This week, I was with a group of women, and one of them introduced herself as Vivian. Someone said, “Oh, I thought you were called Vi,” and the woman replied “You can call me Vi, or Viv, or Vivian. Just don’t call me late for dinner.” It’s an old joke, and I’m sure she has told it before, but the whole conversation made me think about how, even when we think we have got it right, we sometimes make mistakes in naming people, places, and things.
Mispronunciations and Mistaken Titles
When I get a call from a foreign call centre, the person asking for me often refers to me as Annie.” I don’t correct them. My name is Anne with an “e” and I suppose that if the name is unfamiliar to you, it would look as though that “e” should be pronounced separately and in addition to “Ann”. It is one of those things I have no control over and I don’t care enough to correct each person who gets it wrong.
Similarly, before I retired, people often referred to my role as that of a professor. Professors all teach at post-secondary educational institutions, but not all university and college instructors are professors. That is something known to the people who work there, but not generally understood outside of that environment. I used to correct people who called me a professor, but after a while, I stopped. There didn’t seem to be much point in explaining the finer points of job title politics, and anyway I quite liked the momentary increase in status.
Gay and Queer as Collective Nouns
Recently, I happened upon a Twitter thread that discussed whether LGBTQ folks should be collectively referred to as gay or queer. It obviously matters a great deal to some people, and it showed up on my Twitter feed because one of my sons had joined in the conversation. One person said:
“ I hate hate hate hate hate the meme of calling everyone gay and letting gay be *the* umbrella term that covers all orientations. it’s soooo erasing, misgendering, ahistoric, completely ignores “bi/pan people are really just gay” memes” and “I honestly see people saying “nono, using ‘queer’ as an umbrella term is alienating and kicks out some people. it’s way better to call everyone gay regardless”
To which someone else responded, “Yes to this whole thread. I hate that so many people have been convinced by conservatives that “queer” (queer studies, queer history) is offensive even though the whole community of gender/sexual minorities has been using it to describe itself and be inclusive for generations.”
As I read this exchange, I was surprised because I really didn’t know this was a problem. I have been happily using “gay” as an umbrella term for years and have always been uncomfortable using “queer.” Decades ago, in my childhood, referring to LGBTQ people as queer was deliberately insulting and it was impolite to do so. Lower-class people and bullies would sneeringly hurl out that word, but it was never used in polite society. In later years, the term was re-appropriated to become self-affirming, and the use of the word “gay” went through a similar metamorphosis. Ultimately, we were asked to use those terms and eventually it was expected. But my childhood distaste for the word “queer” has stuck with me.
Meaning Well But Doing Wrong
It is interesting that some people within the LGBTQ community now consider that either or both of those terms might be offensive because it excludes some people. That perception is completely lost on most people who are outside of that group. I expect that there are lots of people who think that they are being culturally appropriate and polite when using the terms gay and queer as collective nouns for those communities. In fact, it’s rather frustrating now to find out that it might be inappropriate to do so.
I know that transgender folks are a bit disgruntled if they are misgendered by complete strangers. I also realize that they tend to be annoyed when others refer to them by the incorrect pronoun. When I get it wrong with respect to the transgender people in my own family, I know I’m disappointing them and I try not to be that person. But I fail, time and time again.
Sometimes I fail because I get caught up in old memories. Sometimes I fail because I have had a couple of glasses of wine. Sometimes I fail because I’m thoughtless. Mostly, though, I just slip into old semantic habits. It’s got nothing to do with my beliefs, my politics, or my preferences. I just get it wrong sometimes.
Learning Opportunities and Chickens
It’s not just me. All the other loving, caring, and learning friends and relatives of gay, queer, and transgender persons also get some things wrong. They may be close family members, but there are others who are more distant relatives like aunts and second cousins who just don’t get many opportunities to have these conversations. The fewer opportunities there are, the less likely they are to get the names and pronouns right.
The more we talk to each other, the more we all learn. Just the other day I was talking to my sister about a chicken that is living on her street. It seems to be running loose, and it wakes her up a 5:00AM every day. We were discussing whether to call it a rooster, a cockerel, or a chicken, so I looked it up. The umbrella term is chicken, and the male chicken is a cockerel (or cock) until it is one year old. Then it becomes a rooster. So now you know that if you want to use the correct term, you should find out the chicken’s birthday. Simple, right?