Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Politics of Naming

            I am not a homosexual. And I’m tired of this word being used to describe me. It’s not always used in a hateful context, but to me, it always means something hateful, something something deviant, something pathological. I want to apologize for the excessive use of the word in this post and give a trigger warning up front for those who feel about it as I do.
            When I hear this word, I think of the students and teachers who want to make Sullivan’s High School prom “traditional,” by preventing LGBTQ students from attending. They "want to make the public see that we love the homosexuals, but we don't think it's right nor should it be accepted." The teacher, Diana Medly, who is supporting the students in their “traditional” prom says, "Homosexual students come to me with their problems, and I don't agree with them, but I care about them."  How is that possible? I find it difficult to believe that someone can truly care and love another person while thinking and openly stating that how they identify themselves, who they are, or who they love is wrong. This narrative of ‘loving’ and ‘caring’ for the ‘homosexuals’ while thinking they’re still deviant is something that, for me, is tied up in the word itself. The word invokes an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality. When I hear the word, I think of a binary between the good heterosexuals and the wrong homosexuals who the straight people must ‘love’ patronizingly but exclude from their society.  
             There have been people in my life who I know care about me and my queer identity and really want to be allies, but still occasionally use this word to refer to me or other LGBTQ people. It’s frustrating that after I've politely asked them to stop, they still use it. I’m not sure why they still use it. I know it’s not out of maliciousness or intentional intolerance, but it is still painful and upsetting. Perhaps it comes from a place of not realizing the word’s impact on me or being told by a homophobic culture that it is the appropriate word to use. Yet, an important part of being an ally is listening to the people and communities that you want to be an ally for. Often times, that means understanding the ways that words and labels are inscribed upon marginalized communities that are painful. Part of being authentic to a person or community, in my mind, is understanding how they identify and respecting them enough to use their preferred words.
            Naming is serious. Naming is political. Using certain words to speak about yourself or community is not a random whim. It is a careful reaction to the oppression and marginalization that people have experienced. Words carry an extreme amount of power in defining and understanding the world around us and so often oppressed communities have had words attached to them that only serve to further their marginalization. I read an article for my Feminist Research Methods class titled “Latina Lesbian Subject Headings: The Power of Naming” by tatiana de la tierra that discusses the way that library subheadings and cataloging can carry a lot of meaning. de la tierra discusses her difficulties with finding research materials on Latina lesbians in library catalogues, “At the time HOMOSEXUAL pointed me to books about dysfunctional identities resulting from overbearing mothers. HISPANIC in associations with LESBIAN led nowhere. I wondered if I was the only Latina lesbian in the world.” By using certain names to catalogue research materials, information is made invisible. People are made invisible.
            “Homosexual” is not a word that I resonate with. It is not one that I have reclaimed or use to identify myself. To me, it’s a word that has been used by a homophobic culture to control and minimize difference and I don’t like using or hearing it. However, an important thing to remember is that not every LGBTQ person agrees with me on this. Part of the work of being an ally is figuring out what feels best for each person, different communities and respecting what their needs are. 

Article about Sullivan High School: here!

de la tierra, tatiana. “Latina Lesbian Subject Headings: The Power of Naming.” Radical Cataloging: Essays at the Front. Ed. K. R. Roberto. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2008. 94-102.


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