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July 23, 2018 | by  | in Features |
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Queer Speak & Straight-Talking

CW: sex, genitals, talk of misgendering
Andrew: So when did you become a vegan?
Ben: When I met my wife. You?
Andrew: Oh, when I met my partner. He’s vegan, too.
Even though neither of them said so explicitly, both Andrew and Ben have revealed their sexualities to each other. Language allows us to paint a gendered and sexualised picture of our lives without obviously doing so.
Language both constructs and reflects the social world we live in. For a long time, a lot of feminist and queer activism has centred around showing how the way we talk embodies the use of power against women and queer minorities. The most obvious examples are slurs used against queer people. While slurs are concerning for queer people, it’s not the only issue. There are other linguistic practices beyond just directly insulting people that affect our lives. I want to give you a whirlwind, mini-tour of some linguistic and conversational practices that both reflect and perpetuate the norms of heterosexuality and cissexuality.

The heteronormative presumption
For the uninitiated, heteronormativity refers to the fact that society presumes heterosexuality is the default.

Heterosexuality is treated as normal and anything else is… well, not. For example, if we don’t call it “gay marriage”, or “gay sex”, generally people would assume that the marriage and sex is straight. But that’s just word play. Gay sex IS gay sex, it’s just descriptive to say so, right? Maybe. How could we see this heterosexist presumption in action? A way might be to just record people naturally talking about lesbians in their everyday lives. Conversation analytic researchers recorded the phones calls of lesbians with customer service providers, where the service providers only knew (or guessed from the voice) that the person on the phone was a woman. They found out that there was an indirect assumption made that the woman was straight. When these women identified their partners as “partner” or “spouse”, the service provider would use a masculine reference term (either a pronoun or words like husband) in reference to them.
You may think that these instances are mundane and insignificant. Why don’t we just ignore it and move on? Why didn’t we correct them at the time? Often the answer to these questions is that people who have been misidentified as straight just don’t want to make their personal lives the topic of discussion when trying to organise a dental appointment or car insurance.

LGBTQIA+ people are often chastised for “pushing their sexuality down others’ throats” when they are seen to be making some normal thing about them and their homosexuality. This means queer people are constantly negotiating whether to stand up for themselves and become the topic of discussion, or just deal with being misrepresented in our social interactions. Our conversation analysts have studied this negotiation as it plays out in conversation, in order to see the practical ways it’s managed. They saw the women do three things: do nothing and remain misidentified, openly correct the error, or correct the error in a subtler way. When they would openly correct the error, whatever they were doing before (organising insurance, for example) stopped happening and the talk turned to the relationship of the woman caller. This means correcting the heterosexist presumption is highly disruptive to what’s just naturally going on, and it opens the way for someone to claim that the topic was changed unnecessarily to sexuality. But, sometimes the women would let the initial error go uncorrected only to specifically gender her partner the next time they referred to them. Maybe they might refer to their incorrectly gender spouse by name or just drop that the service is for her wife. Doing things that way avoided the disruption to the current activity; the conversation stayed on topic and the woman didn’t have to explicitly come out. Now the ball is in the other person’s court with regards to whether they want sexuality to become a topic of discussion. Even though there are ways to get around it, the heterosexist presumption often forces queer people into conversational situations where they have to decide whether to disrupt what is happening to “come out” or not. The interesting thing is that straight people come out without disrupting social interaction all the time.
I can hear all your brains whirring. “Straight people don’t come out. What are they coming out of?” Straight people most definitely do come out. There are so many ways that straight people use their language and behaviour to make sure it’s known that they are, in fact, straight people. But thanks to that heteronormative presumption they can do it without stirring up conversational trouble. For example, whenever someone who is recognised as a man refers to their wife, they are making clear that they are straight. In fact, in many places in the world today if you mention that you are married at all you will be assumed to be heterosexual due to marriage being restricted to straight couples legally, or uncommon among gay couples. What this shows is that in the world of romance, straight people have the privilege of invisibility where gay people have to work to for the same normality, even in the tiniest details of conversation.

