“...can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” So goes the famous, yet highly erroneous saying. This piece of “common sense” fundamentally misrepresents the power of language, its power to construct the world around us, to a priori determine what is possible and impossible, what is permitted and what is proscribed. Words have a constitutive effect: they create “reality” as much as they describe it.

A basic example of this is the gendered use of pronouns. Before the 1970s, using the masculine signifier (“he”) as the designator for any person performing an activity was ubiquitous. For instance: “a wise politician is never impatient, he always waits for an opportunity.” This default use of the masculine pronoun by default placed women in a passive position – they were excluded from becoming public figures (politicians, religious leaders, businesspeople etc...). Language did not create this problem, but it served to embed patriarchal norms and to continually (re)make them through repeat performance. Language is itself very difficult to change – it is such an indispensable part of everyday life that the values it represents often go unquestioned, and thus, have a way of seeping into people’s minds. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that, aside from a few notable exceptions, people have a “fish in water” attitude to language. This is one of the reasons why it was so hard to question why only he was allowed to vote, hold property etc... Patriarchy took up nearly all the space that language provided.

Nowadays, at least in English, it is more common to use gendered pronouns in combination: “She or he,” “He/She,” “S/he” – this is a conscious response to the sexism described above. However, this still has exclusionary effects. By solely conferring recognition on two genders – masculine-male, feminine-female – genderqueer and intersex people are practically wiped out of existence. Their invisibility, and their fundamental “impossibility,” is a priori determined by the linguistic gender-structure that people are held hostage by. This makes it almost impossible to imagine a person who actually identifies as something other than male-masculine or female-feminine. Of course, people do imagine androgynes, “trans” people, and hermaphrodites, however, these are never taken seriously as identities or ways of being in this world. They are usually used as fodder for cheap comedy or conceived as strange quirks of otherwise definitively male or female people.

My basic point in this post is that language matters and that any progressive gender and sex/ual/ity politics should be considerate of language issues. A cavalier attitude to language, such as the one expressed in the following quotation, should not be encouraged: “I used to say fag, gay, retard all the time, then I stopped – I wanted to be taken seriously by liberals. I recently changed my mind, though. These words roll off the tongue and everybody knows that they mean what you want them to mean. I’m supportive of gay people, but sometimes I want to say ‘I’m being so gay’.” The essential mistake in this statement is the assumption that words mean what one wants them to mean. Although it is possible to have personal meanings to words, or even to make up words that only mean something to oneself (gagableebleegugu made sense to me when I was a kid), words have social meanings that almost always overpower their personal meanings. Thus, although the person who said the above statement may claim that the meaning of the word “gay” has changed for hir, that ze “wants it to mean” something different, ze will use it in a social context in which its meaning has already been decided and firmly embedded, in which the people listening to hir will think ze is using it the “normal” way. There are currently two meanings to the word gay (homosexual and silly/stupid/bad). The use of the phrase, “that’s so gay” associates with both of these, and in a social setting, will always be gay bashing, no matter what the speaker intends. Thus, words’ social meanings tend to overwhelm whatever personal significations we impute to them. Activists should be aware of these social meanings and should seek to change them when they are oppressive.

A striking example of the way that words’ social signification can overpower their personal meaning can be found in the work of Sigmund Freud. He often referred to “deviant” sexualities as “perversions.” What he meant by “perversion,” however, is not something negative or unacceptable – he personally defined it as anything that deviates from a strict biological necessity. Thus, in Freud’s personal framework, most sex/uality is perverse, dining for pleasure is perverse, going down slides is perverse – nearly everything we do is perverse. Nevertheless, the social meaning of “perversion” is a profoundly negative one. It connotes sickness, willful breaking of social norms, evil desires etc... Thus, Freud’s use of the word, “perversion,” has provided ammunition for some conservative “ex-gay” groups who have tried to show that homosexuality is a kind of illness. They have used the work of Freud and other psychiatrists as the basis for their “diagnosis” of homosexuality-as-illness. The social meaning of the words that Freud used (not what he actually meant by them) provided them with that opportunity.

***For More Information***
Definitely check out Freud’s Three Essays on Sexuality – particularly interesting is the “battle” that goes on between “Freud-the-radical-social-constructionist” and “Freud-the-science-obsessed-19th-Century-Psychiatrist.” Although he has a very lengthy chapter on “the perversions,” in which he talks about various “deviant” sexualities (fetishism, homophilia, sadomasochism), notice how he subtly suggests that all strictly non-reproductive sexual activities (even kissing, caressing, massaging) are perversions. Truly an important assertion!

For more on the power of language, have a look at any poststructuralist thinkers, in particular Jacques Derrida (Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference) and Judith Butler (see previous posts). For a simpler, clearer, and angrier introduction to these issues, check out Riki Wilchins’ Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender, and Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer.

If you’re looking for an introduction to genderqueer and intersex issues, Wilchins’ Genderqueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary is the perfect place to start.

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