Language is pretty complicated.
As writers we are especially aware of that, agonizing over just the right turn of phrase sometimes for hours at end. But there are also questions. Such as, what language is okay to use? Can we use words that don’t “belong” to us, culturally? What about so-called “reclaimed” words?
This post is my attempt at a response to a question one of my writer friends asked me the about the label queer over dinner the other day. We were been talking about inner-culture language (meaning language and terminology used by members of a specific community) and inter-culture language (language and terminology that are related to specific cultures but are used by people who aren’t members of that community).
Specifically we talked about the common assumption that the label of “queer” has been reclaimed by the LGBTQIA+ community and so it’s fine for cis, straight people to use it. Or is it?
For me, this brought up conflicting reactions, because, again, language is complicated.
On the one hand, I’ve totally adopted the label of queer, because to me it’s a better umbrella term and honestly quicker/easier for people to grasp than referring to myself as a bisexual (really, pansexual) cis-woman. Queer is just shorter and more to the point while also encompassing some less easily classified parts of my personality. So, yes, for bios, whether on this blog or on Twitter, it definitely makes sense to me. More, it feels right to me.
However, when my friend asked me if it was okay for non-LGBTQIA+ people to refer to me or others as queer, the answer got a little more complicated. Because, sure, I’m fine with it. It’s not a term that offends me in general, but I am clearly coming at this from a place of privilege. I’ve never been called a queer as a slur and while some argue that queerness in itself implies being Other or being contrary, that’s honestly part of my identity. But again, that’s my identity and I get to decide these things.
But as far as someone outside of the LGBTQIA+ community to use the term queer is concerned? That’s where things get tricky. Just because I don’t have any issues with the term doesn’t mean someone else won’t feel the exact opposite. That’s where inner- vs. inter-culture language comes in. What’s okay to say inside of a cultural group often ceases to have the same meaning and shared culture when used outside of that same culture. But it’s more than that. It’s a kind of shared understanding and sensitivity that comes into play when using terms like queer or other inner-culture language. It’s something that can become problematic when taken outside of the often unspoken safety net that a community like the LGBTQIA+ community often establishes for itself.
So, yes, I sometimes feel like a bit of a hypocrite when I tell people to please refrain from using the word queer when I’m perfectly comfortable with it and even use it to self-identify, but that’s because I’m cognizant of how the term can be intensely triggering to others and I personally feel very strongly about keeping language safe, respectful, and inclusive for everyone involved.
Anyway, let’s bring this back to writing. Also, let’s widen the net, because just as safe and inclusive language matters when it comes to LGBTQIA+ concerns, the same is true for race, disability, age, and the gender spectrum.
There obviously are some things writers can–and should–do to ensure appropriate, safe, respectful, and inclusive language in both fiction and nonfiction.
Yes, this sounds trivial, but I honestly cannot overstate this. I often get into discussions where people aren’t sure whether they can or cannot ask certain questions because they’re sensitive or they feel awkward about having to ask in the first place. To be honest, and again, I can only speak for myself here, please ask. Don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know and seek out an honest conversation with people who would know. And yes, that means people who are members of the communities you want to learn more about. Obviously, be respectful and be genuine, but also just listen. There’s so much to be learned from honest questions and I personally feel like that’s the most direct way to ensure you aren’t overstepping or making anyone uncomfortable.
Ask more than one person.
The danger of a single narrative is huge. Again, as in my example, I may tell you one thing, but someone else in the LGBTQIA+ community may tell you something entirely different. Language, backgrounds, and ultimately comfort levels are highly individual. The more people you can ask about what the right course of action would be, the better. The worst possible thing anyone could do is to just pick someone as their go-to person for a specific group. Not only does that probably make the person in question uncomfortable, but worse, it really doesn’t serve the purpose getting informed in the first place. Getting informed by definition defies a single narrative.
Do your homework.
Language, just like any other aspect of culture, is ever-changing. Keep that in mind when doing research and asking questions. Also, be aware of what you don’t know. Recognizing your own knowledge gaps and biases is a good way to establish what you need to find out.
Do no harm.
Finally, and most importantly, consider your intent. Will using certain language or terminology hurt or trigger more than it helps? Is there any positive aspect of using them at all? Are you still not sure whether a word might be viewed as offensive?
Then don’t use it. Yes, it’s that simple.
Again, my perspective on this is just one voice in many. There are probably tons of articles that express this much more eloquently, but the bottom line is be cognizant of what you say and write. Find out what you don’t know. Be aware of your privilege. Ask questions. Avoid perpetuating the myth of the single narrative. Do your homework, and do no harm.
Be kind and happy writing!