“Language gains the power to create ‘the socially real’ through the locutionary acts of speaking subjects.” (Butler, 1999, p. 146)
“There are some very common meanings we have learned to make, and take for granted as common sense, but which support the power of one social group to dominate another.” (Lemke, 1995, p. 2)
There are all kinds of things that a person notices about the way people speak when she doesn’t speak like them, when she has different beliefs and assumptions about the world. I identify as queer, and I have some pretty queer thoughts about the world and human relationships. I also spend most of my time interacting with people who do not identify as queer. I notice things about the ways that they speak. I play around with language, trying not to speak like them. I pay close attention to the differences between the ways that we speak. Some of this noticing, playing around with, and thinking about language is about having fun. I like playing with language. I like noticing how it is being used. I like thinking about what meanings are behind the everyday things that we say. But some of this noticing, playing around with, and thinking about language is, to me, very important, sometimes emotional, sometimes scary, sometimes filled with rage.
When I meet new people for the first time, I hesitate, sometimes noticeably, about how to talk about my current romantic relationship. I’ve noticed that people in heterosexual relationships will often casually mention their partner to a group of strangers in a way that explicitly acknowledges their gender. I notice this often because it’s something that I can’t do. Correction: I choose not to do it, because I’m afraid. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where that fear comes from or what exactly I am afraid of. It’s not always a strong, noticeable or conscious fear – it’s sometimes just floating in the background. But it stops me from joining in on conversations with people I don’t know or trust. Or, I’ll join in, hesitantly, and dance around with the strangest turns of phrase in order to avoid 3rd person pronouns or direct references to gender. Even when I manage to keep up the verbal acrobatics, the people I’m speaking with inevitably let a pronoun slip out and I either have to correct it, confirm it as accurate, or awkwardly ignore it. Lots of the time, any references to “my partner” are taken as a pretty clear indication that I’m in a relationship with a woman. I use “partner” partly to avoid this – I want to keep it ambiguous, until I’ve made up my mind about whether I should tell the truth. But it turns out that mostly only non-hetero people use the term “partner” where they could otherwise use a term that references the gender of that partner. Gender neutral isn’t really gender neutral, because only some of us feel the need to make use of it.
I have two straight friends who refer to their romantic partner as their “partner” and avoid 3rd person pronouns in conversations with strangers. They don’t do this because of me, but I think that the fact that they do it is a part of why we’re such good friends. People in heterosexual relationships normally don’t feel like they have to pay attention to those kinds of details. It doesn’t scare them to let those details slip out in mixed company. Most people don’t realize that their ability to safely say “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” or “husband” or “wife” is a privilege we don’t all have. So, when someone who doesn’t have to play around with language the way that I do does so anyway, I feel it like a gentle hug.
Sometimes, I just come out and say “girlfriend” – when I’m feeling safe, or reckless, or bold. Sometimes, the fear is vivid and clear – those are the times when I talk about my “boyfriend.” Strangely, I mostly don’t think of this as lying. I like to think of it as a new meaning of the word “boyfriend” that I don’t make explicitly clear.
I met a young woman a few months ago, in a group setting where she didn’t know anyone else present. After a very brief introduction, she launched into a story about her “girlfriend.” I remember thinking to myself, “Wow. She’s so much braver than me. It takes me so long to feel comfortable enough with a group of people to tell them that I’m with a woman. It doesn’t even seem to make her feel anxious. Maybe one day I’ll be a warrior like her.” About an hour later, she told another story. It included reference to her “boyfriend,” and it became clear to me that she was in a monogamous heterosexual relationship and that the story she’d told earlier was about a platonic female friend – otherwise popularly known as a “girlfriend.” I never told her about my misinterpretation, but I kind of wish I had.
It seems to me that, in the minds of people who assume that everyone is always heterosexual, there is no room for misinterpretation. Unquestionably straight women call their female friends their “girlfriends” because the word, in their minds, has no reasonable interpretation other than “platonic female straight friend.” This works great, if you are an unquestionably straight woman in the presence of other unquestionably straight people who don’t see the need to reserve another meaning for that word. I reserve another meaning for that word. When people ignore that other meaning, because their obvious straightness overrides the possibility of girlfriend meaning “my romantic partner, who is female,” it feels like something has been taken from me. I feel invisible, or impossible.
You might have guessed by now that I don’t think that all this language stuff is just about language. This isn’t just about the way we speak to each other. As Butler (1999) suggests in the quotation at the beginning of this post, language plays a huge role in creating our social reality. It does this even if we aren’t paying attention to it – even if we don’t mean it to. This is, I think, part of what Lemke (1995) is pointing at in the second quotation at the beginning of this post. We sometimes participate in oppressive discourses – supporting the domination of one social group over another – without our being aware of it. I think that it’s useful, sometimes, to be made aware of it. My gut tells me that these words, these turns of phrase, these discourses, are linked quite strongly to all kinds of violence. It’s that link that scares me most. It’s that link that makes me think that I have a responsibility to point it out to people when they erase us with their words.
Butler, J. (1999). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge Classics.
Lemke, J. (1995). Textual politics: Discourse and social dynamics. Bristol, PA: Taylor & Francis Inc.