The Queer Take: In embracing the new, inclusive language project, what has been gained and what has been lost?
In domains like gender and sexuality, we have managed to demand more words and vocabulary and descriptions that allow more of us to name our selves, our desires, our milestones. This evolving language was allowing more of us to walk into more rooms, but also I could see those rooms still had the same rules, the same problems, writes Joshua Muyiwa in #QueerTake
In domains like gender and sexuality, we have managed to demand more words and vocabulary and descriptions that allow more of us to name our selves, our desires, our milestones.
There is power in this perceived simple function of moving our languages forward, it serves all of us in the end.
This evolving language was allowing more of us to walk into more rooms, but also I could see those rooms still had the same rules, the same problems, writes Joshua Muyiwa.
The Queer Take is a fortnightly column by poet-writer Joshua Muyiwa. Read more from the series here.
One of the terrible burdens of our contemporary times, or at least within this rights narrative: we’d rather reduce and restrict, than revel. This might not seem the case considering even in domains like gender and sexuality, we have managed to demand more words and vocabulary and descriptions that allow more of us to name our selves, our desires, our milestones. And I do see the power in this perceived simple function of moving our languages forward, it serves all of us in the end. Though I — like many others I know from within the community — would like to be allowed to speak the old tongues too, where the project for us was to say the same words but employ them and hear them differently. For example: when I called a cis butch gay man ‘she’, I wasn’t misgendering him but rather claiming him as a member of my tribe. Or more likely thought of friendship as fiercely female and therefore all of our friends were ‘she’. I’m not saying this switching of pronouns was always deployed in this claiming, warm manner by everyone; I’m sure it has been used as derision, to declare difference, but I don’t do so. Or at least, I’ve taught myself to hear the difference in the tones.
We don’t seem to be able to operate at multiple levels, or such movement is deemed as deception. I can demand better from a straight person, and still allow for my fellow sisters to relish and spit out language exactly the way that they want. If I’m truly awake: why can’t I be open to the ways that ‘she’ might be manipulating, playing and undercutting language too? Why can’t we have different demands of our own? Isn’t our call to open up language? Doesn’t that mean it must be used sensitively, mindful and consciously by those already privileged? Aren’t we insisting for them to see us in the world, to count us in it with these changes in our use of language? Can’t we read the ways that our own, who perhaps didn’t (and still don’t) have access to these alterations, still wrestle with language to make it their own? Or have we lost that ability in these asks for the absolute?
On the other hand, I can hear a whole bunch of you woke people (in and outside of the community) saying: but the fact that you had to even learn these things, or make these adjustments, is the result of societal, systemic violence. And I’d agree. But what does one do with that violence? How does one tell the story of a violation in a way that leaves both parties with a feeling of personhood? Just like derision didn’t destroy any of us, or me, I don’t think it’ll have the same effect on the perpetrators in these instances too. It is seeing, or being generous enough to see, that we’re all bound by the same chains. And if we are to move at all, we must undo the shackles for everyone as well. In even acknowledging violence in the world, in even allowing oneself to be affected by it, in even being shaped by it: we are political. It simply can’t be helped. Or as Ma Anand Sheela would say: tough titties.
I’ve been thinking about this unease with language for a long time. I’ve found that writing, inserting my doubts, determinations and details into its fabric has been learning, liberating and losing. I’ve found the death of a word in our community to describe an expression of personhood has meant that the few that do look/feel like me have been lost to the stories we tell. I speak of femme. It is someone who is girly but doesn’t want to be a girl. It is someone who doesn’t break gender but rather embraces it or even nit-picks at it, and in doing so exposes it as a gimmick. It is someone who lounges in the confusions they stir in another. It is being fragile, fickle and feisty at the same time. It is having one’s feet in both streams, or sitting in one but swimming in the other. It isn’t a destination, it isn’t a stop, not even a pause but like an ellipsis it rivers. And in its erasure, I don’t see myself reflected in our language. Yes, sure — there are other words that describe all of the pleasures, pains and pursuits of the word femme but they don’t fit me in the same way. And so, what am I supposed to do now? Go ahead and pick another word: is it that easy? Shouldn’t it be?
I’d felt unseen, unmade, unnoticed and so from a place of hurt I decided to doubt, deny this new-inclusive language project. Was this another club I couldn’t join? I’m surrounded by generous, giving friends and each of them has a way of teaching me something. In a conversation on this loneliness, left-outness I was feeling from the community, N had this way of reminding me that I didn’t want to be unkind. And then, once I decided to suppress the ache, and I took note that this evolving language was allowing more of us to walk into more rooms, but also I could see those rooms still had the same rules, the same problems. But if I’m expecting kindness then I must be the first to show it. And so I’ve come to understand it if not at every level then at some, that this might be an important pursuit. At the same time, I want to be allowed to hold on to my old tongue; it has taken me this long to speak it fluently. I’ve earned it, it has been used as tools to dismantle, design and decorate the world for so long, yes — there are more colours, but also more problems. And some very deep-seated ones still. Though I wait, hopeful, that if not anything words will not lose their weight, their gleam, their delight but just their sting. If not now, then soon.
Joshua Muyiwa is a Bengaluru-based poet and writer
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