YOU CAN'T SAY THAT!
A Bent/Disgaytalk Forum
on Politically Correct Language
BENT covers the
Queer Disability Conference
San Francisco State University
June 2 & 3, 2002
a "Bloom County" comic strip by Berke Breathed, ©
1989 by the Washington Post Company. The characters are Steve Dallas
and his parents.
the most adorable little colored girl playing outside.
Steve: "Colored"? You're saying "colored people"
in 1988? You know better, Ma.
Mom: Then why the "National Association for Colored
People? I don't think Negroes mind at all.
Steve: Don't say "Negroes," Ma! You can't
Mom: Can I say "United Negro College Fund"?
Steve: You are baiting me, Ma!
Dad: That's it. We're leaving.
Mom: Stay put, Reginald. "Mister Socially Sensitive"isn't
finished shaming his parents into enlightenment.
Steve: Everybody just calm down. Let's agree to use the the
New-Age term "People of Color."
Mom: People of Color.
Steve: People of Color.
Mom: Colored people.
Dad: We're leaving.
guys: I've finally recovered (I think) from the Queer Disability
conference earlier this week. Like any conference, it had its good
and bad parts (dildos-as-microphones do not equal "Art"), but I
was generally very impressed.
event was very lesbian, though, so there weren't as many
cute guys there as I might have liked!)
of the things that struck me was the constant battling over language.
Seems like every time you turned around, someone was getting their
panties in a bunch because someone else used language that the first
somebody found offensive. I'm all for conscious use of language,
and making people feel safe, but it was ridiculous at times. I saw
someone get chewed out for using the word schizophrenic even when
he was, in fact, referring to someone who was . . . schizophrenic.
I still don't quite get what the problem was with that. It wasn't
a judgment, but a statement of medical diagnosis. I also heard a
woman object to somebody's use of the almost-word "duh!" because
"duh" is a sound uttered sometimes by people with developmental
disabilities. I didn't really get that one, either.
all of this, the interesting thing is that the phrase TABS ("temporarily
able-bodied") was thrown around almost universally, and no one seemed
to think that it was at all offensive. I've never liked the term.
It sounds kind of pejorative/disrespectful toward nondisabled folks.
As someone with many nondisabled friends and a nondisabled partner,
I've never felt comfortable using it. But somehow, it was acceptable
there at the conference, in a bubble of super extreme political-correctness.
Seems hypocritical to me. What do you guys think about the language
Even the word "queer" has been causing friction lately. A group
of gay men posted a full-page ad in the "Bay Area Reporter"
expressing their disapproval of the term. Maybe we should start
by discussing what "queer" means to all of us.
As one of the people who helped start "Queer Nation" (way
back when!!!), all I have to say on the subject is that we own
the word already, been there, done that. The guyz who took out the
ad should probably check their history. I hope that didn't sound
all control/power-monger thingy! Its just sort of funny sometimes
how things go around in circles. I remember how often I had those
same arguments with friends in San Francisco years ago; some hated
the term, others of us decided we truly needed to own it. I've always
preferred "queer" to "gay." Queer, after all,
says something about who I really am. It means: "strange," "unusual,"
"different from others." The dictionary definition is the original
reason I used it. It described me as a person, nothing more.
"Queer" is the word I choose to identify with when I would otherwise
say "gay," but want to add an in-your-face, pushy, fuck-you overtone.
Used by others, I often find "queer" overly-PC, or at the other
extreme, used as a verbal barb.
Barbed or not, I prefer "queer," because "gay" has come to represent
nothing more than a parallel model of normality. We're becoming
assimilated into the mainstream, and as that happens we internalize
its values and begin to adopt patterns of exclusion like those that
were used against us. By accepting only a certain range of sexual
behaviors and identities as "normal", we discriminate against those
who don't fall into our categories. The "abnormal", then, will suffer
repression because they experience life according to their own norms.
"Gay" has become increasingly White, middle-class, and straight-acting,
more an extension of the dominant paradigm than a true embrace of
difference. "Gay," to me, states subconsciously: it's okay to fuck
ass and suck dick as long as we are not too different from our mainstream
hetero masters, as long as we endorse our version of their ideal
of what's good and worthy. "Queer", on the other hand, embraces
that ideology only partially. It attaches no stigma to things like
cross-dressing, gender-bending, power exchange via sadomasochism,
or our desire to actualize our fantasies of being numberless different
Maybe "queer" is more a state of mind than a state of gender or
sexuality. I feel like queer can refer to LGB&T, but, as Julio pointed
out, I have also seen it applied (quite appropriately, I believe)
to leather-folk, and S/M enthusiasts. I've even seen it applied
to particularly hip straight people. Queer feels more like a space
where anyone, regardless of their orientation or particular kinks,
can feel comfortable, knowing that they are outside the mainstream.
