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woman – man – gay – straight – lesbian

These are interesting times for the amateur linguist, particularly those with an eye (and an ear!) towards gender and sexual diversity. The number of terms to choose from sometimes seems endless, and endlessly proliferating: every day we trip over a new word, one we don’t recognise, one we can’t quite figure out. Where do they come from? Why do we need them? What’s wrong with the words we grew up with, the ones our grandmothers would recognise?

womyn – butch – femme – transgender

Human beings have a remarkable tendency towards categorisation – it’s how we make sense of the messy and complicated world that we live in. We learn gender categories when we’re very young, from the colour-coding of our clothes to the games we’re encouraged to play and the behaviours that get sanctioned. For a lot of us, those categories extend into our adult lives without much need for interrogation: boys grow into men who marry women; girls grow into women who marry men; and we all produce girls and boys of our own.
But for some of us, that trajectory into adulthood isn’t quite so straightforward. Our sense of identity resists those naturalised categorisations of {woman=female=feminine} and {man=male=masculine}, or the automatic assumption of heterosexuality that is of us. When we come to explain our otherness, we have no recourse but words to try to frame the complexities of our non-normative selves in a way that others in our tribe will understand. Those words are never static, though: they move and change over time, ebbing and flowing with the social concerns that shape public discourses. As we discover new ways to articulate identity, we also discover new identities to articulate.

pansexual – fluid – genderqueer

If gender is fundamentally about how we categorise ourselves and others, then the words that we use to talk about gendered and sexual identities must be relational. How I understand a given word – queer, say – depends on which words I think it belongs with, and what I think it opposes. My mental map of meanings will be necessarily different from yours: we’ve lived different lives, and constructed different categories. It’s easy for me to identify as queer, because queer has never been used against me as a weapon; I have friends who will never use that term to describe themselves, or align with any group that does. Their preferred label is gay, which I feel instinctively is too restrictive and exclusive, and elides a lot of what makes me me. We negotiate these terms day by day, encounter by encounter, between individuals and communities. There are no right answers – everything is contextual.
Loud & Clear was a discussion-based workshop that encouraged people to question the naturalness of gender and sexual categories, and to think about processes of categorisation and social power. We explored some core gender and sexual vocabulary, then pushed out into newer and emergent identity terms and categories, finally examining some of the connections between language, feminisms, power, and resistance.

by Dr Evan Hazenberg

Posted by sally on Tuesday 23 April 2019