I have a presentation I have done multiple times in the past few years called Crossing Boundaries: a Moderated Discussion
. Among the things we talk about are different ways we can speak up against prejudice and discrimination. There are lots of possibilities and the discussion often gives people new tools for their advocacy toolbox.We have options when we confront people about their jokes, their language and their attitudes. We chose when, where and how we want to confront them. We choose if we are trying to change their minds, be a voice for someone without a voice or are being present as a dissenting view. There are as many reasons speak up as there are ways to speak up.
This week I had an opportunity to speak up and I was surprised how much it upset me. I’ve been out as a bisexual woman for 20 years. I’ve confronted people about their language on homophobia, biphobia, body image and more. However, the idea of confronting a well known author about his choice of language on his own Facebook page was daunting.
He is an intelligent man who writes well researched, thoughtful posts and professional articles. While you might not recognize his name, you’d certainly know the work he’s done in television. He demands factual, respectful conversation. He describes himself as a grumpy curmudgeon who takes no shit.
So, it was with some trepidation I decided I had to make a comment about a post he made. His original post read, “Shameless plug for an insightful read on gay issues. I’m jealous of Wayne Self’s skill at deconstructing an issue.” A link was provided:
I tripped on the word gay when I first read it. He could have meant the site was focused on issues specifically affecting gay men or he could be using gay as an inclusive term for all non-hetrosexuals. I don’t consider gay to be inclusive, but I have seen it used that way before and it bothers me.
I was first introduced to the idea of gay as an inclusive term when I transferred to the University of Iowa in the Spring of 1991 and I went looking for the University’s LGBTQ group. At the time it was called, “The Gay People’s Union.” I was assured it was an inclusive group and encouraged to attend, which I did. While I wasn’t excluded, it wasn’t the community I was looking for and later events demonstrated part of that was the name.
There had been attempts to change the name in the past. Even just adding lesbian had been resisted. The older members insisted that “gay” was inclusive and were confused about why their group was overwhelmingly comprised of gay men. At this time, bisexuals routinely had to fight for acknowledgement that we existed as a part of the community, much less that we should be included in the names of the organizations we were a part of. The transgendered community was just starting to gain visibility and was mentioned even less often than bisexuals.
Standing up for inclusive language is something I am passionate about. People need to feel included in the wider communities they belong to. I think gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people have many things in common we can work on together. However, when someone uses the term “gay marriage” or talks about “gay and lesbian issues” I don’t assume I’m being discussed. I am not gay or lesbian. Labels matter. When we don’t see ourselves represented we do not feel we are part of the group.
After thinking about his post a little, I clicked through the link. I found a site full of wonderful writing about many aspects of the greater LGBTQ community. The header says: “[owl-dol-a-truhs] n: A journal of analysis and inspiration for LGBTQ people and their friends.”
Seeing that the site doesn’t use the term “gay” but chooses instead the the more inclusive acronym “LGBTQ” made me feel even more strongly I should bring the issue up. I dreaded a confrontation in this arena but I posted:
“I don’t suppose you’d edit that comment to match their own self descriptor at the top of the page: “LGBTQ” rather than “gay?” It would mean a lot to those of us who don’t use gay as an all inclusive label.”
Then I waited, fearing what scathing response I might have to endure. Finally, his posted:
“No, I’m not going to edit the comment. Two reasons: First, there’s no way to edit it. Second, I remember when the term “gay” included everybody and it still means that to me. I don’t mind all those other letters — it’s a good reminder that the gay community is large and diverse. But on another level, it’s separatist — “we’re not gay, we’re blah blah blah.” Bullshit. To our enemies, we’re all queers. I recognize and cherish our diversity, but I’m not going to be slavish to political correctness because there are more important things to focus on. Wayne’s columns, for instance.”
Damn! I hadn’t realized you couldn’t edit posts like you can edit comments. I hated the fact that I could be called on that because it distracted from the real issue. However, the rest of his response was worse than being caught out on a technical detail.
Politically correct? That came out of left field for me. I haven’t thought about political correctness in years! His explanation of inclusivity didn’t surprise me, but then he dismissed the entire topic as unimportant compared to sharing another writer’s work. I was not happy.
It took awhile for me to formulate a response. As I said, I do respect this writer, even though we may disagree on something that’s important to me. I also appreciated his detailed response to my request, even if I didn’t like the answer.
I didn’t think I would change his mind but I couldn’t let his comment be the last word on the topic. It was important to me that both positions were stated in the same comments section. Hundreds of people follow his posts and while I’m sure far fewer drill down into the comments, I’m also positive that anything on his page is well read. After many false starts I posted:
Camille Holthaus Yes, Wayne’s columns are great. I read them. I was not asking you to be politically correct as I am of the group being discussed. I am asking for inclusive language, not imposing some external sense of right and wrong. You clearly use the term with the understanding that people you include in it may not feel included by it. To our enemies we may indeed all appear to be queers, but gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people are all treated differently by the mainstream. We share a lot of challenges, but the differences matter, too.
I haven’t received a response and I don’t expect one. Whether it’s because I was respectful in my disagreement or because the issue has passed beyond his notice I’ll never know. I was hoping there would be more conversation with other readers but there hasn’t been.
Inclusivity is a complex, emotional topic because we are talking about identity. People have strong feelings about what terms should be used, where and how. People of the same community often disagree on what is appropriate language. If that isn’t enough complexity, the goal of having inclusive language is a constantly moving target as usage and advocacy advance.
I have never felt included in the term “gay” although I understand some lesbians are comfortable being called gay. I’ve been a part of very nuanced conversations with people who are attracted to more than one gender and feel excluded by the term bisexual. I understand why some people eschew labels altogether. I think labels are useful tools when we consider them the beginning of a conversation, not the end. I’ll keep fighting for inclusive language rather than assume that past usage is still appropriate.