is something that might be said to a lover and carries with it the intimacy of that experience, whereas “performing fellatio” is a term in abstraction, something we can distance ourselves from as an arbitrary sexual act. Perhaps the hypothetical feels safer because it reveals less of our sexual selves, and our sexual selves can feel incredibly vulnerable. We err on the side of safety because not only might our language come under fire, but the implication of using certain language makes us feel as though our sexual selves are also being criticized.

Which brings me to another very important point: nearly every single euphemism we have for genitalia is also a derogatory statement. “He’s such a dick;” “She’s being a cunt;” “That guy is an ass;” “Don’t be such a pussy.” In fact, the only term I can’t think of a vernacular, non-sexual phrase for is cock. The point is, though, that we use genital language as way to denigrate others; even “fuck” is used in a negative way (“Fuck you!”). It is telling, I think, as to our social attitudes toward bodies and sex, that the majority of our negative terms are directly related to terms for our bodies and sexual acts.


In all of this, of course, we cannot ignore that there is an inherent genderedness to this language. Cock and dick are in reference to the penis, whereas cunt and pussy are in reference to the vulva (of which the vagina is a part). A friend of mine has a button that said, “The Ass is the Great Equalizer.” It’s humorous, but the truth is, we all have an anal orifice and, for some, that is a component of their sexual experience. It can be so easy to get wrapped up in the gendered language of “frontal genitalia” that we forget to include the ways in which anal intercourse is also an important aspect of many people’s sexual lives- regardless of identity or genital configuration.

The language we use for our genitals gets to be an even more complicated discussion when referencing trans people. I, for example, tend to use both cock and cunt in reference to what’s in my pants, but that’s a highly individual choice. I have known many trans people across the spectrum of identity who refer to their anatomy with a wide variety of terms (“junk,” for example, tends to be a common term- and it bears noting that “junkie” is a term associated with heroin addiction).

Sometimes the claiming of language helps someone feel more comfortable and at home in their bodies, and that’s a powerful experience for a trans person. As a result, when I have sex with someone for the first time, I have the “what can I touch and what do you call it?” conversation- both to have active, enthusiastic consent for any sexual acts that occur, but also so I know how that person wants their body parts referenced.

It’s not always an easy or comfortable conversation. It certainly feels easier to reference bodies in abstraction rather than laden with both the intimacy of our own experiences and the connotation of negative association that often comes with the vernacular language. And yet, sometimes the clinical language is ill-suited for our purpose. While I strive to not cause unnecessary discomfort, I do believe that, sometimes, it is important that we push outside the box a bit. As someone with a history of writing and publishing, I know how important word choice is to convey a particular message- it can be the difference between a house and a home. So perhaps we should put just as much care into the words we use for our sexual selves- not to illicit the “shock factor” of using “dirty” words (a term I have always hated), but rather the willingness to be vulnerable with our language choices when the situation arises.

revrobin2-023Robin:  Recently, in preparing a blog post, I added a parenthetical note that went something like this: I just wish that sometimes I could say dick or cock; it feels so formal, clinical, to keep saying penis, especially when talking about my own.  But, it was not really germane to the main point of the post and I chose to delete it before publication. But that sentiment kept haunting me, so during our most recent editorial conference when Malachi raised the question of language I agreed it is time to say something out loud.

My interest is not limited to wanting to be less formal and clinical. There is another aspect that strikes right at the heart of what Malachi and I are trying to do in this space. We really want people, all people, to feel comfortable talking about sex, and not just in clinical settings (with our doctor when we have a problem or in a sex education class, e.g.). We want sex talk to be everyday talk.

But how can we do that when we can’t use everyday language during the conversation? Indeed, how can we have conversations if we don’t, or won’t, use the language that is the most conversational ? I admit that our ideas of what is conversational will vary, but in truth there really is a line about sexual language that we are expected not to cross (no “dirty” words).

And how can we use that language when it is considered “dirty,” when  the only time we hear it is as a negative—“He’s such a dick,” “She’s a cunt,” “What a boob!” “You’re an asshole,” or the angry, in our face (so to speak), “Fuck you!”

cocks are beautiful
A Google image search of “Cocks are beautiful” returns zero results

The truth is that a dick or cock or penis is a beautiful body part, as is a cunt or vagina or vulva and breasts/nipples, and yes, even the asshole or anus. And they serve important functions, including sexual pleasure. But in our embarrassment, and yes our shame, most of us have concluded the only way we can mention them openly is by making them negative.

