“Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning.”  ~Maya Angelou

I am surrounded by an ongoing debate about words. Whether or not to, what does it mean, who can use that word, how do we write policy around using that word, how do we tell one group of people that they can use that word and yet this other group of people cannot use that same word?

I often open presentations, especially presentations to mostly middle-aged, heterosexual listeners, with an apology and a request. An apology because I know I’m about to use a word that some of them might find objectionable. A request because I want not to lose those listeners in the first five minutes of that Powerpoint or Prezi presentation; I want them to stay with me, hear what I’m saying, hear a human voice trying to infuse a shade of deeper meaning.

The word to which I’m referring is “queer”.

Okay. Be honest. Did you just wince?

“The “Q” word… Does this word make anyone here cringe?”

Inevitably, heads nod. Eyes shift side to side as they avoid mine. When I go on to explain the cultural shift behind the reclaiming of this word, there are more nods, almost always followed by the question, “Can I use that word?”

In working with LGBT youth, this word comes up a lot. Not just in conversation, but in grant applications, conference calls for proposals, policy discussions. “How can we allow a gay student to refer to himself as queer when we do not want other students to refer to that student as queer?”

It’s a great question but it drives me to Dr. Angelou’s words.

I have to counter with my own question. Why are we reacting so strongly to the historical use of this word, hanging onto it, with a generation of youth with no connection to that history and who sees this reclamation as a positive process? And what if…picture this…what if as we move forward, the word queer had no more sting to it that the word gay (as some young people already understand it) and was solely another descriptor for someone who didn’t identify as straight and/or cis-gender? Would we even need to ask if someone was “allowed” to use that word?

Language changes. Our understanding of identity and orientation issues evolves. I wonder if our intransigence around this word will only foster the shame that many LGBT kids still deal with, as we deny them language for their experience of living in our world. Being queer…it must be so awful that we cannot bring ourselves to say it, we must write school policies around it so that the kids themselves may not say it—even when talking about just themselves. We see the words on paper, but where is the space for hearing the voice of that shade of deeper meaning?


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