Friday, February 17, 2006

Reflections on Language

Words are so sticky and imprecise sometimes. Or they are so precise that they are completely inaccessible to most people who aren't "in the know."

I bring this up because of a few interactions I've had over the last few days:

1) Early this week, I received an email from a prominent trans activist in the Ottawa community, urging same sex marriage campaigners to make bisexual and trans people more visible in any future communication about the marriage campaign. The request is that the tag line of the "movement" be changed to: "Equal Marriage for same-sex couples, bisexual and trans people."

2) On Thursday evening, I attended a meeting about the redevelopment of Bank street (for those not in Ottawa, it's one of the city's main streets, with a cluster of queer businesses and services located a few blocks south of Parliament Hill). City officials were consulting with the queer community about how best to recognize the burgeoning gay village on Bank street -- whether it means hanging rainbow flag from lamp posts, or investing in fancy signage, etc.

An unintentionally comic part of the evening occurred when the president of the local Business Improvement Association asked the 60-or-so people at the meeting what the "right" term would be to describe the neighbourhood, at which point the earnest chair of the up-and-coming queer community centre project piped up with the suggestion of "geographical community of LGBTTQ people."

The audience burst into laughter -- not at the attempt at inclusion, but at the image of all of those letters squished onto a street sign. Not exactly catchy.

3) At a demonstration/vigil to protest against the new Institute for Marriage and Family Canada (and special thanks to all of you who braved the bitter cold to attend the event), the same trans activist mentioned in point #1 wrinkled her nose at me, because none of the placards that I had prepared for the protest included the words "trans" or "bisexual." (They included slogans like "Love Makes a Family" and "Don't Leave our Families Out in the Cold").

I find these kinds of discussions difficult for a few reasons. First of all, I think there's a fine line between encouraging inclusiveness, and jumping down people's throats for not using the "correct" words. Sometimes we use shorthand because it's catchier. Or we pitch our language at the level we think our audience is at (and although we try our hardest to get the mainstream media to reflect the diversity of our communities, they are still tripping over the word "gay" -- the BLTQ part of the equation often doesn't even factor in there). Does that mean that we are purposely excluding elements of our community? I don't think so.

In the case of equal marriage for example, the campaign has benefited from zoning in on the specific issue of same sex marriage, using it as a jumping off point for other discussions of oppression. But in some cases, you can't put the cart before the horse. With a fundamentalist justice minister and a new cabinet full of whackos, we might have to use very plain language to drive our point home: discrimination is wrong, all families deserve equality, Canada doesn't get to pick and choose rights, etc.

Are these statements exclusionary? Or do they provide a "big tent" for all sorts of different people to mobilize under? Or do they whitewash our community by making our identities implicit rather than explicit?

I don't know the answer. But I do know that the ever-changing and ever-more complex terminology can sometimes be a barrier to those who want to participate. And the process of consciousness-raising is a slow one, and it begins where people are at right now. If "equality" is the hook, and "gay rights" is the line, and "trans protection" is the sinker, maybe we are doing a good job.

We can learn some lessons from second wave feminism, an activist movement that struggled with similar issues, when women of colour challenged the white liberal hegemony of groups like the National Organization of Women (in the U.S.) and the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (in Canada). While these organizations grappled with recognizing their own internalized racism, they also lost a lot of good people in the process. Women were afraid to speak at meetings, without "naming their oppression" first. It became a battle of wills -- of who was the most disadvantaged, and therefore had the right to speak.

Censuring each other is not the best way to bring about change. There has got to be a more gentle way to grapple with the difficulties of language, without losing hardworking, well-meaning activists in the process.

Any suggestions?


Queer As Moi said...

I'd say that in the particular case of equal marriage, the slogans about love cover it perfectly. And something like "Equal Marriage for All" would neatly avoid the issue of having to divide us up into categories. But there are definitely cases where it's much less simple.

As for the village signage, I know that Toronto and Vancouver also found ways to neatly sidestep the labelling question. In Vancouver, the flags on Davie St. have a rainbow, a smiling cartoon sun, and the words "Davie Village". Toronto has unlabelled rainbow flags alternating with signs that say "Church Wellesley Village Business Improvement Association" in fairly small lettring.

While these solutions do avoid putting labels right on the signs, they do still betray the reality that the businesses of these "villages" don't represent the full diversity of the community. There really is no quick and easy answer, but I believe what's important is to ask ourselves as often as possible: How can we make this effort stronger through our diversity?

Jessica said...

As the trans activist mention in the blog I do have a comment.

There is ALWAYS a tension between convenience and visibility.

The former is generally the concern of those who already have visibility--and usually the benefits of that visibility, including power, however relative that power may be.

The latter is generally those who don't have either the visiblity or the power.

As a trans person active with formerly gay organizations it never ceases to amaze me how the gay and lesbian people who have the power in the organizations--that are now nominally LGBT--and are mostly gay men, have no difficulty deciding what they think is best for bisexual and trans people.

Of course, we are not usually asked for anything more than advice.

Why does convenience always mean my invisibility--and powerlessness?

Ariel said...

These are all good points. And thanks Jessica for "outing yourself" as the trans activist in question.

Because I work as a professional wordsmither, I struggle with how to find words that are inclusive and do not render people invisible, while also conveying a sharp, easy-to-understand message.

I guess we need to invent a new language, because this one doesn't always work.