On my way back from an airport drop-off this morning, I was listening to NPR. There was a news report that the Boy Scouts of America would be deciding today whether they would allow ‘gays’ to be in the Boy Scouts of America. They then spoke about the Governor of Texas and former Republican Presidential (!) candidate Rick Perry who thinks that the Boy Scouts most certainly should not change the rules. NPR then played a clip of President Obama and his position on allowing ‘gays and lesbians‘ to serve openly in the military.
All of this is starting to get really irritating.
Right now, at this moment, (unless you know me or can infer from the title of this post), you probably think I’m going to make a plea for the status quo. Well, that’s absolutely false.
Instead, I’m going to make a plea for the reporters, pundits, politicians, talking heads, and just about anybody else that we not refer to each other by a single characteristic. Gays. Lesbians. When was the last time you turned to your friend and referred to the “straight people?”
This reminds me of my days as a doctoral student in a clinical psychology PhD program. During one of our classes, I remember one of the members of my cohort make an impassioned plea that we stop referring to people by their personality disorder. Schizophrenics. Borderlines.
I can completely understand why people do it. I’ve done it. And I’m sure I’ll do it in the future (though, not intentionally, of course). It’s easier to refer to a group by saying gays and lesbians than it is people who are gay or people who have a sexual orientation different from me (as it’s usually non-gay people who are marginalizing folks who are gay and lesbian). Not only is it “easier,” but it’s the way that everyone else does it. If there were ever a reason that needed to be almost completely banned from being a reason for doing something, that would be it.
Look, I understand that most people say it like that or that it’s easier to say it that way, but do you understand what you’re doing when you refer to the “gays and lesbians” in that way? It’s dehumanizing!
Well, by dissociating any other human characteristic in your description, it’s easier to marginalize and think of people who are gay/lesbian as different. It’s also easier to be more crass, harsh, and inhumane. In particular, if you think you’re talking about someone who’s not human, this’ll make it easier to, naturally, not treat these people as human.
Making this change won’t be easy. Speaking in this way is so pervasive. It’s in the immigration debate in the way we refer to people by their ethnicity. Though, even just invoking ‘immigrant’ for some folks makes it easier to be inhumane. Short tangent: I always find the immigration debate altogether strange in the US. A great majority of the people who live in the US today are descended from immigrants. Do they not remember? Do they not care? Don’t they realize that the people trying to immigrate to the US share so many characteristics with their ancestors who did the same many moons ago? I digress.
Marginalizing people by referring to one characteristic is pervasive. I should also say that categorizing people, at times, can be useful. “All the boys line up on this side of the classroom, all the girls on that side.” And that makes perfect sense. There’s utility in a lot of things (maybe not everything), but when it’s taken to the extreme, it can do harm. Categorizing, taken to its extreme, can look like marginalization and by extension, inhumanity.
It’s time we start recognizing that the way we speak has profound effects on the people around us. I’ve written before about the importance of the words that we choose and how they can have an effect on those around us, and I’d say that this discussion is an extension of that. We need to be mindful of the way we talk about people — because — they — are — people. It may seem trivial, but it’s important to remember. We’re talking about people.
So — my call to action — notice what you’re saying and how you’re saying it. Do you say people who are gay/lesbian or do you say gays/lesbians? The first step in making this kind of a change is noticing that you’re doing it.