Posted on January 28, 2015 by Marg Herder
This post is part of the series of posts inspired by the 2015 Gay Christian Network conference held in Portland, Oregon. The series introduction is here.
Words and language are an important part of how we think, how we understand our culture, existence, and even how we create our vision of ourselves.
At the 2015 Gay Christian Network Conference, I gave a workshop on this topic with the kind and learned John Backman I based my portion of the presentation on what I’ve learned from my friend, Dr. Alena Amato Ruggerio, rhetorician, professor, and avid Seattle Seahawks fan.
She gave a wonderful presentation at the 2008 EEWC-CFT Conference entitled Theapalooza (available as an audio file on this website). Don’t miss it.
Her talk was so cool I even wrote a song about what I learned from it. (The song is called “A Name,” which you can purchase for a mere dollar on iTunes if you are so inclined.)
Words are symbols which represent underlying concepts which linguists call “referents.” Words, whether spoken or written, refer to— or stand in for— something else. As a very simple example, take the word “cup.” We obviously couldn’t drink from the word (which is just a combination of three letters of the alphabet, c-u-p), but we wouldn’t think twice about pouring our coffee or tea into the beverage container (the concrete item) that the word “cup” symbolizes (the referent). A referent can be a thing, or person, or concept, or situation, or status, or theory; the list goes on. The referent is what exists and needs to be described or named; the word is the symbol used to do so.
Words are very important, but even more significant are the decisions behind what referents are identified as important enough to be symbolized with words.
See, the powerful and privileged decide what referents are “worth” putting words to. The powerful and privileged decide what words get formalized by putting them in dictionaries. Thus, referents specific to the experience of marginalized groups (women, non-whites, economically disadvantaged, and LGBTQ people) are not likely to be identified or symbolized by words.
I think this may be changing since we are quickly adopting a new information sharing paradigm (facilitated by the peer to peer communication made possible by the Internet), but that’s a post for another day.
Creating Words to Describe the LGBTQ Experience
One of the things we worked on during our “Watch Your Language” workshop was expanding the pool of referents and words relating to LGBTQ people.
We split into small groups, and each group came up with their own referent and word. I thought each one was wonderful. I’ve listed them here for you.
Faith Kaleidoscope – The intersection of faith, sexuality, and identity that comes into focus when an individual tells their story.
Spectrsexuance – An atmosphere of acceptance for all. Freedom from assumption.
Page – People Affirming Gays Everywhere
Church – Conservative Heterosexual Un Respectful of Christian Homosexuals
Schadenfreunde Bracken-Love – A relationship with unfortunate boundaries.
This group went onto explain that it was the kind of relationship we have where we can’t discuss certain topics or have to constantly extend grace because of wounding words or actions.
Cismic – Celibacy In Singleness, Momogamy In Committment
Queerlief – The emotional feeling of finding safe space with other LGBTQIA Christians.
Parrocks – Parents who love their LGBTQ children unconditionally whether they (the parents) “understand” or not.
Crawl – Christian Reconciling And Willing to Love.
Dreaving – Grieving the life you expected/desired/dreamed for yourself or someone else. And hope for a new beginning.
Who Decides Which LGBTQ Words to Use?
Of the relatively few words available to describe the class of lesbian and gay people, I understand from a Human Rights Campaign pamphlet available at the conference, the words “fag,” “dyke,” and “homosexual” are no longer acceptable terms to use (page 22 of this document).
I am delighted to let the term “fag” fade into oblivion, but I’m not ready to give up the word “dyke.” First of all nobody asked for my vote; and best I can tell, nobody asked many other lesbians who are my age either. So you’ll have to forgive us if we continue to refer to ourselves and each other as dykes. We took that word back from the people who used it as a weapon against us. We’re not about to surrender it back to them.
Getting rid of the word “homosexual” leaves a problematic linguistic void. It’s been my go-to word to refer to the entire class of lesbian and gay people. I’m not sure what word we have left. The acronym, “LGBTQ” (whether the Q is considered to stand for queer or questioning) includes more than homosexual people. Yes, I know a lot of people think that the word “gay” should suffice to describe this class. I disagree.
The word “gay” was created to indicate male homosexual people, but has apparently now, in our patriarchal society, begun to be understood to indicate the entire class of homosexual people, including the female members of the class.
As a feminist, this chafes as much as it does when people try to explain that their use of the words “man” and “mankind” are inclusive, that those terms indicate the group of both men and women.
One would never hear anyone using the word “woman,” or “womankind” to describe the whole of humanity, and that’s all the proof I need that the word “man” is only inclusive because our society considers men to be superior to and/or in possession of women.
So I’m hanging on to the word “homosexual.” I’m just not going along with this plan to let the word “gay,” a word that originally referred to men, bleed over to describe the entire class, including women.
