First of all, a word to Spell Check. Whaddyamean “Nitpikky” ain’t a word?!?!
I promise, it’s a word!
There’s a technically correct way to speak and call a person, but there’s also a not-technically-correct way of speaking that is still respectful and safe. Or rather, there are people who speak, not-technically-correctly that still exude deep respect and genuine safety. The difference is made by a speaker’s attitude, openness, curiosity, by how the speaker demonstrates investment and care in the other person.
I’m thinking of how my ears perk up and bristle when I hear someone use a term that I know is not technically correct…especially when that person is another Queer person.(She’s not a gay woman, she’s a lesbian! And so on…) This happens fairly often. But in my circles, I am fortunate to be surrounded by people committed to being respectful. Even in their improper use of terms, I know that they are still safe people who are respectful and compassionate. I know this because we have a relationship build on openness, honesty, compassion and respect.
I know when people are safe because they are being their authentic self. Some people authentically use all the most current proper terms with grace and dignity. For others, the current proper terminology does not flow so naturally off the tip of the tongue, but they are still safe because they are still authentically kind and respectful and supportive and compassionate. With or without the most current proper terminology, you can still build a safe relational space. You can do this with openness, honesty, curiosity and an awareness of where you are ignorant.
In these sorts of relational spaces, there is room for error. I daresay, in these sorts of spaces, there must be room for error. This is because we can learn through errors. When I am on the outside of a community, seeking to enter and understand, I should tread lightly and cautiously and ask lots of questions and be open to lots of correction.
On the other hand, when I am on the inside of a community and someone else wants to enter, I should be patient with them in their newness and ignorance and use their terminology errors, not as reason to criticize, but to teach. And by teach, I mean empower.
Said another way:
We Queer folk have our “correct” terminology.
And we try to use the “correct” terminology.
And we think it’s very important for others to use our correct terminology when speaking to and about us. We think this so much so that we provide competency trainings and indexes of current terminology.
And we consider use of “incorrect” terminology grounds for offense and sometimes call it harassment or discrimination or micro-aggressions.
But the truth is that the terminology is always changing and growing. Staying “most current” is difficult and requires investment of time, energy and lots of connections with lots of different people.
And sometimes we in the Queer community use wrong terminology, even when talking about ourselves. At the same time, I’m sure we’re not always careful to speak of our Straight neighbors in the most respectful way possible, and this is not right of us.
And sometimes we have well meaning, eager allies who want to support us but just don’t know the right words. They don’t know our words, so we say they don’t know the right words, and this is not fair of us.
Respect and support happen in language. But respect and support also transcend language. And without matching lifestyle and action, respectful and supportive language and all the proper terminology can become useless.
I think sometimes we get too caught up in terminology and in our names. Don’t get me wrong, names and terms and words are important and beautiful and I will write many many more blogs about why we should use the right words…
…but words are not everything.
Actions are loud.
Authentic actions scream.
The heart intent is the most important of all.
The idea behind using all the right words in the first place is to create a safe space for the other person. You create a safe space by showing compassion, understanding and respect. One conspicuous way of doing this is by calling a person by their name and referring to them by their chosen labels.
But we get confused. We begin to thing that we’re using all the right language to avoid offending someone. But no one can go their whole life without offending anyone. Nor is it balanced to fear and second guess every descriptor and noun they say because they’re worrying about offending someone. Living in fear of words is not good, just as living in unawareness of words is not good.
There’ s a subtle but significant difference between showing respect and avoiding offense. You can avoid offending someone just by avoiding any conversation about anything personal or substantial, but that doesn’t show respect to them or to you.
On the other hand, you can ignorantly be respectful. You can compassionately and safely be highly uninformed about a people’s language. You can cluelessly be a safe person.
The key is to always be curious. Always be open. Perhaps the most effective way to respect a person is to ask them open and curious questions. These are questions meant to learn and better understand. Not interrogation questions, not debate questions, not yes or no questions.
This is my concern for my brothers and sisters in the LGBTQQIAPWB2-S community-that we become so preoccupied with our names that we forget sight of who we are and how we live as people. We demand respect from those outside of our community and demand that they recognize us by our chosen terms. Can we not likewise give the straight folks respect and be patient with them while they learn about us? Can we not work hard to make a safe space for people who want to be our Allies, though they still be ignorant about the terms we use and why? Can we not make this safe space for them just as we insist they make a safe space for us?
The Christians have a truth given to them by Christ, a gauge for measuring the quality of their lives. He said, “They will know you are my disciples by your love for one another.” Love that uses but ultimately transcends current proper terminology.
May it be so with us in the Queer community. May we be defined by the care and love we have for each other, and even those outside our community, and not merely by our many names…