Sticks and Stones

The importance of language in self-determination

“So, are you a lesbian?”

I’ve been asked this countless times. The first time was when I was 15, and the most recent time was just a few weeks ago. I have a complicated relationship with the term “lesbian,” and whenever I get asked this question, my response varies—ranging from “kinda” to “not really” to a flat-out “no.” I’ve tried out the term a few times and it doesn’t seem to fit me well, so I tend to avoid it when expressing my own identity. But, reflecting on this terminology made me think about about the ways we use language to identify ourselves.

Language can be useful in naming experiences. For example, if someone tells me they’re a lesbian, I immediately understand that they are a woman who is attracted to other women. Obviously, there’s more to that person than just their identity as a lesbian, but that seven-letter-word has given them a quick way to convey a general sense of one part of their experiences. Language can also be useful in creating communities. If this person who self-identifies as a lesbian finds another person who also self-identifies as a lesbian, their shared usage of the term represents some shared identity that they now have the language to discuss. They can access resources and join social groups geared toward lesbians. Language can be incredibly useful and positive for some.

But, language can also be tricky. Some LGBTQ+ people identify strongly with a specific term (such as bi or trans or gay), while others may choose to not label themselves. This could be because they don’t want to feel boxed in, or because they haven’t found a term that they feel best represents their identity and experiences. Some people may not have a word to describe what they are, but they know what they’re not. In my own experience, I’ve come out many times as “not straight,” and sometimes I’ll explain further, and other times I won’t.

Language can also be complicated by the fact that identity can be fluid, so a person’s gender or sexual orientation may change over time, across a wide spectrum. In a broader context, I’m a very different person than I was five years ago, and there are some aspects of my life that were essential when I was 14 that no longer apply to my present life. That doesn’t mean that I was lying before or that I’m confused now; it just means that I’ve evolved over time, and parts of my identity may have shifted. The same goes for gender and sexual orientation. While some people’s gender and sexuality are constant, for others, gender and sexuality can change. No one should feel chained to identifying a certain way just because they’ve “always” identified that way.

So what does all this mean for all of us?

Take people at their word. Whatever they say their gender or sexual orientation is, believe them. Even if you think they’re confused. Even if you think they’re queer and just haven’t come around to it yet. Even if you think they’re “lying” about their gender (newsflash: they’re not). Even if they’ve never dated anyone before. Even if they’ve only dated people of one gender. Even if they wear makeup everyday. Even if they never wear makeup. Even if you think you have a reason—any reason—that you think is valid. It can be scary enough to vocalize any identity, so don’t make it any more difficult by questioning them.

Don’t pry into why people identify a certain way. Many people assume that just because someone is not cisgender and heterosexual, that means they need to justify or explain their identity. LGBTQ+ people do not owe the world any justifications or explanations. We are who we are, and that’s more than enough.

Don’t assume anyone’s pronouns. If someone tells you their pronouns, use those. If not, use the gender-neutral they/them/theirs, or just refer to them by name. There might also be a time when you notice someone using different pronouns than you heard them use before; go along with it. Perhaps this person now identifies more strongly with this new set of pronouns. Some people use different pronouns in different situations or spaces, and this could be for a number of reasons—including safety. You should simply respect and use the pronouns they tell you to use.

It’s incredibly important to allow people the agency and space to figure out who they are and label, or not label, themselves as they please. As tempting as it is to make assumptions about other people or provide suggestions for labels, remember that identity and the language surrounding it is personal and specific to each individual.

For too long, the voices of LGBTQ+ people have been drowned out by others telling us how we should be, act, and live. We reclaim a bit of ourselves and our power when we can choose the language the best fits our identities and experiences.

Becina J. Ganther ’20 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.



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