Language and identity are interwoven. The labels people choose for themselves or that are chosen by others have a psychological impact, so much so that a body of research has been developed called, Labeling Theory, because of the effect words have on the mind. Language and word choice influence society on a massive scale. The novel 1984 by George Orwell demonstrates how those in power strive to control speech by limiting language, creating a new language called “Newspeak.” Controlling language, in essence, limits an individual’s freedom of thought which is also a theme in Orwell’s book. We can see how the current administration is attempting to control and limit language specifically targeting the queer community. Not only is the administration literally attempting to change the legal definition of “gender” to only consider biological genitalia, but the prevalence of “bathroom bills” being brought to the forefront to enforce this definition is a heinous attack on personal identity.
The transgender community in particular is being targeted with unjust legislation and discrimination. Transwomen of color especially face overwhelming violence and bias. In 2018 there were 26 violent deaths of transgender people in the United States with all but one trans women, and all but one were people of color. This group is at higher risk of poverty, homelessness, and unemployment specifically because of their identity. Other explicit examples of this type of targeted discrimination was seen in 2016 when anti-LGBTQ groups misgendered Gavin Grimm in their legal briefs regarding his bathroom access case in Virginia. More recently, also in Virginia, the Republican House Majority Leader requested to no longer use the titles “gentleman” or “gentlewoman” since Danica Roem, who is openly transgender, won her election. These are significantly egregious acts and exemplify how important language and identity are.
To deny someone their identity, or to “otherize” them because of it, is nothing new and not restricted to the United States. Throughout history invading groups would systematically strip away the identity of those they were invading. This tactic is used to dehumanize, degrade, and break the spirit of the invaded. There are even passages from the Bible that describe how to effectively take over entire populations by eradicating everything that is part of the identity of that population. Deuteronomy 7:1-5 states,
“When the Lord your God brings you into the land where you are entering to possess it, and clears away many nations before you… then you shall utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them and show no favor to them. Furthermore, you shall not intermarry with them…But thus you shall do to them: you shall tear down their alters, and smash their sacred pillars, and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire.”
Presently these tactics can also be seen in parts of China with the banning of monasteries from teaching the Tibetan language in an effort to deny Tibetan youth their native identity.
Patriarchal systems have regulated language for most of history. This is seen in how feminized words are considered weak, for example insulting a boy or man by calling them a “pussy,” and how masculine words are strong such as in the phrase “to have balls.” Heteronormativity is a part of the patriarchal system and has guided language to degrade anything that strays from that structure. Calling something “gay” means it’s not cool or calling someone “queer” as an insult because they are not heterosexual. The Webster’s Dictionary defines the word “queer” literally as, “differing in some way from what is usual or normal.” A phenomenon of taking back labels or “reclaiming” them by the communities that were stereotyped by them has also demonstrated the value of words. “Queer” has been reclaimed by the LGBTQAI+ community and is now viewed as a positive and inclusive term. Women reclaiming the word “bitch” is another example of this. Bitch is now used by women as a word of sisterhood and power.
With the ongoing awareness and realization of gender fluidity, pronouns are undergoing a transformation. Some individuals are choosing neither the masculine nor feminine pronouns but prefer to be addressed by they or them. New pronouns have been developed as well, such as zi or zir. Of course, there is an outcry against these new usages. With change usually comes confusion, but people need to realize that language, like the human species, is forever evolving. When Gloria Steinem revived the title of Ms. for women so their identity wasn’t attached to their marital status, there was public ridicule. Eventually Ms. became an accepted title and men and women also began to accept that women sustain their individuality regardless of their relationships. Language transforms and expands to include new discoveries, new technology, and new understanding. Gendered professional titles have evolved to be nongender specific, like “policeman” to police officer or “stewardess” to flight attendant. Words have been invented to keep up with technological advances like “emoji,” “podcast,” or “Bluetooth.” So as humans’ understanding of themselves continues to progress, so should the lexicon.
Of course, there is the fundamental freedom of speech as well as The Satanic Temple’s tenet expressing the right to offend. When people hurl insults at others they usually defend themselves by declaring their First Amendment right. People refusing to address nonbinary or transgender individuals properly is offensive, and while members of the TST recognize the right to offend, within that same tenet is the understanding that the freedoms of others should never be encroached upon. An individual’s freedom of identity is paramount and to deny that is to forgo your own freedom. Having the freedom to offend does not waive common decency, compassion, or kindness. TST tenets are driven by logic and state that they are “designed to inspire nobility in action and thought. The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail…”
As we move forward as a society, let us choose our words carefully. Instead of restricting language or limiting its reach, language should be broadening to include the expansion of human identity and thought. Let us utilize our freedoms constructively and ensure the freedoms of others. Let us continue to evolve and pursue greater understanding. Let us continue to celebrate, support, and work together to create a world that is inclusive and compassionate to all. No matter our personal labels or how anyone identifies, no matter what language we speak or what words we use to describe ourselves, let us all, indeed, be proud this World Pride Month!