Heterosexuality is talked onto our bodies
Another place where heteronormativity comes out is in the way people talk about bodies. We use language to define human bodies, and within the category of human bodies we define male and female bodies. But it’s not like the universe planned out discrete body types of human: male and female. We humans came up with those words to describe a distinction in body types based on what we (more accurately, someone a bajillion years ago) thought was most relevant: sexual reproduction.
For example, what actually is an opposite sex? No one really thinks that males and females are opposites, right? Like, penises and vaginas aren’t opposite in anyway, they’re just… different things that bodies have, that do different stuff. The idea that the sexes are “opposite” invokes a certain reciprocity, or complementariness. Rather than body types (or more accurately, genital configurations) just being bodies in their own right, calling them opposite implies they go together a certain way. This complementary opposition is demonstrated in how we talk specifically about genitals and the words we use for sexual activity.
A study of dictionary definitions (both standard and medical) of different genital terms revealed that on average definitions tended to highlight the function of genitals as sexual with penises for penetration and vaginas acting “as a receptacle for the penis in coitus” (from the Collins Dictionary of Medicine, 1992), while tending to minimise other functions (like birthing in the case of vaginas). These definitions obviously and explicitly implicate bodies as sexually optimised for heterosexuality, and deny their function in homosexual sex.

The Cissexual Presumption
Heterosexuality is not the only thing talked onto our bodies. There is also what we may call the cissexual presumption. Cissexual refers to those people who identify with the typical ascription of gender to the body, i.e., a man born with a penis, or a woman born with a vagina, is cis. The cissexual presumption, like the heterosexual presumption, is the unspoken normality of this gender/body linkage. When people talk about men’s bodies/women’s bodies, or men’s health/women’s health, they leave unsaid what exactly a man’s body or women’s health entails and people rely on normative assumptions to understand what is meant. Consider when Cosmopolitan gives advice on “how to please your man”. The advice is often given under the assumption that the “man” has a standard penis.
Misgendering, or identifying someone as a gender they are not, highlights the cissexual presumption. When we determine what gender someone is, people really only have their visual perception of the body and its presentation to make the judgement. Lots of trans people experience misgendering due to assumptions about their body and what it means for their identity. Trans women may be gendered as men possibly due to facial stubble or broader shoulders, or trans men as women possibly because of their height or voice. Referring to someone with these features as he or she respectively demonstrates the cissexual presumption being made, that those features are linked to their identity as men and women.

Methods of disruption
Much like with lesbians’ correction of the heterosexist presumption, trans people (and in fact many cis people who get misgendered, too) have to make decisions about how they talk about their bodies in order to manage the perception of their gender.
The cissexual presumption depends on the “coat rack” model of gender, which says that one’s physical body is the primary determiner of gender (male or female) with cultural gender roles acting as “coats” hung over it, giving males and females specific, culturally-determined shapes. Transgender language inverts the coat-rack model by saying that self-recognised gender is primary and the body is where one can express their gender.
One linguistic practice employed by transgender men is to refer to their genitals with masculine terminology (for example, they may describe their clitoris as a dick). The reasoning is, “men have dicks. I’m a man. So, I have a dick”. This puts their masculine identity in precedence over their body. Another strategy used is to refer to genitals with gendered affixes, for example a trans man might have a boycunt, and a trans woman might have a girldick. This effectively represents “cunts” and “dicks” as ungendered, and it’s the gender of the individual person that makes their genitals belong to a man or woman. Both of these naming strategies challenge the cissexual assumption of the direct link between bodies and gender. Does it really matter if a person is a husband or wife when organising car insurance? Well, yes, because insurance companies will often have different policy regarding male and female drivers (rightly or wrongly). Does it matter whether men and women are really opposite sexes? Well yes, because if you describe a man to then think women are opposite, then you’re excluding women from a whole bunch of traits, behaviours, and experiences you just described men as having.
Words are how we make, and make sense of, the world. Changing those words can often have the power to change the world, for ourselves and many others.

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