We often take for granted just how powerful words can be. As children, we repeat the refrain of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” even though almost nothing could be further from the truth. We are taught to repeat it in the face of people who hurt us with our words, as a way of minimizing them and their thoughts.
We take for granted the fact that while words are not supposed to be able to hurt us, words have moved mountains in this world. The Declaration of Independence and Constitution for all intents and purposes created the country I live in today—sure, the Revolution and War of 1812 solidified it, but without the words there would have been no bloodshed and no United States of America. We fail to realize that in many religions, it was the word of a deity, not an action, that created the world. In my own religion, Odin sacrificed his body to learn the wisdom and poetry of words.
Words are expressive, words indicate thought and feeling that is unparalleled by any action. Words can set us free. The telling of a secret or expression of love can bring about a rush of comfort that nothing else can. We use words to tell of our deepest, darkest secrets; to gain trust; to tell lies; to tell stories and parables and teach others. Words are extraordinary. Words allow us to express the mazes and meadows of our own unique individuality.
However, we use them so often that it can be easy to forget just how powerful they are. We’re constantly talking, writing, and reading. I, for one, think in English written words. Words become inane, and become blocks of brevity and generalization. Sometimes, these generalizations begin innocuously enough, as modifiers used often in academia as a way to distinguish one group from another. Some begin maliciously, in the form of slurs, meant to marginalize and tear down their targets.
What’s interesting about these types of words is the fact that they can overcome their original intention. Slurs can be reclaimed, innocuous modifiers bastardized into slurs. Some would say that the latter is ‘invalid’ and claim the word’s original usage. Do not be swayed by this. Words are expressive, but they are also up for interpretation.
A few days ago, I witnessed and took part in a long Facebook-thread debate about the use of the word ‘cisgender.’ The conversation was prompted by an article recently posted on the Huffington Post’s Gay Voices section. The author, as well as the person who linked this to Facebook, rejects the idea of the trans-cis binary and claims ‘cis’ has become of itself a type of slur.
When I initially read the article, I came away from it with some indifference. My personal usage of the word has always been purely neutral: for example, my father is a cis man, meaning only that he was born male, not saying anything about who he is as a person. The original poster on Facebook, though, claimed that the word had been used to belittle him, even though he is a staunch ally of the transgender community.
I let the conversation alone for a while and did some serious thinking. I scrolled through tumblr where cisphobia is rampant, and began to realize just how many people there were who did employ the term as a slur. Instead of meaning that a person was comfortable with their designated sex, ‘cis’ had begun to mean that such a person was an exaggerated stereotype of their assigned sex, wholly gender-static, gender conforming, aggressive to trans people, violent, and somehow less-evolved. I came away from my observation of frantic “die cis scum” and “I live on cishet tears” with more than a little confusion.
I returned to the Facebook conversation, where a few trans people were ganging up on the non-trans OP and asserting that he was not an ally of the trans community if he couldn’t handle their verbiage for him. I found this to be very upsetting because they were attempting to speak for the entirety of the trans community, painting us—however unintentionally—as unreasonable, overly sensitive bullies for lack of a better word.
There is a growing and disturbing trend of young trans people, especially those who populate tumblr, to believe that merely being trans is some kind of gift and that trans people are angelic creatures that are de facto good. That is not the case. There are plenty of trans people who are violent, self-centered, mentally ill, or mean-spirited. Trans people are pretty much exactly like everyone else with the exception that their assigned sex and gender are not in alignment. To say that all ‘cis’ people are transphobic and that all trans people can do no wrong is to demean and dehumanize both sides.
That Facebook conversation clearly showed that many non-trans people who are the biggest allies of the trans community are uncomfortable being called ‘cis,’ because it implies a whole host of things about their gender, expression, beliefs, and character. Cis, the formerly chemistry-based term employed by queer theorists within the last decade, has become a slur. Obviously, context is important and simply using the word is not offensive, but I would advise caution when employing it against others.
The same could be said for a word with the opposite trajectory. The word queer has had many incarnations and definitions over the years. At first, it was an innocuous modifier, not for people, necessarily, but things and situations. Queer meant nothing more than strange or different. There wasn’t even a negative connotation. It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that the word began being used as a pejorative against the LGBT community. The definition remained largely the same, but the connotation of wrongness, of sickness, of otherness was added. It was used to dehumanize LGBT folk, and contributed to the pathologization of gayness.
Flash forward to the 1980s. LGBT people were not only being discriminated against by the heteronormative world, but were dying in droves from AIDS. The world had evolved somewhat, considering LGBT people were no longer being thrown into mental institutions for being gay, but the reaction of society to AIDS was tepid at best. It was then that LGBT people began to reclaim the word queer. At that point, the word had a very strong, very radical political connotation. Any gender or sexual nonconforming person with strong political interest or activist streak could—and often did—label themselves queer. The word’s connotation now has mellowed to mean LGBT at this point, although some still attach a political meaning.
The word queer is a reclaimed slur, yes, and is seen as empowering to many queer people. However, because it is both a reclaimed slur and once a very potent political modifier, caution is still needed when using it in reference to specific other people.
These are just two words that took two entirely different trajectories over time. Language is fluid, and connotations and definitions can warp with usage. Both of these words have been used to marginalize and dehumanize groups of people—most often members of the LGBT community—by allowing some inference as to their moral and personal character. I advise against doing this whenever possible, because there are galaxies inside people that aren’t obvious on the surface.
Choose your words wisely.