Queeriosity: On Language and Culture

As an activities coordinator at the Queer Resource Center, I recently helped put on an event that focused on the ways in which language shapes conversations about gender and sexuality. It was incredibly interesting to hear so many people describing their own experiences with their mother tongue and the ways in which the language they grew up with affected the way they thought and spoke about gender and sexuality.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the growth of the United States’ immigrant population, and the increase in families separated by a language barrier when discussing certain topics. Because many Latin American cultures tend to be conservative and involved with religion, parents who grew up in Latin America were often not exposed to positive conversations about sexuality or gender. Furthermore, the Spanish language itself is not conducive to productive conversations about sexuality and gender. While some words used to talk about sexuality and gender do exist, they are used so rarely that they simply do not feel natural.

The question then becomes: Should it be up to their U.S. educated and influenced kids to bring them into the conversation? An added layer of difficulty to this belief is that in Latin American culture, kids are taught the importance of respecting their elders. Is pointing out homophobia, transphobia or cissexism then considered disrespectful? If we can agree that it’s not, how can we move forward into having these conversations in languages different than the ones we are used to? These questions have been plaguing my mind since the QRC’s event, because they are affecting not only me, but also many others who are in similar situations.

One of the major issues that came up at the QRC’s event is the conflation of gender and sexuality that often occurs in Latin American cultures. For example, gay men are commonly referred to with she/her/hers pronouns, not only by outsiders, but also by those within their own community. Though I can appreciate the desire to reclaim something that is used against them by homophobes, it also serves to further confuse communities that are already under-informed on matters of gender and sexuality. In novelas, gay men are almost exclusively portrayed as either excessively flamboyant hairdressers or fashion designers. A woman who likes women is offensively dubbed marimacha, indicating that she acts like a man. Not only does this term perpetuate femme erasure, but it also ignores the fact that a person’s sexual orientation is independent of their gender identity. These problematic situations are likely results of the strict, socially embedded gender roles that are so common in the Latinx community.

These gender roles are only further propagated by the fact that the Spanish language forces speakers to gender everything. There is no way to speak about someone without gendering them. Though there have been recent movements to adopt gender-neutral options to speak in Spanish, they are mostly only talked about in small circles of activists. For example, using “Latinx” instead of “Latinos” is more inclusive, since it accounts for people who do not identify within the gender binary or use gender-neutral pronouns. It has also been proposed that an entirely new pronoun, elle, be introduced as a gender-neutral option. However, it has not been properly recognized by the Real Academia Española (RAE), the institution in charge of overseeing and amending the Spanish language.

Even if the RAE made changes to the Spanish language to include gender-neutral options and an increased vocabulary to talk about gender and sexuality, I don’t think I would feel any differently than I do now about having these conversations in Spanish. Perhaps the discomfort is more deeply rooted in the culture than in the language. Despite the discomfort, these difficult conversations are often the most important to have.