Last night, I was getting drinks with a close friend of mine whose band has started to receive some recognition and good press. As a gay man who presents more femme, he's often asked in interviews to discuss how his queer identity, specifically aspects of his femininity, contributes to his music.
Yesterday, he confided something in me. He's nervous about answering these questions because first, he doesn't want to offend anyone with his answers, but also, second, he's not sure of the appropriate language to use.
Now, my friend is smart. He's college-educated. But his academic pursuits didn't focus on sociology, women's studies, and queer theory. He took a more traditional college course load, with classes that were more career-oriented.
So, when I'm discussing the meanings of pansexual, bisexual, and queer, these distinctions are often lost on him. When I'm arguing how homoerotic depictions of masculinity dismantle hegemonic heteronormativity, he really has no idea what the hell I'm saying.
The esoteric lexicon in queer theory is exclusionary. So too, is using sentences like that. And that's my whole point. Many queer thought pieces — which everyone could learn from and appreciate — are academic and elitist, using language that really inhibits people, like my friend, from contributing to the conversation.
Some of us also have a tendency to then shame (either on purpose or accidentally) those who don't use the "correct" language. Now, people who use outdated terms should be corrected, but I don't think they deserve to be scolded, especially when everyone knows exactly what they mean to say.
I'd like to share a parallel story that really helped me to understand how detrimental behaving like this can be.
A few years ago, head rabbis enacted a new article that forbade temple members from correcting Torah readers' mistakes in synagogues.
"This article was born as a result of an unfortunate event that took place a few years ago," Rabbi Raziel wrote, "when a secular, fatherless boy who had come closer to the Torah and the mitzvot went up to the Torah at age 15 and read from it. The corrections emanated from the crowd, some tried to silence them, and as a result of the turmoil and confusion, the boy's feelings were hurt, and he left halfway through the reading, with tears in his eyes. He wouldn't come back to read and eventually left religious practice altogether."
This boy could have been the next leading Jewish scholar, but the community that was supposed to accept and embrace him instead shamed him. As a result, he left the Jewish community altogether.
Recently, I've been hearing from more and more queer friends how they are fed up with the LGBTI community. They feel as if they can't speak up because they will be so quick to be shot down for not understanding every little thing perfectly.
Luckily, my musical friend hasn't been turned off by the queer community, but he's somewhat of an anomaly. I think most others in his situation would be turned off. He's just really kind, open-hearted, and manages to see the good in every situation.
But I still do think it's disheartening that he has great things to say, but he's afraid because he's unsure of the "correct" queer terminology. He's afraid he'll accidentally use the wrong word and will then be attacked and ostracized.
This is messed up. What's happening is that queers are accidentally silencing other queers with elitist, academic jargon. God knows I'm responsible for this, too. Even while rereading this piece, I noticed how I use elitist terms unnecessarily with no explanation.
I'm aware this puts writers and everyone who uses queer terminology in a difficult position. We use these words because the queer experience is so diverse, so we need to have different words to explain various types of identities and experiences.
Nevertheless, I think we, as a community, need to be more mindful. When I hear that someone who's part of the queer community — who has so much to teach us — can't say what he's thinking because he's unsure of the correct words to use and fears being attacked for doing so, then I know it's time that something needs to change.
So let's continue to educate. And while I'm not advocating to ever feel as if you need to "dumb yourself down," so to speak, at the same time, I think there are often ways to say things more simply.
And since we want everyone to understand what we're saying, as well as create a space for others to feel as if they can speak, why not be more inclusive (and less elitist) in the words we choose?