The Language Problem

I’m in the midst of a rather life-changing decision process. As I have noted here before, my whole sense of who I am around gender is a big part of my life. It’s been slow to unwind, and I’ve certainly been up and down a lot on what to do. Complications present themselves in the form of family, friends, and personal health. But lately, this entire aspect of me has gained a lot of unexpected traction. I’m feeling more and more as though I know who I am, what I want (and need) to do about all of it, and my comfort levels with it all. None of it is easy, but I feel at long last as though I am in a good place with it all. I know what I want, and perhaps more importantly, I know what I don’t want.

All this improved self-confidence in this little corner of my life has been great, but hasn’t been free of the odd challenges that crop up. Language seems to be a big one. I hit it head on in a way that was completely unexpected last week when I sought treatment for a painful shoulder problem (well, a neck problem actually, but referred pain still hurts!) I went first to my regular doctor and he suggested Physical Therapy.

“That sounds like a good plan” I told him, my mind doing high fives as I realized that took me back to a group of folks I think are amazing healers. He gave me the referral, and I made the appointment.

And the day arrived when I went in and it suddenly hit me: I had not been in this place for maybe 3 years. My PT doc had no clue as to my changes internally or externally, and here I was, resplendent in what I felt totally comfortable in and then I figured it out – how on earth might I navigate this event? On this particular day, it was chilly, so I’d dressed to suit my temperature, and I realized that barring a complete disrobing (highly improbable) that I’d likely be doing some talk and listen and a few range of motion things. And that’s what happened. Simple, right? Nope.

“Next week, I want to do some deep tissue massage, so wear a loose shirt. I might need you to take it off, because I’ll need to work in the area between your shoulder blades”. Gulp. What? “Ok” I said, happily stuffing down the usual tinge of fear I’d been coping with for the past few years.

Next week arrived, and I thought carefully about how to do this. Taking off my shirt and what was underneath it in front of a therapist was one thing, something I felt I could navigate. Taking off that same shirt and underthings in a large open room area, with all the other therapists along with the patients also getting treatment – not so much. What could I do? The simple answer, and one I did not like, was to dress down. Keep it simple, gender-conforming, manageable. I would feel “safe” but repressed. I did not like this option at all. Dress to suit. Yeah, but… OK, tell him. Just say it right out there. Yeah, that’s it. Easy peasy. He’ll be cool with it and problem solved. Communication is everything, right?

Arriving for my appointment, I sat in the waiting area. Another small psycho-tsunami arrived: what the fuck do I *say* here, folks? I mean, seriously? What words do I use? I’ve been circulating in and amongst the sex-positive, trans*, queer, kinky, poly, whatEVER communities for a fair bit of time now, and there, the question of “what words” is pretty simple. Not always easy per se, because all our different constituents have a lot of different ways of claiming their tribe. Personal pronouns are often a big deal for some, and I’ve led workshops and orientation sessions where the big item on the agenda was all about this. “Ask, if you’re not sure” is the usual mantra. “Never assume” is a close companion. That’s relatively simple to navigate in the company I keep, and while I don’t assume a lot, I sure realized, sitting that waiting room, that I made a crucial error, and it was all about assumptions.

I assumed that the people in the room here would *know*. That they would just “know” what I meant when I made reference to… my gender, my pronoun, my… whatever I wanted to toss into the mix. But I realized in that split second: they have no clue about ANY of this stuff!  Seriously, and yes, I know, there are likely to be a few in the room who do know, but for the most part: mainstream, everyday, working world, people do not know, do not understand and in too many cases, do not care one little bit about this.

I knew, in that place, that these providers would not be in that ugly category of those who don’t care at all. They did care, a lot, about me and about the people they heal. So that was not part of my worry. But I knew it was unreasonable of me to expect them to just “know” this stuff. Why would they? For most of these other people, the intersection between the majority of their lives – family, work, school, and the like – and, well, my own queer or trans* is non-existent. We as queer trans*persons have managed to carve out a little niche in society as a whole. We co-exist with all the others in our world and in going about our daily business, we don’t have to necessarily navigate the vagaries of what terms are understood by those others who are not us. I can go to an event and know that many, maybe most, attendees there will understand my presentation, will get that I can say I am queer or trans or whatever and it’s just one more word in the dialog. Ho hum. Boring. But here? Nope. Terms like “ze” or “hir” or even “trans” are as foreign as hieroglyphics. There’s no built-in Rosetta Stone which I can present, nor is there one of their own that they can consult. It’s a clash of difference that is not automatically immersed in conflict. It’s just… difference. It’s a navigation problem, and it is not, in my view, irrelevant.

I know I’ve been saying this for a long time. A lot of what “we” (yes, we, you, reading this, the sex-positive, queer, trans* cohort) do is share among ourselves – our knowledge, our experience, our pain, our love, even our bodies. And that’s great as far as it goes. (I won’t even venture into the turbid waters of our own infighting – that’s another column and something most of us don’t even want to talk about.) The problem is that we rarely, if ever, get the words out to those who are utterly clueless about our existence. This is not something rectified by a pamphlet or a workplace “training session” for “sensitivity”. I’ve been to those too and frankly, they are a waste of well-intentioned time. What “we” are missing is a way to be in front of others, to put ourselves out there as, well, just other people, which is ultimately all we really are. We have no language to use that makes sense to the others who are not us. We too often couch behind our own lingo, cool, and suave and you-have-to-be-a-member-of-the-kewl-kids to get it crowd. That does nothing to advance our place in society.

Some have posited that the SCOTUS will issue a narrow ruling on the whole DOMA and gay marriage question. Who knows what they’ll do. But one thing has emerged that is crystal clear: the current crop of justices has had the experience of open exposure to non-heteronormativity that previous courts have not. The recent story about the clerks for Justice Powell underscores this. And it’s difficult to argue with the idea that exposure fosters understanding. The stories of people who were anti-gay marriage and changed their minds after realizing they knew a gay person are increasingly common. That exposure helped turn things around and today, I suspect more people simply don’t care one way or the other – get married, be good citizens, and, we do and are. That we are even looking at the hearing of gay marriage at the SCOTUS level is, in many ways, amazing. And this is where I keep going to in my own travels.

How can “we” find ways to foster understanding with those others? I’m no longer partial to in your face activism. I don’t have a lot of faith that militancy will change minds. Sure, activism can open up a space for dialog, and militant reactions can force people to look. But that doesn’t change minds. It’s doesn’t carry over generations. What does work, I think, is a simple set of clear words, just basic exposure. It’s not always ideal but it lets those others know that “we” are out here, that “we” love and laugh and fear just like they do. It lets others know we aren’t carrying pitchforks and torches to the castle gate, that we too want to live a life.

“So… I’m kinda going through this gender change thing, and I think that taking off my shirt would be uncomfortable for me. I mostly wanted to let you know so your staff could know and none of the other patients would be surprised.”

“Great. I totally understand. I can work with that.”

And the conversation was over. He did understand.

My shoulder is starting to feel better.


David Houston earned his MA in Anthropology at McGill University, and has been an educator for almost 15 years in a wide range of topics, including anthropology, culture, sexuality, gender and science. As a conduit, healer, guide and teacher, he enjoys creating, leading and participating in interactive workshops that help others open up to their true self.

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