Some non-mainstream print media may resort to a wink, saying c—k, or d—k, or c—t.  I have not seen v—na,  or v—va , but I have seen a-hole. The New York Times and others found themselves making a somewhat blushing reference to a less common term for the phallus, namely weenie, when writing about former Congressman Anthony Weiner’s penchant for sharing pictures of his via social media.

We Can Do It!One piece of male anatomy seems to have escaped the negative connection. Occasionally, someone will talk disparagingly about a leader not having “the balls” to make a tough decision, the implication that the testicles, affectionately known as balls or nuts, contain real power. I think somewhere I read an appreciation of Hillary Clinton, or perhaps Margaret Thatcher, that included the idea that she (or they) have balls, they are tough, despite being female—and again in much ordinary conversation, it is the masculine term or aspect that conveys strength.  They cannot be strong on the basis of being themselves, being women.

bodies divine

Can we not grasp the divine origins, the godliness, of our bodies—every part, every orifice, every appendage, every organ, every inch of skin?  I have searched Genesis pretty thoroughly and do not find any qualifiers on God’s part. . . . and God saw that it was good (* Some Exceptions Apply, especially when speaking of the reproductive and sexual organs).

But if we actually used these terms positively, even joyfully, then we might have to admit that sex itself is not only good and necessary, it is a form of spiritual, indeed holy, conversation (unless, of course, it is used to violate someone’s body and sacred being).  That would then bring the slang we have made “dirty” into the realm of the holy and beautiful, and that would really upset the world, we would really be troubling the waters.

It is my experience and study that convince me that this troubling the waters is what God does, over and over, again and again. Stirring things up is one of the main activities of God.  It is thus, in my view, one of the main reasons we have been given sex. Sure, it is necessary to reproduce the species, but the fact that it can be so pleasurable means that we return to it, and each time we do, God sees an opportunity to help us grow spiritually. Sadly, we usually miss that part of the message, and think we are just having sex.  There’s nothing wrong with that, of course; sometimes sex is just sex, just as a cigar can be just a cigar (and not one of those four-letter male appendages we don’t like to name).

Photo by Arnie Katz
Photo by Arnie Katz; courtesy of Anchorhold 

As a gay man, I admit to considerable fascination with those particular appendages—whatever the name. I also admit to less interest in cunts or vaginas. But a woman’s body is a wonder to behold, a creation of beauty, quite aside from sex, and that includes her “private parts.”

Where did that expression come from?  How can something be private when we all have them, and we know we do? I know, I know, private is different from secret; nobody says that the fact we have genitals is a secret, just that we are to keep them covered in public (and in most homes, too, except in the bathroom or bedroom).  But frankly, it feels more like an open secret, and sometimes those can be very destructive. I know of too many families deeply injured by open secrets, and sex is so often part of it.  I also know that organizations, like churches, can have open secrets, and since everyone assumes everyone else is on it, no one ever takes responsibility for the ways the secret hurts some, or even possibly all, of the group.

And, as Malachi has written previously in this space, one of the challenges that many cisgender people who are insecure in their own bodies experience from transgender people is that all of sudden we don’t know just which parts an individual actually has. We claim these are private parts, but that is not really true. We do want to know, we want certainty, about who has what. So, the trans person’s genitals become a contested field, no longer private parts.

Partly in order to overcome my own secret shame about my private parts, I have written in this space about my small penis . . .  er, dick, or as I prefer cock (a term that so far as I know is not generally used negatively). Probably some readers are tired of it by now (sometimes I am tired of dealing with it, too, but undoing decades of emotional and spiritual damage, in some senses, trauma, is not done overnight).

The still charming logo of a now-defunct restaurant chain in the Midwest
The still charming logo of a now-defunct restaurant chain in the Midwest

You may think it odd to quibble about which slang term to use for “my little guy” (I have referred to him this way at times).  But as I have looked a explicitly sexual literature and pictures from time to time, I have picked up something which I think is true, namely that a dick is any size but a cock is always big (and that translates to powerful). Of course, this could be my imagination—I certainly have not spent a lot of time on this study, nor have I encountered any learned essays.

At any rate, I want to claim power for mine, and so I often refer to my cock. And then there is of course, the old English nursery rhyme, “Who Killed Cock Robin?” not to mention the rock band of that name, and just the fact that a male Robin bird is sometimes called a Cock Robin. That would be me, a male Robin, Cock Robin, Not Dick (as in Cheney) Robin.

We Want to Hear from You! Help Make this a Conversation!

What do you think? What are your thoughts on body and sex languages? Please share below (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.