Language Changes All the Time and You Need to Keep Up

I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to do much more than tweet about the current going ons of the sex-blogging community. Frankly, I’ve spent plenty of time in different BDSM communities to have watched many leaders and people I thought I could trust with my life do something ignorant and then dig in their heels when corrected. A regional convention was brought down in part because of this. Because someone was more determined to be right rather than admit that they said some transphobic/racist bullshit and apologize to those who had been hurt.

So, unfortunately, I suppose, I’m not surprised by this behavior. I’m not surprised people choose to be mad that they were corrected. I’m not surprised that the tears and “think of my feelings” were the response rather than apologies and changed behavior. You can read some of these blog posts to get an idea of what’s going on, etc. Content Warning for both this blog and the links below: Discussions of transphobia, misgendering, etc.

Mx Nillin – The Discrimination Problem with Rebel’s Notes’ Smut Marathon

depressedqueerdo – Transphobia in Sex Blogging

Quinn Rhodes – I do not have to be nice to people who misgender me

Kayla Lords – These Moments are Always Bigger Than We Think They Are

TLDR: People made transphobic statements and doubled-down on these statements rather than apologizing and learning how to do better the next time. This has been a pattern from several people in the sex-blogging community and folks like Mx Nillin and Quinn have been amazing and called this shit out.

Outside of that though, I can absolutely speak to the idea that language doesn’t change and that introducing things like new pronouns or the evolution of a word’s definition is fundamentally wrong. This belief is wrong. It’s just flat out wrong. Language has evolved and changed since language first existed. We don’t all still speak in caveman grunts or even the exact same language. It’s likely that you’ve met people who speak the same language as you but uses different vocabulary.

If you want to read about some of the many theories of the origin of language, you can skim this Wikipedia page, but suffice to say, the concept of language is a tricky thing to pin down.

So What is Language Anyways?

If you’ve ever taken a class on linguistics (the study of language), you know where this is heading. If not, let’s get into something you’ve probably never thought much about.

Language is a communication system. It is a collection of rules, signals, connections, and patterns that allow one being to communicate with another. Charles Hockett proposed a list of design features that distinguish human language from other communication systems which include the previously listed features along with things like semanticity, discreteness, displacement, and productivity. You can read more about these things here but the point is that language is loosely defined by a series of characteristics.

When we think of language, we also think about grammar and correct grammar. We may have many language myths tied up in our definition of correct grammar. Growing up, the phrase “ain’t ain’t a word” was common in my house. It’s incorrect grammar. How do you feel about the sentence “he don’t know nothing”? Is that bad grammar too?

Grammar is a set of rules “that a speaker knows that allow [them] to produce and understand sentences in a language. A grammatical sentence is therefore a possible sentence in the language. An ungrammatical sentence is one that is impossible in a given language, one that a native speaker of that variety would never utter naturally” (Denham 9).

By this definition, any sentence that you can construct that makes sense is considered a grammatical sentence. Grammar suddenly doesn’t look like what you thought it was, does it?

The Evolution of Language

Without getting too much into the academic stuff, we can see that language has changed and is capable of changing. French and German are different languages. British English and US English are similar but different. The British say chips and Americans say fries. And even within the US, words can vary – soda vs pop, wagon vs buggy, etc.

So it’s easy to see that language isn’t static. It’s impossible to be static.

Now if you keep narrowing down speakers of a language, you’ll see that it’s not just regional, or a specific state, or a city that can have its own language, but even down to social groups.

Since this is a queer kink blog, let’s look at the word bottom.

Bottom is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the lowest point or part of something” and “a person’s buttocks”. However, it’s also defined as “one of six flavors of quark”, “stamina or strength of character”, “a man who takes the passive role in anal intercourse with another man”, and “the second half of an inning”. All of these definitions refer to bottom as a noun! It can also be an adjective and a verb with even more meanings.

In queer culture, the word bottom isn’t always tightly defined as “a man who takes the passive role in anal intercourse with another man”. Maybe they’re passive, maybe they’re active bottoms (power bottoms anyone?), but the word describes a role – the receiver of sex. They can be any gender, having different kinds of sex, with people of any other gender.

And in kink, we use the word bottom to define a different role – the receiver of play. Sex not always included.

I’m not going to get into bottoms who top and all of those nuances in this post but, generally speaking, the bottom in kink is the one getting spanked, being given orders, and generally receiving the action of play.

(And, just to think, the word submissive gets even more complicated!)

From this one word, bottom, we have a large number of definitions that make sense in different contexts. The word has collected more definitions over the years and those definitions have also shifted slightly.

LGBT+ Linguistics and You

To circle on back to what this post is really about – transphobia and its manifestation in language – lets look at language in LGBT+ culture.

The Wikipedia page on LGBT+ linguistics is fabulous and full of extra resources and citations for more information. I can’t rewrite all of it here but I want to highlight a few points.

Language is useful for identification and connection.

This isn’t unique to queer culture. If we describe ourselves as a writer, we probably want to connect with other writers, not physicists. Gardeners like connecting with other gardeners. Saying we’re in an M/s relationship indicates that we are in a dynamic and that we want to connect with other people who are into power exchange, not just kinky play. Identifying as demisexual says something about that person’s sexual attraction and helps them connect to other asexual and demisexual-positive people.

Even if you “reject labels”, you can probably think of a few words that you’ve used to describe yourself in order to find community. Maybe you’re a parent or kinky or an artist or married. These words aren’t any different than queer, asexual, dyke, or twink.

