Can Progress Be Measured By Monitoring The Meaning Of Words?
by Belinda Dronkers-Laureta on May 11th, 2016

Keeping Families Together

The Asian And Pacific Islander Family Pride Blog

January 4, 2013

Can Progress Be Measured By Monitoring The Meaning Of Words?


Our first blog of the new yearis about ‘language.’ We want to begin a periodic conversation about the way the meaning of words describing or relating to the LGBT community has changed and is changing still. We hypothesize that progress of thecommunity’s struggle for total acceptance may be measured by the change in words used when people talkand papers print stories about LGBT people. In her admirable studyIntolerance: A General Survey,Lise Noel states that language reflects the hierarchical relationships of a society, and those who dominate use language as one of the ways to keep invisible those being dominated.It wouldn’t betoo far fetched to postulate that as a hierarchy changes, the language that reflects that hierarchy changes as well.

Example: Discovering That A Common Expression Is Actually A Slur

Back in September, the Toronto Blue Jays suspended shortstop Yunel Escobar for three days because he wrote a homophobic slur on his eyeblackpatches, those black smears athletes sometimes apply under their eyes to reduce the sun’s glare. Mr. Escobar’s habit is to write little messages on them. He was suspended because that day his message was “tu ere maricon.”

Mr. Escobar was stunned, not at the suspension, which he readily accepted, but that his message was offensive. He said the word is used so often and so casually that it no longer has a meaning. But all words have meaning. It is like the “that is so gay” expression which isalso so often and casually used, that those who use it, mostly teenagers, don’t think it is offensive.

This is the point that Lise Noel makes: expressions that have their origin as homophobic slurs are used so often and, yes, so carelessly, that they become part of daily conversation, and the people for whom those expressions remain deeply offensive become invisible. Mr. Escobar’s suspension is a step at reversing that process. It is a message that says: “Hey, that thing you just said, it demeans a group of people you didn’t know you were demeaning.”

Example: The Meaning Of Words

Reporting on the 2002 murder of Gwen Araujo, who was a trans, the local newspapers used the terms “transsexual” and “transgender” interchangeably and sometimes threw in “transvestite.” LGBT advocacy groups called the papers on their erroneous practice explaining that there is a difference between sex and gender. The paper changed its policy and henceforth referred to Gwen Araujoas “transgender female.”A paper changing its editorial policy because it finally discovered that words they were misusing have real meaning, that is progress.

Meanings Change

In the September 2012 issue of Advocate, Trudy Ring writes:

Transgender” has replaced “transsexual” as the preferred term over the past couple of decades, in recognition that gender is more than anatomy and that not all transgender people undergotransition surgery (which used to be called “sex-reassignment surgery” and is now generally called”gender-reassignment surgery” or “gender-confirmation surgery”).

As their true identity evolves, different people will use different terms to describe themselves. The task is to monitor words used in the context of normal conversation and note the evolution of their meanings.

Elie Wieselthought that words, just likebeings or objects, have shadows that surrounds them. A newspaper changing its policy on what word to use dispels part of that shadow, and an explanation of the meaning of a word shines a light on those who were in the shadow.

Belinda and John Dronkers-Laureta are board members of Asian & Pacific Islander Family Pride



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