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Joe Wenke

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No Words: The Limitations of Language and Cultural Values

Posted: 12/31/2012 2:06 pm

I'm very upset that the English language does not allow me to accurately describe myself in some very important ways. When I say "important," I mean it -- as in how I think and what my sexual orientation and gender identity are.

For example, I rely upon science and reason to determine whether or not something is true. I don't really believe in much of anything, certainly nothing supernatural. What does that make me? A lot of people would say that makes me an atheist. I say, what on earth does God have to do with how I decide if something is true or not? The answer is nothing. But when I search for a positive word to describe myself in this regard, all I can come up with are words like "humanist" and "secularist." Unfortunately, those words have been co-opted by the religious right. They don't do the trick. They're not totally positive terms celebrating the fact that I am a rational and reasonable human being.

What about my sexual orientation? Well, I'm most strongly attracted to transgender women. I am certainly not straight, but I'm not gay, either. So what's my sexual orientation? There is no word that describes a person who is primarily attracted to transgender women. There's also no word that describes a person who is primarily attracted to transgender men. According to the English language, these sexual orientations don't exist. Maybe I should call myself "trisexual," which suggests that I'm attracted to the "third gender." In fact, that is what I've been calling myself, but I'm not totally happy with the term. First of all, it's been used to describe somebody who will try anything sexually. That describes me, too, but it's not a sexual orientation. It's openness to adventure and experimentation. Secondly, I don't like the idea of assigning numbers to gender, which brings me to my next point.

There is also no word to describe people who are neither men nor women either from a cisgender or transgender standpoint. The term "genderqueer" just poses the issue. It basically says, "I don't accept gender categories." Right. But wouldn't it be wonderful if there were words to describe all of the subtle variations of gender identity? "Androgynous" is OK, but, again, it simply acknowledges the world of gender diversity.

I really don't know how to refer to my gender identity. A few days ago I was waiting in line at a Starbucks. I was about 10 feet away from the guy (he was a guy) behind the counter. He looked at me and said, "You're next, ma'am." When I walked over to him, he said, "What would you like, sir?" Maybe that's the best I can expect.

The truth is that language reflects cultural values, or perhaps I should say "cultural biases." The term "atheist" is a negative value judgment. The lack of any word to describe sexual attraction to transgender people represents a refusal to grant integrity to transgender people or even to acknowledge that they exist. The binary definition of gender carries with it the judgment of the culture against people whose gender identity trumps biology.

The limitations of language may leave us speechless, but we should remain so only for a moment. We must use the words that we do have to speak out in favor of freedom of thought and being. We must not only be who we are. We must tell the world who we are as well.

You Got to Be Kidding is available at JoeWenke.org.

 
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