I shall therefore, since the rules of stile, like those of law, arise from precedents often repeated, collect the testimonies of both sides, and endeavour to discover and promulgate the decrees of custom, who has so long possessed whether by right or by usurpation, the sovereignty of words. – Samuel Johnson in his plan for an English dictionary.
Words are ideas forced into culture. They exert a primacy of their own, a history of our consciousness. Our use of words is a heated a debate, always. The number of ideas and experiences we have in the world far exceed our vocabulary and there is a strong hesitation by mainstream culture to lend credence to these experiences by giving them a name. Entire identities of people are reduced into derogatory terms. Case in point: before you use the phrase “corporate whore,” for example, could you please consider for one second the fact that whores are hardly a model for people who sell out to join the mainstream. Whores are the ones being murdered and put in jail for thinking far enough outside of the box to see their sexuality as something that they own. I just want to suggest that maybe “whore” isn’t the word you’re looking for to complete the idea of someone who just does whatever they’re told because it’s popular and easy. Just a thought.
Oh, I’m sorry. That phrase is popular because being a whore means that you get fucked for money. People who work with corporations are getting fucked for money. Well, in order for the idea that getting fucked for money is bad then you must also believe that getting fucked is a negative personal sacrifice of some kind. I don’t like making assumptions about anyone’s sex life but there does seem to be a consensus among the people who use the phrase “corporate whore” that fucking isn’t always bad. Sometimes, if not most times, it’s pretty excellent. It’s fun, it’s pleasurable, it’s good times all around when two or more people decide to consensually engage in it together.
You know you’re in a gathering of people who talk openly about sexuality when you hear things like, “This overdraft fee is ridiculous! They totally fucked me! ….In a bad way! They fucked me in a bad way, without my permission, and no lube in sight!” Those moments are interesting to me because it reveals an anxiety about the limitations of words. We don’t have any other ferocious idioms that capture the anger of being taken advantage of in the same way. When someone says, “The bank fucked me!” I know what they mean and I know that they aren’t saying that fucking is bad. It just makes you really wonder how the hell this delusional idea that fucking is bad came into such popularity in the first place.
The two word phrase, “corporate whore” is a little more complicated than it initially appeared. I’m not saying don’t use it. For all I know you’re referring to an escort on the payroll of a Fortune 500 company. I’m just asking the question, do those words actually convey what you mean?
Once upon a time in college, a fantastic and engaging professor assigned Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language as a text to read in a literature course. Not to have as a reference, not to have something to look back on to inform the reading of our novels, but a dictionary to be read as a novel.
Imagine my delight. That was obviously how I wanted to spend my Friday night as a 20 year old college student smack dab between a giant redwood forest in the mountains and the beach. My dorm room window had a view of both. Like any other 20 year old college student, I possessed the maturity to know that the opportunity to study language up close and personal was more important than a bonfire jam session on the beach. Yeah…
Not a lot of hands in the air that Monday morning when she asked us what we thought of the reading.
Of course she knew that was coming. I should have picked up on the fact that she knew that because she never assigned hundreds of pages of reading with a 72 hour window of completion to undergrads. (172 hours was the standard allotment, if you’re curious.) Either she presented one of the best lectures on anything about the English literary canon I have ever had the pleasure of seeing or I am living in abject denial about something very fundamental about my brain but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t positively fascinated by dictionaries after that lecture. Maybe it was a perfect storm of factors. What I took away the most from my university studies in general is that if you fully engage with hard science classes like biology, physics, chemistry etc while simultaneously fully engaging with critical theory, you should be prepared for an immense amount of anxiety about the world. Staring at this dictionary was just another one of those moments that hit me like a hard punch in the stomach: words are just popular ideas. Most human beings on earth are able to identify something in the world with a symbol that we create but we lend more credence to some symbols than others and some referents are eradicated by silence. If you think about that for too long you’re going to wind up sleeping with a night light.
We need some kind of language, no matter how flawed it will always be. We aren’t psychic yet and so we always have to rely on some kind of intermediary to get our ideas across or we go crazy. The great thing is we can keep expanding language. We aren’t running out of words, we can make more. Sure it’s hard to remember them all and it takes some work but the pay off is fantastic. Words allow us to be introduced to new ideas. English is not a natural language that is coded into our brains that we finally start using when we emerge out of infancy. We speak the language that we are taught and when you’re a child you do have the capacity to learn multiple languages because you don’t have enough of a vocabulary to maintain a bias. When all language is equally new, a second language doesn’t stand out as inherently different in any way to the brain. All words function as passwords because you do not have control over anything in your environment. You are trained to use the “right” words because something can always be withheld or granted until you do.
I identify as queer not because I am a woman who is attracted to other women but because sexual differentiation extends far beyond two potential manifestations and I am attracted to people with a similar morphology to my own as well as to individuals that have a more dissimilar morphology. More politically, I identify as queer because “LGBT” is often represented by white middle class suburban folks who do not represent my experience and my needs fully. I need more than access to a marriage certificate, I need access to basic healthcare because many “traditional” clinics can and will turn me away because of who I am. If attempt to engage with the criminal justice system I might find that my queerness is more on trial than anything I may have done or the justice that I seek for something done to me. I’m queer because I’m worried that an overwhelming number of queer identified people are homeless right now. They aren’t looking to settle a mortgage–they’re trying to get off of the street and into shelter. I am queer because I see these statistics as emergency situations that mandate a response. Yes we should absolutely fight for marriage across the country but I’m concerned about the fact that there are people dying right now. Since apparently it’s only queer people that care about the needs of other queer people, it’s important to take care of those with the least resources to fight oppression.
If you think that individuals who are activists for homeless rights are always going to pick up the slack for queer identifying homeless people that is not always true. Transgender individuals are routinely turned away from shelters and the number one reason is, “we don’t know which beds to put them in.”
Being an ally is hard. I hear a lot of allies say that they feel afraid to speak because they’re afraid of screwing it up and offending someone. If you’ve taken the time to fight for equality in good faith then it’s OK to speak up and make mistakes sometimes. Listen to people tell you when they feel hurt or excluded from your words. Chances are, they’ve screw it up all the time, too. We can’t experience anyone else’s lives but our own and sometimes you’re going to make a good faith mistake. When someone tells you that they feel hurt by your words or your language it isn’t up to the them to prove it to you. They’re letting you know a better way to reach them that makes them feel safer. It’s something you could not have known if they hadn’t informed you and that conversation is a positive one. At the very least, it means that someone wants to access your ideas. If you want to share those ideas with that person, listen to the road map they show you because you’re both headed in the same direction any way. It’s OK to use words you aren’t as familiar with if they make someone feel more comfortable. It’s OK to name an existence other than your own. I promise you that your own existence will be no less powerful alongside others especially when you’re working together on a common goal.
Queer isn’t about who I’m fucking at any given moment. Queer is about anger. Queer is about forcing the idea that human sexuality exists on a spectrum and not a binary because the variation is a fact and not an exception. Queer is a great word because I’m not going to let you reduce an entire group of people into a slur. It’s all about the sovereignty of the word.