Lots of people who watched Bruce Jenner’s April 24 interview with Diane Sawyer came away feeling even more confused about how to talk about Jenner than they had before the interview. Folks wanted to know if we be using female pronouns now, even though Jenner specified that he’d prefer to continue using male pronouns. Some people also suggested Jenner get a new first name, even though he said that at least for now, he’s keeping Bruce. And then, there were also questions like, "If Jenner identifies as a woman, doesn’t that also make him a lesbian?"
This is all super confusing, and we wanted to find out why language seems to matter so much when we talk about sexuality and gender, and whether it’s ever really possible to just live label-free. We hit up a couple experts for more info.
"People used to describe sexual issues as sins," producer and activist Andrea James told MTV News. "Then they described them as diseases. Now they describe them as traits (who you are) or behaviors (what you do). An important goal with language is to find the most value-neutral way to describe something, so we don't color people's ideas simply by how we talk about it.”
Doug Bigham, linguistics professor at San Diego State University, echoed a similar sentiment, telling MTV News, “Our words are a social bond that we create with each other. [Words] are the first way we make connection with people, so they become really fundamental to how we connect with each other. In most cultures, and certainly in English-speaking cultures, how we refer to people, especially when they’re not around, is extremely important.”
“Labels can be great if you are saying that you are part of a group," explained James. "But they can be not so great if people think that a label means something negative. For instance, saying 'I'm gay' can be a statement of pride. But telling someone 'you're so gay,' can be a slur. Context matters with words and labels, because any label can be used in good or bad ways.”
Bigham similarly pointed out that labels can be great when they’re helping you find like-minded people, but they can be awful when someone uses them to categorize you in a way that’s contrary to your own experience. He also noted that even if we don’t like them, labels are sort of impossible to avoid.
“I think the act of denying any labels is, in a certain sense, its own way of labeling ourselves,” Bigham said. “Even if we don’t want to claim any labels for ourselves, there are still bound to be labels that would offend us if other people applied them to us. There’s a difference between not liking labels and pretending that they don’t matter.”
The meaning of words and labels can change over time, too. For example the word “Queer” (the ‘Q’ in LGBTQ) used to be a derogatory slur, but now many people consider it reclaimed. “Queer” is often used as an umbrella term for sex and gender minorities, and is preferred by some people over the terms “Lesbian,” “Gay,” or “Bisexual” because while it makes it clear that someone identifies as something other than heterosexual, it doesn’t force labels onto their gender or the genders of the people they date.
“Because of its history as a slur,” Andrea James said, “Some people don't like the word ‘Queer,’ and they don't think it can be reclaimed, but others feel it describes them and their community well. Another term some people use as an identity is Genderqueer, to specify that their queerness is not about sexuality, but specifically about gender identity and expression.” Genderqueer people may not identify as male or female, but as neither, both, or a blend.
In another example, the media has recently shifted away from the term “same-sex marriage,” toward “marriage equality,” which is more inclusive of transgender and gender-nonconforming people. With all of these changes happening all the time, it can feel difficult to keep up with what language is considered acceptable. How can we make sure we don’t offend anyone?
“Most people don't want to hurt someone's feelings or look dumb, so they worry about saying the wrong thing,” Andrea James told MTV News. “But no one is perfect. We all sometimes say things by accident that hurt someone else. If it's truly an accident, most people will accept a sincere apology from you.”
Bigham also pointed out that as long as your intentions are in the right place, it’s OK to make mistakes -- and mistakes happen to the best of us. “If we were having a conversation about Laura Jane Grace, who is the lead singer for Against Me!, and we started intentionally using male pronouns even though she’s now requested that we use female pronouns, that would be an act of aggression, and would be wrong. But if we’re thinking of all the old Against Me! videos and we have this image in our minds of Laura Jane Grace when she was masculine, and we slip up and say ‘he,’ thats ok -- slip-ups are going to happen. It’s only when you’re purposely misgendering someone that you should feel bad.”
Bigham also suggested that in social situations where you’re unsure about pronouns, it’s good to hang back and see if you can pick up someone’s prefered pronouns from context. If you can’t, it’s ok to ask someone politely what pronouns they prefer, or to use gender-neutral pronouns like “they” in the meantime.
When it comes to asking questions that go beyond pronouns, Andrea James said, “If you want to ask someone a question and you're worried about saying the wrong thing. Maybe it's better to look online for the answer first. If you do want to ask them anyway, see if it's OK with them first by saying, ‘I'd like to learn more about you and your community, but I don't want to offend you. Is it OK if I ask you some personal questions? If I use the wrong words, please let me know so I won't do it again.’ If they say yes, then ask away!”
Both Andrea James and Doug Bigham also have some high hopes for ways the language of gender and sexuality might continue to evolve.
James has explained the term “monosexual” which means, “exclusively attracted to one sex,” as a value-neutral opposite to bisexuality. She pointed out that some people, both within and outside the LGBT community, try to claim that bisexuality doesn't really exist, but noted that studies have found that as many Americans identify as bisexual as there are gays and lesbians combined.
“I hope we get to the point very soon when people can say, ‘I want you to refer to me with these pronouns call me by this name, and to the extent that we talk about my sexuality, you refer to me with this label of my choosing,’ said Bigham. "And people will no longer feel any need to say, ‘but aren’t you REALLY this other thing?’”
He pointed out that this issue doesn’t seem to come up as much in contexts that aren’t related to gender and sexuality. For example, he said that his father went by his middle name for his entire life, and no one ever got angry about it and tried to insist on calling him by his “real” name. He also said that many of his own students find it awkward at first to call him by either his first name or “Professor Doug,” as he requests, but once he tells them that “Dr. Bigham” makes him feel uncomfortable, none of them insist on calling him “Dr.”
“This notion that language maps onto reality, As if pronouns, labels, and names are ever anything other than completely arbitrary to begin with...that’s what I hope we move away from," said Bigham.