Language fills voids and fulfill needs.

Pronouns such as ze and hir have been around for decades. Part of their creation was to create a gender-neutral pronoun besides they and also to try and encapsulate that gender moves beyond the binary of he/she. While they may not be standard English yet, they have existed and have been used for many years by many different people. Remember that standard English is not the epitome of correct English because, technically, there is no such thing as universally correct English. There is only your idea of correct English which needs to evolve and change.

Even if you don’t understand it, it’s valid for others.

I don’t understand any variation of the Chinese language. I’m not going to sit here and call people who speak Chinese rude, fanciful, or any other derogatory thing because I don’t understand what they are saying.

I don’t understand physics. There are lots of words that I’ve heard but don’t know the meaning of and certainly couldn’t explain to others. But I respect the people who do and listen when they explain the correct way of using a word or a theory.

Here’s the thing: you don’t need to fully understand why someone describes themselves as a butch or a dyke in order to respect their description of themselves. You don’t need to fully understand why someone uses the word submissive over the word slave in order to respect them. You don’t need to fully understand why someone who matches your idea of a woman identifies as a demiboy and uses ze/hir pronouns in order to use the correct pronouns.

Implying that your idea of language is more valid than another person’s is not only rude but extremely egotistical and suggests that you know more about language than linguists with PhDs. I very much doubt the average reader of my blog has a doctorate in linguistics, and if they do, think that making fun of trans people’s pronouns is delightful. (But if you do, please reach out! I’d love to spend time discussing this with an actual linguist!)

Ignoring a person’s personal language is transphobic.

There are other phobic things that occur when you refuse to use a person’s personal language but I’m focusing on transphobia because that’s what started all of this.

To be clear, transphobia is not just disliking or being prejudiced against trans folk. It also encompasses negative attitudes and feelings and negative actions towards trans people. It includes violence – ranging from harassment to discrimination – misgendering and deadnaming, lack of access to healthcare and government protections, etc.

When someone calls me a woman or a girl, they are either uninformed or being transphobic. In day to day life, it’s most likely the first. I will correct someone and if they continue to call me a woman or use she/her pronouns, they are now being willfully transphobic and cannot plead ignorance. My pronouns are also clear on my Twitter page, my personal FetLife, and several other social media websites. Ignoring or not taking the time to look is an act of transphobia.

Even if you don’t like a person, ignoring their pronouns or gender identity is an act of transphobia. It is absolutely vile to misgender someone because you are mad at them. Do NOT do this.

I know that it is hard to hear that actions you have performed or mistakes you’ve made are transphobic. Apologize if you need to (and learn how to apologize correctly) and find out what you need to do better the next time. Don’t ignore the language that a person is using to describe themselves. Use it. Practice using pronouns in ways that don’t feel natural to you.. Double-check people’s profiles before you use a pronoun to refer to them.

Because doing otherwise perpetuates transphobia and insults the person you’re referring to.

How to Do Better

Some bullet points on things you can do today to be more trans-inclusive:

  • Examine your beliefs about gender and sex. Why do you think that people with penises are only men? Why do you think that gender is binary? What can you do today or read today to start unraveling these gender beliefs?
  • Practice using “unusual” pronouns. The more you practice privately, the better you will be about using them correctly in person. Writing online gives you an advantage – check people’s profiles, bookmark a pronoun usage chart.
  • Read and support trans and gender non-conforming bloggers. Retweet their posts. Comment and like them. Pay them if you can.
  • Be polite when asking questions. Please remember that trans people are subjected to transphobia and more every single day and it is very exhausting to deal with. If you’re not sure if you’re being polite, try Googling the question and see what comes up. There are many articles out there about why it’s rude to ask about a person’s genitals!
  • Do your own research. There are hundreds and thousands of websites, blogs, books, academic and not, about gender and sexuality. Take the time to do research. If you’re not sure where to start, try searching phrases like “transgender 101” or “sexuality orientation”. You can also search these things with tags like “for kids” in order to start at a basic level. There is nothing wrong with that.
  • Call-in and call-out people who are being transphobic. If a friend of yours has something shitty about trans people, send them a DM. Tell them that what they said is terrible and you’re not okay with them saying things like that. It’s hard, it’s scary, but would you rather have friends who support trans people or are you okay with silently supporting transphobia? If you’re not friends with that person, reply to the shitty Tweet, leave a comment on their blog, or write about it yourself. Call-out culture is difficult at times, especially on the internet, but it’s important to take a stand and say that this behavior is unacceptable. Neutrality is complacency.
  • Remember that language evolves all the time. Slang you used as a kid probably isn’t being used by kids right now. That’s normal. However, it’s important to learn about and use new language correctly rather than dismissing people.

If anything in this post made you upset, uncomfortable, or resist, spend some time thinking about that. What about that sentence or idea made you flinch? Is it challenging to a core belief of yours? Is it something you’ve never considered before? It’s important to think about these gut reactions and examine why they happen. This is how growth occurs.

The Point

Language isn’t static. Language has evolved for thousands of years and will continue to evolve. Being mad that someone uses they/them pronouns or ze/hir pronouns or identifies as a transman or non-binary or anything else just makes you look ignorant and unwilling to change.

I’ve listed many things you can do to broaden your horizons but, ultimately, changing how you think about language and gender comes down to you. It is your responsibility to learn about these concepts, learn these new words, and how to use them correctly. It is your responsibility to apologize when you mess up and your responsibility to do better the next time.

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