By Hannah Reese
Language is said to be the foundation of civilization. Neither the size of our brains, nor our erect stance or our opposable thumbs are anywhere near as crucial to the development of human culture as we know it than our ability to combine calls into a distinct language, posit cultural anthropologists. It’s our ability to elucidate thoughts, to express complex ideas, to communicate worry and love and hate – these are the things that unify what one could call the human experience. In a very real, palpable way, language is what makes humans, human.
However, arguments arise about the inherent power of language, due to its apparent, supposed ethereal nature. Words, though being the only tools in our arsenal to communicate our thoughts, appear as a moment in vibrations in the air, and are as quickly lost. Ink on a paper, pixels on a screen – language is often implied to be temporary, irrelevant, passing. “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words may never hurt you, “is a mantra many parents and teachers will tell children. But is that true? Can the only tools we possess to express thoughts of hatred, spite, and mocking really be said to be “powerless”? I would posit not. Words are powerful. Being the main manner by which we can communicate, we social animals can load so much connotation and intent into a single word, and to deny that power, to imply one is “choosing” to be harmed by a loaded word, is blaming a victim for being harmed.
This is intimately relevant to my life. I am queer. You will note that the word chosen is “queer” – it is not “bisexual”, “gay”, “lesbian”, “pansexual” or anything else. This is an intentional selection of connotation, a careful moniker to elect myself among some, and away from others. Queer simply implies “not heterosexual” somehow. To find that word for myself was an immense moment of power.
At one point, I was a confused teenager (like we all once were). I knew I wasn’t straight, but words like “lesbian” or “bisexual” were so uncomfortable, resting on my identity like an itchy, ill-fitting sweater. They prescribed strict inclusions of my identity that didn’t fit. Bisexual meant I “was” something; it prescribed a stereotype, it implied what I was.
The moment I discovered the word “queer” was so freeing. Queer does not mean anything that I am. Queer is a simple statement of what I am not. I’m not straight – I’m not anything else, though.
Many people seem to disparage labels, however; so many times in my life have I heard peers bemoan the usage of them. “Labels are for soup cans,” “we’re all just human, why do we need to section ourselves off into little groups,” “you’re just making everyone more divided!” are all commonly uttered about people naming identities. However, to deny the amazing variety of the human experience is that much more limiting! To ignore the variance, the differences among us, denies lived existences. It often appears to arise from discomfort; from hearing objectively-subjugated groups speak about said subjugation. No-one wants to think about groups of people that were, are currently being, wronged. We’d all like to believe we live in a so-called “post-racial” society; nobody wants to think they’re bigoted! The Civil Rights Act passed, right?
I wish it were not necessary for me to acknowledge myself as a variant from the predominant culture, but as much as I may ignore it, it is a facet of myself that guides the life I lead, and to hold the mantle of “queer” gives me direction. It shouldn’t matter. But it does.
Further, the weight of these words, these labels, can unfortunately be used in two, dichotomous ways – labels can be used by groups to unite themselves; and by their detractors to remind their members of their second-class status, in the form of slurs. Those that don’t belong to members of affected groups are often ignorant to the true weight of slurs. Again, they often hearken back to the supposed-ethereal nature of language, of expressed thoughts and intent. “They’re just words”. However, they can often be unaware of the weight, the intentional loading of these specific terms towards the groups. A single utterance can at once be a threat to your life, a reminder of your subjugation, a demand for compliance on the threat of imminent, real violence.
Slurs are completely dissimilar to insults, or other words intending to harm. People often erroneously compare the two. A slur, specifically, is a word loaded towards a non-dominant group, used by the dominant societal group, and it’s often intimately tied to a history of violence. To call someone a “jerk” merely implies commentary about, say, a recalcitrant attitude. To call someone a “faggot” reminds them that they’re a second class citizen, that they’re lower than you. It’s a word shouted at people chased down the streets, by parents kicking their children out of their own homes, by aggressors assaulting a stranger in an alley. It’s a word that more than one person has heard as their last, an angry shout ringing in their ears at the end of their lives. Queer people know this. The specter of that hate, those homeless kids and those murdered people haunts those words.
I’ve often been astonished by the mere weight that those sorts of words can carry, that an utterance so small, so simple can represent at once a dark threat, and a grim epithet. The fact that many people are so easily able to deny the existence of the sheer power, the force of words is boggling to me. Sure, there are arguments to be made about reclamation of slurs, euphemism treadmills and the thickness of people’s skin! But all of these claims seem evasive. They appear so intently to want to deny that words can and do have power, in of themselves. They seem to want to pass the buck of their power onto the words’ recipients, instead of recognizing that we humans have a unique gift – we are able to communicate unfathomable ideas, thoughts, dreams and terrors through language – unfortunately some people have used this gift for dark means. Words are powerful. We have collectively woven creation myths, histories of the world, beautiful poetry and deep condemnations of bitter hate.
It was the first time I discovered the word “queer” that the spark of collective fraternity came into my life, that a single word could unite me with a group of others similarly divided from society. And it was the first time I was slurred, that sudden sincere flicker of terror for my life, that the other side of language’s immense power became so starkly apparent.