Contributor: Polo Lonergan
Language changes. It doesn’t matter whether you see it as improvement or deterioration; as our cultures shift to include new or developing ideas, so does the language within them. Our vocabulary reflects our understanding of the word and because of that, English expands almost constantly to include new concepts. How we accept or reject these words is more important to personal identity than you might realize. Adopting the correct terms when referring to a community can strengthen it, and ignoring this evolved language can cause harm to people’s sense of personal identity.
It’s much easier to understand your own identity and community when armed with the appropriate words to describe yourself. If we look back at a time when non-LGBTQ people only used vague euphemisms or insults for ‘homosexual’, how could a young person discovering their identity easily grasp who they were without a word to explain it?
By limiting the words used to express an idea, it’s easy to limit people’s exposure to it. If people don’t dare call something by name – or worse, don’t know of a name for it at all – then talking about it becomes difficult.
In the past, young people only discovered the words ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ (for example) when discovering the community. Though it still isn’t an easy process, it’s certainly easier to find those who have been through it before and can validate an identity. Within this community people find solace and, over time, that community has grown and changed.
Now we live in a time of easy information. The internet has opened up discussion for many lonely kids and adults alike and this has changed the way we speak about identity. LGBTQ people in small towns or socially conservative families might never have had the chance to find their own community before, but with the internet it is far simpler.
This building of community across distances has helped language move faster. Instead of making do with language that only mostly fits people, we have begun to find words that line up with identity and changed the conversation. One example is the popularity of the word ‘cisgender’ or ‘cis’, meaning a person who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth (in contrast to transgender or other non-traditional gender identities). The word has been around for a while, but its movement into the mainstream conversation shows that as the community grows, so does visibility for the transgender community, making it more accessible to a broader scope of people.
Did you know…PFLAG Canada Durham Region has an online glossary?
That is not an alternative fact. Click here to view the Glossary page.
It’s tempting to dismiss some language as pointless when it comes to LGBTQ topics. For a famous contemporary example we only need to look at ‘they’. Many would argue that English finds itself in need of a generic neutral pronoun as the strict gender binary of times past begins to shift.
Except we’ve had one that’s been in use since at least the fifteenth century.
‘They’ as a singular pronoun might cause a few arguments here and there among friends (and professors), but it’s not a new usage, only an increasingly popular one. We use it all the time when we don’t know someone’s gender or it’s not important to the story we’re telling. ‘Someone lost their bag’ is not particularly inflammatory, yet used in the context of gender neutral or non-binary folk, tempers can get hot.
If you’re trying to figure out why refusing to use someone’s preferred pronouns is such a big deal, imagine being a cisgender man and having someone continuously call you ‘she’ as a matter of principle. This denial of your identity may not physically hurt you but it’s certainly not fun. It feels like erasure of your identity because that’s what it is: refusing to use a gender-neutral pronoun for those who identify outside of the traditional gender binary is as good as saying that they are not a valid person, or at best that identity is less important than grammar.
Yet if we get past that initial strangeness in the face of change, using the correct terminology or pronoun can create new bonds or strengthen old ones. As more people begin to accept this, more people will find the confidence to identify in a way that enriches them.
If you’re looking for the words to describe your sexuality, gender identity, or gender expression, PFLAG Canada Durham Region hosts a coffee/sharing night the last Thursday of each month at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology’s Bordessa Hall, 55 Bond Street East, Oshawa, ON. All are welcome.