Avoiding linguistic imperialism in gender discourse

Saturday 4 November 2017 / articles

Teen Vogue's short article Sam Smith shouldn't be called non-binary: here's why reflects my exact thoughts on the headlines about Sam a week or so ago. None of the articles claiming Sam had come out as "gender non-binary" (not just "non-binary", which seems like a meaningful distinction regarding group membership) actually quoted anything from Sam that said this was the case.

It seems fundamental to me that we shouldn't try to monopolise all non-normative gender experiences with the language that works for us, no matter how seemingly logical or community-internally established it is. This language and its conceptual bases are predominantly White, Western and middle class in origin. It may make total sense to us and it may make or come to make total sense to others, but we can't push our way of talking or thinking about gender on others - they need to have the autonomy to talk about their identity and experiences in their own words, no matter how well something seems to fit.

There are many ways of categorising similar experiences across the globe and equally many different experiences that could be categorised within broad labels. Our model is one of many possible models and one of many active models throughout the world. It shouldn't be our goal to subsume anything that doesn't sound 100% cis and binary by our definitions - we should rather be offering the terminology we've created as a tool that can be useful for many (but not all) people in articulating and explaining their experiences and how they want to move through and be read within the world.

I'm not a scholar of race, culture or class, a person of colour or from the Global South, and my immediate family environment growing up was pretty middle class (so my evaluation here shouldn't take precedence over those from people with more first-hand and expert insight) but imposing our language on everyone to me feels a lot like cultural or linguistic imperialism. Let's not be sloppy and slip into that territory with our discourse and activism: let's be mindful of cultural and individual variation as well as the right to self-definition.