Gee, Ray, if you're going to start calling straight people queer,
I'm turning in my queer identity card right now!! But your point
underscores what's most radical about this discussionhow fluid
language is, especially when we use it to talk about identities
that are themselves changing. Did everybody read Rob Morse's column
in the June 12 San Francisco Chronicle? I didn't like his attitude
much (maybe his sarcasm was meant to be humor), but he did make
one point that reminded me a lot of what I found so maddening at
the Queer Disability conference.
wrote: "It turns out that gays and lesbians in wheelchairs are organizing
and call themselves 'queer crips.' Meanwhile, those of us outside
that identity group have to use the phrase 'lesbian, gay, bisexual,
transgender other-abled people,' which takes a long time and can
sound awfully sarcastic. But if I write 'queer crips' without the
quotation marks, I'd get picketed and probably fired. So it goes
with the in-group, out-group uses of slang. You never know whom
you're going to offend in a nation of people so ready to be offended
they call themselves offensive names to see who winces . . ."
fact, no one is telling Morse what to call us, and the use of "queer
crip" is not exactly newas a culture critic, where has
he been? More important, if Morse wrote with more nuance he could
probably get away with using any language he liked without getting
"picketed and fired."
language issues at the conference intrigued me, too, and like Ray
I noticed that "temporarily able-bodied" (TAB) was commonplace.
When we talk about the fluidity of language, let's remember that
language is a site of power, so the same phrases or expressions
can convey a point of view that might be empowering or disempowering,
depending upon: who is using a term; when they are using it; and
why they are using itnot to mention the audience they are
addressing. That which we are not often seems a non-issue,
but for those who are, it defines them.
kind of expected a conference like this to be a place in which many
terms were contested by people who held different positions. We
saw this with the mentally ill people who were being outraged and
disappointed by the liberal use of "crazy" both in and out of presentations.
That's a reminder that, for us, "queer" is only the most obvious
example of contested language.
say "queer" when I don't want to waste my breath saying" LGBTQFYXZ
community." Queer is exclusively inclusive, only excluding the exclusive,
but then again, not always. Queer defies definition. To define is
to limit, to draw a line that states end and beginningand
since being Queer is a God-given state of soul, it has no end and
no beginning. To be Queer goes beyond sexual identity, but includes
it. To be Queer is to be gay, and lesbian, and bisexual, and transgender,
and pansexual, and heterosexual, and all the pseudoscientific terms
that some believe are real only because they forget that words are
be Queer is to be Real beyond the convention. To be Queer is an
in-flux Identity that embraces all solid, rigid identities. Queer
defies the dictionary. And loves it. And sets it free from unchanging
meanings. To be Queer is to be an Ocean receiving all rivers of
fluid I's, and static I's, and individual I's, and collective I's.
To be Queer is holy. To be Queer is good. To be Queer is human.
say Queer when I want to exercise my power over the dominant, traditional
meaning given to the word in a dictionary, completely aware that
by endowing Queer with its all-embracing, life-affirming meaning,
I will help to transform that meaning into the dominant one, relegating
the pejorative meaning to an obsolete, marginalized place. Language
is a living phenomenon and we have the power to shape it to our
glory. Queer is glory! Queer is crooked. Crooked is bent. Bent is
Crip. Crip is Queer. Queer Crip is Hip. And Viva sweet-love!
glad that Ray raised this whole big issue. I've had to do a little
homework on PC language tricks myself, but as a writer I have no
patience for those who think they can tell me what I may and may
not say, because that's tantamount to telling me what to think.
I use the term "disabled," for example, only because over the last
twenty years it's become standard, and it's too much trouble, or
it's inappropriate, for me to explain each time why I don't like
it. For me, though, it's pejorative, and I still prefer "'handicapped"
for a whole bunch of purely linguistic reasonswhich then become
political, of course! This discussion isn't going to solve anything,
but let's keep it going. It's good for what ails us.
The parallel between handicapped vs. disabled and gay vs. queer
is something we need to keep thinking about. To me and a lot of
others, "queer" eludes a static, dominant model of sexual expression.
Because there's no central sexuality and no prescribed normality,
all realities are unique and precious. This argument is particularly
valid for us crips, because the binary opposition between "abled"
and "disabled" works in the same way to create a sense of lack in
the group that's been subordinated. Perhaps the PC language war
has to do with trying to destabilize this relationship of power
by finding ways to subvert how we think of ourselves.
of imagining ourselves as lacking ability, we need to pay attention
to how the dominant, "abled" group has made us think of ourselves
as "dis-abled." That includes everything from lack of physical
accessibility to stigmatization to the kind of ideological propaganda
that promotes a view of ourselves as less-than.
I agree with Walt. Let's keep this discussion going. In the long
run it is good for what ails us.
Aguilera, David O'Connor, and Bob Guter participated in the Queer
Disability Conference. Bob Guter is Editor of BENT. Ray,
Walt Dudley, and Angel
Jaedeen have written for BENT. Charlie Squires and Julio Moreno
are frequent contributors to Disgaytalk