A Referent in Desperate Need of a Word
Ever since I attended the Oriented to Love dialog I’ve been looking for a better way to refer to the group of Christian people who oppose our equality. I’ve tried using Evangelical Christians, Conservative Christians with objections to each (“Not all evangelical or conservative Christians oppose LGBT equality.”). There are numerous objections to the use of the term “homophobic Christian.” The term “anti-gay Christian,” appears to be similarly objectionable (“We’re not against you, we loooove you”).
For the last year I have settled on the phrase “the Christians who oppose our equality.” But there’s nothing elegant about it, it’s pretty clunky, and certainly will never come into common usage. But at least it adequately describes a group that would prefer their label to be simply “Christian.”
I think it’s very important to provide a clear understanding that this group is a subset of Christians. As long as this subset shrugs itself out of every label we try to affix to them, there will be millions of people who work to thwart our full inclusion into faith communities and society, who can convince themselves they are simply “Christians” who hold a different opinion, they pose no threat, they cause no harm to LGBTQ people.
The denial of acceptance and welcome is harmful to LGBTQ people. And while it may be rooted in a difference of opinion, which in itself is not problematic, those who feel it necessary to push their opinion out into the world in a discriminatory way can and do cause harm.
We must name this group so they are differentiated from the majority of Christians. Labeling this group allows us to unequivocally address them in our pleas to stop their wounding.
I’m open to ideas.
Can we keep their minds out of the bedroom, please?
There are some relatively new words being used by Christian people to refer to us, the class of LGBTQ people. Two are “same sex-attracted,” and “sexual minorities.” Maybe someone had to come up with new words because it was decided that the term “homosexual” is no longer okay to use.
I have objections to both of these new terms. Both focus the listener, intentionally or not, on sexual activity as the defining difference between them and the group of lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, and questioning people.
The word “sex” is commonly applied to two different referents. One is a reference to gender, as in “same-sex attracted.” The second is a reference to sexual activity.
I think when a phrase containing the word “sex” is used in the labels applied to us, it’s impossible for the Christians who oppose our equality not to think of the “sexual activity” referent. The whole sexual activity focus is what makes the Christians who oppose our equality so anxious.
I don’t want anyone, especially conservative Christian people (who are generally confused and well, phobic, about variations of sexual expression in general), to be thinking of sexual activity every time they hear a word used to label the group of people to which I belong.
The primary difference between me and a heterosexual person is not my sexual activity. The primary difference between me and a heterosexual person is with whom I am most comfortable establishing my primary intimate partnership. There are people who know and willingly admit inclusion in the class of lesbian, gay, and bi people who do not participate in sexual activity with their intimate partner!
Sexual activity is not the defining difference between us and straight people. The fact that we establish our primary intimate partnerships with people other than those similarly gendered is.
That’s the real referent here. It’s not “people who have sex with people similarly gendered.” It’s “people who establish primary intimate partnerships with people similarly gendered.”
So I’d like to propose an alternative symbol (word) for all these labels now being used to describe the subset of lesbian, gay, and bi people.
I’m proposing that we start using the term intimate partner relationship preference (IPRP).
We are not “sexual minorities.” We are people with diverse intimate partner relationship preferences (IPRP).
We are not “same-sex attracted.” We express a same gender intimate partner relationship preference (IPRP).
It’s a clunky phrase, but in writing you only have to write it once. After that you can use the acronym, which is not so clunky.
What’s your IPRP? Same gender IPRP? Opposite gender IPRP? Pan gender IPRP?
I’m open to your suggestions as well. But it’s my strong feeling that we will be well served if we can do something to get the “sexual” references out of the way we are described. If we can do this consistently, I believe some people who have closed their minds to us might find it easier to accept us.
The main way in which we are different from the societal norm is not sexual, but rather relational.
And now for your words . . .
I’m be interested in hearing the words you use to describe the LGBTQ experience. Maybe you have made up some of your own words. Tell the rest of us about them!
Maybe you have some thoughts on the words people use to describe you.
Dyke, lesbian, gay, homosexual, same-sex attracted, sexual minority, bisexual, pan sexual, transgendered, trans . . . How do you describe yourself? Which of these words do you find offensive?
© 2015 by Marg Herder
Index of GCN 2015 Conference Content on Christian Feminism Today
Introduction to the #GCNConf Series
Introduction to weconnect Featured Speaker Wendy Gritter
Interview with weconnect Featured Speaker Wendy Gritter
The Wall of Love at the Gay Christian Network Conference (on the Patheos Emerging Voices blog)
An Opportunity to Practice Grace and Love (guest post by Criselda Marquez)
Trauma and the LGBTQ Christian
Our Job Starts and Stops with Loving Each Other
Together At the Table: Inclusive Communion and Intimate Conversations (guest post by Erica Lea)
The Words of the LGBTQ Christian Experience
Precious God, Forgive Them, Because They KNOW What They’re Doing
The Gay Christian Network Conference: The Kingdom of God Unfolding (guest post by Marcy Bain)