YOU CAN'T SAY THAT!

A Bent/Disgaytalk Forum
on Politically Correct Language



BENT covers the

First International
Queer Disability Conference
San Francisco State University
June 2 & 3, 2002
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From a "Bloom County" comic strip by Berke Breathed, © 1989 by the Washington Post Company. The characters are Steve Dallas and his parents.

Mom: That's 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 say "Negroes"!
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.
Steve: NO!!
Dad: We're leaving.

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Hey 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.

(The event was very lesbian, though, so there weren't as many cute guys there as I might have liked!)

One 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.

Given 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 question?

~RAYMOND J. AGUILERA
California


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.

~JULIO MORENO
California


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.

~ANGEL JAEDEEN
Oregon


"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.

~CHARLIE SQUIRES
Wisconsin


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 sexual selves.

~JULIO


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.

~RAY


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 discussion—how 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.

Morse 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 . . ."

In fact, no one is telling Morse what to call us, and the use of "queer crip" is not exactly new—as 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."

~BOB GUTER
California


The 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 it—not 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.

I 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.

~DAVID J. O'CONNOR
California

I 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 beginning—and 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 conventional signs.

To 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.

I 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!

~JULIO

I'm 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 reasons—which 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.

~WALT DUDLEY
North Dakota


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.

Instead 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.

So I agree with Walt. Let's keep this discussion going. In the long run it is good for what ails us.

~JULIO

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Ray 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

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/July 2002