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Understanding language (and language barriers) in relation to the LGBTQ+ Community

I don’t know if dissecting your identity for microscopic examination is a universal queer kid experience, but I doubt I’m the only one who lived it. COVID-19 shut the world down around two years after I came out (somewhat) as bi, and I used my spare time and excessive internet access to delve deep into the murky waters of Instagram LGBTQIA+ activism —or at least, a segment of it. What I learned from it, mostly in retrospect, is the power language holds: in understanding, constructing, policing, and restricting identity.

Queerness, of course, exists outside letters and labels. But language plays a role in how it is understood and communicated. The word ‘queer’ itself is a derogatory term reclaimed by many parts of the community, though not all. The fundamentals of LGBTQ+ activism deal with recognition, awareness, visibility, and acceptance —these require understanding, which necessitates definition. Language, therefore, most visibly through identity labels, is often the basis for the formation of LGBTQ+ identity. Processing that I had feelings for someone of the same gender was easier under the label of bisexuality.

Naturally, as the LGBTQ+ community expanded, the language had to adapt. Some labels would not adequately encompass a particular identity, and so, had to be redefined, subdivided, or supplemented. This has led to the birth of microlabels: names for identities that are not widely recognised in mainstream media, that define (hyper)specific identities within the broader community. Discovering microlabels is how I came to understand myself as well as I do now, even if I no longer identify with them: the identities greysexual (somewhere in between asexual and allosexual) and demigirl (nonbinary with an alignment to girlhood) particularly come to mind . Having language for particular aspects of queerness that might not be reflected by the general term ‘bi’ was something I needed at that point, and something that helps many people to recognize and affirm their queerness.

These are the labels as I personally used them because even within an identity, there are different experiences of it. That brings us to a pitfall of the entanglement of language and LGBTQ+ identity — gatekeeping. Defined by Oxford Languages to mean controlling (limiting) general access to something, gatekeeping is the policing of who really gets to adopt a particular identity that runs rampant in the virtual queer underground. Relatively overt gatekeeping is how newcomers, so to speak, are often expected to qualify their degree of queerness according to some set of arbitrary standards (what music do you listen to, what do you wear, can you really be nonbinary if you use she/her pronouns?). But a more insidious form is something I’ve only recently been able to articulate: the fact that these labels, their definitions, and their ‘qualifications’ are entirely in English. Incredibly niche knowledge of the English language along with access to a similarly niche region of media is a prerequisite for engaging in queer microcultures; otherwise, you’re unlikely to be let into them. So a Bengali teen with only a shared device and limited English proficiency might never understand their gender fluidity, or if they get the chance to, probably won’t be accepted into the community, in large part because they won’t have the language to navigate the space.

And it is a frequently evolving, confusing language that LGBTQ+ spaces use, especially in the sphere of unforgiving social media activism. This is especially so because the way Western cultures and the English language process gender and sexuality is generally different from how other cultures do: many languages, including Bangla, do not even have gendered pronouns. Providing and asking for pronouns is now a staple of trans allyship, as it should be. And yet, because of language and access barriers, there will be people who don’t have that information, including queer and trans people. How do we balance keeping LGBTQ+ spaces safe for all the communities within them and making them welcoming for new members that aren’t already well-versed in these languages? That’s the question I had to ask myself when I found myself nitpicking a Bangladeshi organization’s LGBTQ+ awareness post for not using language that I felt was exact or ideal, with a definition of bisexuality that is both biphobic and transphobic in the binary language it uses. As a genderqueer bi person, of course, I rejected that definition and felt driven to reject the entire attempt made by the post. But I realized that was not a fair judgment when I checked myself. I was privileged in having an English education and circumstances that allowed me access to a wide range of LGBTQ+ cultures. What I expected from an organization in North America with unlimited media resources and exposure to LGBTQ+ activism, was unfair to demand from a Bangladeshi youth organization which wasn’t as privileged . The post was an honest attempt made in a place where societal prejudices didn’t just make it hard —it made it illegal.

The solution isn’t to abandon language that has improved LGBTQ+ experiences, and made them safer, more affirming, and more expansive. I will continue to have my pronouns (she/they) in introductions —when it is safe— and hope others, as they learn to, do the same. But I think it’s important to recognize the privilege that exists even within marginalized communities, and whether it is being exercised for exclusion. Instead of being prepared to bar the door of identity (and even allyship), we should approach activism (in internet spaces and beyond) from a place of care. We should give people the chance (while holding them accountable when they cause harm) to learn, grow and change along with our ever-changing understanding of LGBTQ+ identity itself.

Editors: Saeeda K., Batool M., Leila W.

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