As If! Ally Tips & Pitfalls from a Queer ’80s Baby

Words Have Power (1)

By: Matthew Antonio Bosch

Diet Pepsi.  Check.

Awesome chat with Gloria So.  Double check.

Wearing an old school ActiVision Pitfall video game graphic tee.  Triple Check.

An iPod of live performances from American Idol Season 1-4 contestants. Quad check.

It seems everything changes once you reach your 30s, but I’ve found at least one constant.  Language matters.

People often ask, “What’s the easiest way to be an ally?”  Well, something as simple as a word change can help you avoid some serious pitfalls, and as Director of the Gender & LGBTQIA Center (GLC) in Moseley 211…and also as a hardcore Linguistics major…I’d like to share some pitfalls (and also some easy switches) you can make to show you’re a better ally:

Community’ (singular) – As if!  This child of the 80s laughs at the idea that there’s 1 sole community…of anything.  Ever seen MTV’s The Real World in the ’90s?  Or the ’00s?  Or the ’10s?  7 people living in a house, and it’s all ponies, roses, rainbows, & kumbaya?  No…so imagine 7 communities wrapped into some monolithic ‘LGBTQIA community.’  Even within each letter, we have multiple communities…please avoid referring to us a “1 community.”  That’s like saying every American community is similar cuz it’s all inside America, so Burlington is just like New Yawk City…but trust me…it isn’t.  However, both Burlington & New Yawk City can have similarities & differences & still learn from each other under the same umbrella known as “The United States” …and that’s the idea of ‘communities’ living and working together.

Homosexuals’ – When you say this, you just came out to me as straight, before I even come out to you as gay.  Yup.  And you probably don’t have many LGBTQI friends.  And you’re sending a message that you’re not a safe person to talk to.  This is NOT a ‘read’ (consult your dragtionary for that one) …it’s just …well …you see …we don’t call ourselves homosexuals… in fact that word sounds like “Lock your doors!  The homosexuals are coming!  AAHHHH!!!”  Steeped in medical literature and generations of yore, it is rare to find anything today described as a ‘homosexual pride parade’ or a ‘homosexual bar’ or even a ‘homosexual marriage.’  It’s ok to say ‘gay’ but that word implies only males nowadays, cuz language evolves over time.  Instead, you can use the acronym:  LGBT gets you partial credit, but all 7 letters gets you a gold star, redeemable at the GLC (Moseley 211)!

Minorities’ – Who likes to be referred to as “minor”?  In my world, nobody is minor.  Nobody.  Everyone is major.  On this planet, brown folks are the majority, so the term is numerically inaccurate.  If you’re meaning the U.S., well… women are actually the numerical majority.  So are we talking number or power or bodies or access or resources or what???  Plus it reeks of paternalism, because ‘minorities’ implies your identity only exists in relation to the ‘majority’…and that feels gross.  It’s like that thing where old schoolers used to tell women they should just get married instead of have a career or life…like their total existence relied on their connection to men.  Boo hiss.  Instead, you could use ‘communities of color’ or a term like ‘LGBTQIA communities’ depending on the context of race or sexuality.

Queer’ – a paragraph just won’t do.   Here’s what I can say:  it’s about intent vs. impact.  If you’re talking about groups of diverse students at Elon and say, “low-income students, students with disabilities, queer students, students of color” I’m not gonna be mad at’cha.  If you use ‘queer’ as a noun, as in “That guy’s a queer” that’s not cool.  You should come to 1 of my trainings, I’m a cool guy with lots of cheesy puns & patience for daaaays.  Many younger people use ‘queer’ for their own identity, because it’s sometimes seen as an umbrella for ‘not straight’…and let’s face it…some of our own folks can’t remember the order of the 7-letter, 7-syllable LGBTQIA, therefore a 1-syllable “Queer” in this millennial culture of soundbytes, Snapchats, and 6-second Vines does fine for most.  Important – 2 key populations that are not huge supporters of the term ‘queer’ are folks in their 40s & older (this was the most derogatory thing they could be called as students in their day) and also communities of color (who often feel ‘queer’ is a codeword for ‘white and gay.’)  Typically, events publicized as ‘queer events’ on college campuses will result in a sea of white students.  However the prize for the term connoting the largest exclusion of communities of color probably goes to ‘unicorn’ – any connection to a mythical magical white creature that many ‘queer-identified’ folks faithfully follow, sends messages to communities of color that they’re not wanted.  So don’t plan your next “Unicorn Bash”…and definitely don’t plan anything with the word “Bash” for LGBTQIA communities.

-sexual” and “-gender” – Most people remove these suffixes altogether…like the threads on a frayed pair of jeans.  You’ll notice folks referring to themselves as ‘bi’ or ‘pan’ or ‘trans’ or ‘lesbian’ or ‘gay’ or ‘straight’.  Even heterosexuals are like, “There’s so much more to my identity (i.e. love, family, marriage, children, faith, etc) than the –sexual part.”  Thus we have this term ‘straight.’  Same goes for LGBTQ folks.

“Well, I just don’t agree with your lifestyle or sexual preference.” –  In Barnes & Noble, their magazine section has a Lifestyles section…and you’ll find biking, hiking, knitting, quilting, and baking magazines…you will not find the latest lesbian chic magazine there, nor will you find Advocate, Bitch, Curve, Instinct, or Out.  This is our life, not a lifestyle.   ‘Preferences’…well, I prefer Taco Bell over Moe’s.  I don’t prefer being gay to…well, what other alternative would there even be???  I am who I am.  Instead, think of it as my ‘identity’ – substitute the above sentence with “Well, I just don’t agree with your identity.”  Who would say that?  See, when people understand it’s a vital part of who you are, their active disagreement sounds…well…misinformed.  Like they need to take some of Elon’s Diversity-Themed Winter Term courses.  Jus’sayin’…

“When did you decide/become/choose to be gay?” – Well, you see…the birds were chirping & the sun was shining on a breezy and brisk spring morning that April 7th of 1994, when I woke up and decided, “Let’s try something different.”  No.  Much like the Gaga song, practically everyone I know will tell you we’re “Born This Way.”  Often it takes years for us to discover our true selves.  Words like ‘decide/become/choose’ imply intentionality.  Think of straight people…when did they ‘decide/become/choose’ to be straight?  The only thing I decide is if-and-when I choose to tell you…and if I do… an awesome ally’s response would be, “Thank you for confiding in me.  That is really personal, and you could’ve chosen to tell anyone, but you chose me.  That says a lot about our friendship, and I want you to know I will absolutely continue to support you.  You’re an awesome person and an amazing friend.”

There you have it!  A quick ‘how-to’ guide of easy ally tips.

You might be saying, “Yes, but is someone REALLY going to notice a few word changes?”  LGBTQIA folks have a whole history of keeping ourselves secret, for fear of rejection or violence, which means we have to express ourselves in very subtle ways.  One of these ways is language – so trust me, when you use terms that are more inclusive…and especially when you tell fellow straight folks to, “Stop saying that, you’re making the rest of us straight people look like boneheads,” we will take notice, and you’ll either get a high-five, a thank you, a hug, or a vegan baked cookie.

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