claiming spaces

In a society where binary gender equality has yet to be fully realized, few spaces exist—politically, socially, or linguistically—for transgression of gender categories. Those that do strive to transgress carve out these spaces with fierce courage and perseverance, often working tenaciously upon our very flesh. To be not just sexually queer, but genderqueer, is to enter an especially vulnerable space where our personhood itself is challenged.

How does this play out when one enters a progressive social justice movement such as the Equality Ride? LGBT may be the phrase scrawled across the side of our bus, but I find this abbreviation inadequate and stifling. “Queer” is the only label I claim. And it is a label I claim because it connotes shifting instabilities and fluid identities, a blurring of boundaries.

Shortly after being interviewed by a gay-themed newspaper for my work on the Equality Ride, I found myself pacing agitatedly. I had not mentioned my nonconforming gender identity or preferred pronouns. Trembling over the possible repercussions for my current job at home (no gender nondiscrimination policies where I live), I asked myself, ‘And yet, what kind of activist lets hirself be a silent participant in hir own gender closeting? Step up.’ I called the reporter back.

But as it turns out, I was informed by the reporter (for a prominent gay news magazine, no less): “Well, the problem is…it’s a copy-editing issue. Gender-neutral pronouns (like ‘ze’ and ‘hir’) aren’t real words. We can only use words from the Merriam Webster Dictionary. So unfortunately I don’t think we’ll be able to accommodate that request.” Pause. “I can write that you’d prefer gender-neutral pronouns be used, though.”

So hey, folks, forget petitioning society to change or calling on our queer-friendly publications to serve as revolutionary allies in this struggle. Instead, contact the administrators at Merriam Webster! On the Ride we speak a lot about the power of words in both Christianity and queer activism, but what about who determines what is a word? Do we really need a dictionary to affirm our existences?

Politics and language are inextricably and powerfully connected. And my goodness…are they both fucked up these days. We see nondiscrimination policies that explicitly include “gender identity” or “gender expression” under “sexual orientation” (when, if anything, the opposite would make sense). I mean, yay for nondiscrimination policies, but do we want to write even well-intended misinformation into the law? And here on the Equality Ride, we find additional bizarre misuses of language on many campuses. For example:

Does Northwest have any openly gay students?

While we cannot presume to know the private choices, struggles, and behavior of all individuals in our campus community, we are aware of students who have struggled with gender identity and have agreed to live by our Community Life Standards and remain celibate. We are committed to providing a safe, respectful, and loving environment for all individuals.
This answer demonstrates regrettable ignorance about both sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s a shame that “ignorance” carries such negative connotations. Places of ignorance are not necessarily places of blame. One of many goals of the Equality Ride is to point out these areas and provide an opportunity for institutions of higher education to better educate themselves. We trust their intentions and therefore challenge them to accept responsibility for remedying this not only unfortunate but outright dangerous misinformation.

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