I think I lost a potential friend the other day when I told her that I wished she wouldn't say "queer." I guess if she had said it only once I'd have let it ride, but she was telling a story that for some reason needed that pejorative term repeated over and over. Every time she said it, it made me wince until I was finally at a point where the discomfort of hearing it exceeded any discomfort I was going to experience by expressing my unhappiness.
"Well what do you want me to say?" she asked.
"Gay or homosexual," I responded.
I should have asked her if she would be telling the story in the way she was telling it if she were in a group that included someone she knew to be homosexual.
And then, rather than address this particular problem, she asked if "gimp" also offended me. Which it does. It was an unpleasant discussion all around. She seemed to think that since she had some invisible disability and called herself "gimp," it shouldn't bother someone who was missing a limb if he or she was called "gimp" and with that we let the subject go.
I maintain that words matter and that it personally costs me nothing to be aware of what any minority group finds offensive in group labeling and language in general and to take that into consideration when communicating. If African Americans want to be called African American now, that's the term I will use. If people from Asia say they are Asians and not Orientals, that's fine by me. If people with a minority sexual orientation prefer "homosexual" to "queer" or worse, I will comply.
And don't give me the "but they call themselves queer" argument. When oppressed groups use the terms of the oppressors, they are pulling the terms' teeth, or at least feeling that they are. It can be a gesture of empowerment. I am not at all sure that it's in anyone's best interest, though, especially when their use of a term can be interpreted by some to be a license for anyone to use the term.
So what about gender-neutral language? I'm all for that, too. And it doesn't need to be awkward or unnatural. For example, a chairman doesn't have to become a chairperson--he or she can become merely the chair. "Men Working" can become "Workers Ahead," not "People Working." When language is inclusive, it helps to generate an overall climate of inclusion in a workplace and as someone who was "the first woman" to work in two different jobs, I can say that anything that helps create a climate of inclusion is a good and necessary thing and helps normalize the situation.
Anyway, even if the language is awkward at first, it can become commonplace. Remember when the term "Ms." was first suggested? I thought it was terribly unnatural and reminded me of the little girl skunk in "Pogo" but within a couple years, that's the box I was checking on forms and it was the label I preferred. I got over it. Everyone got over it.
Right now, the City of Brazoria in Texas is considering making the use of the n-word illegal. I am too much of a civil libertarian to be in favor of outright censorship, but I like what Brazoria is doing because it brings the whole power of words issue to the fore. It acknowledges that a word can create a climate of love, or at least tolerance, or a climate of hate and that this climate can interfere with someone's pursuit of happiness. It is labeling those who would use the n-word in public as racist bullies, which they are. Even if Brazoria decides it doesn't want to impinge upon free speech [which, incidentally, is the way it turned out], it has sent a message I like. Call it political correctness if you will, but don't spit when you say it.
Saints celebrating feast days on January 28 include Saint Thomas Aquinas (patron saint of philosophers, theologians, booksellers, universities, colleges, students and scholars and is invoked for chastity and learning) and Saint Peter Nolasco.
Happy birthday to Alan Alda (1936, NYC) .