(Trigger warning for mentions of rape, use of the R-slur, and discussion of slurs generally.)
As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of the work we do at the LGBTQ center at NYU revolves around the idea of teaching students and faculties about LGBTQ issues, but for me, one of the most interesting side-projects is the idea of sanitized language — removing words and phrases that don’t fit inclusive and neutral ideals.
There are a myriad examples of language we’re trying to avoid. No one word or phrase is inherently bad in and of itself, but I think they perpetuate some idea or a stereotype that we’re trying to undo. Take, for instance, the use of the word “gay” as an insult. Sure, you can potentially argue that you’re not referring to the sexuality but instead using it as a catch-all term for something bad or stupid, but there’s still an undeniable association being drawn there — an inescusable negative link between some bad thing and queerness. “He throws like a girl” is another example, since it perpetuates the idea that women are inherently weak. Those are the overt examples, but I can think of a couple that fly under the radar. The phrase “opposite sex” (as in, attracted to members of the opposite sex) reinforces a binary system and the stereotypes therein. If you’re not a man, you’re a woman, and if strength and stoniness are traits traditionally ascribed to men, then by definition women must be weak and overly-emotional. It’s the same with the slur “retard” — I grew up surrounded by people who’d say things like “god, that piece of homework was so retarded,” meaning that it was stupid or useless or hard or whatever.
During one of our practice sessions at the LGBTQ center, I was at the top of the room, talking through some of the definitions we bring up in the trainings. Casually, I addressed the group by saying “As you guys know,” and then caught myself. Why had I addressed a group that was not all-male with a masculine pronoun? Afterwards, I chatted about it with one of the program coordinators — he explained that he made a very particular effort to use neutral language (y’all, or “you guys”). Some people call it political correctness gone crazy, but I’m more of a view that it’s a low-effort mark of recognition: not erasing the female or gender non-conforming individuals in the room. In terms of muscle memory, it didn’t take me too long to start saying things like “super long” in place of “insanely long.” I view most of these linguistic changes as low-hanging fruit — you don’t have to be a tireless activist for gender equality, but you’ve no excuse to casually use sexist language in everyday life. To be sure, my language has become more artificial having made these changes. I grew up saying “hey man, what’s up?”, and there was definitely a learning curve involved in switching to “hey, what’s up?”, and I barely have to think of it now.
The question I’m often asked is simply why — what’s to be gained by such sensitization? The best answer I can think of is to point to rape jokes. If someone says “Wow, that test raped me” (implying that it was particularly difficult), it’s demeaning to victims of sexual assault, because it’s obviously such a wildly hyperbolic metaphor. Even if such jokes aren’t explicitly making fun of rape, it’s not affording a whole lot of respect to potential victims in the room. I don’t want to make anyone feel that way, so I refuse to use gendered language or make such jokes.
This hyper-sensitivity comes from the same place as trigger warnings — warnings at the beginnings of some articles, e.g. accounts describing a sexual assult, which warn readers that may trigger traumatic memories for some readers. They’re designed with those who may have post-traumatic stress reactions. Trigger warnings are currently the subject of debate on college campuses, as professors debate whether they should be required to include them on syllabuses. Critics of trigger warnings have pointed out that it places the onus on the content creators, but I look at it this way: it took me only a few seconds to tap out the trigger warning at the top of this post, but it can take 45 minutes to an hour for someone to recover from an anxiety attack. Once again, it’s low-hanging fruit.
Ultimately, the world isn’t a particularly nice or fair place. Once people leave the LGBTQ center and emerge out onto the street in NYC, they’re liable to hear slurs and be harassed on the street and be unfairly judged based on their gender. We’re not negating that experience, but by trying to create a safer space, a respite from all that, we’re doing our bit to make the world more pleasant.