Introductory biology is a required course in high school, and as a result we can talk about cells and mitosis in the most basic way and be confident that those around us will understand. But a PhD in microbiology specializing in the mutation of a particular kind of eastern African virus cannot expect anyone outside of her field to understand the minutiae of her work. (Most researchers will tell you that, given the amount of specialization in science today, they often cannot understand the specifics of research outside of their particular area of expertise.) She certainly cannot presume that an individual with a high school-level understanding of biology would be able to comprehend the minutia of her field, or the meaning (let alone the import) of things like viroids, icosahedral formations, and the RISC complex. What she can, and should do, is explain as best she can the nature of her work. She must recognize, however, that her explanation is only as powerful as a small flashlight shone in a dark room, and that for lay persons to see the full splendor of virology in a high noon light, they would likely need a graduate-level education themselves.
The same truth -- that technical precision aids academics, but disables conversation among the general public-- extends to the rhetoric surrounding queer issues today. The queer community has become increasingly prominent, and powerful, in contemporary American popular culture and politics. Some jargon has, therefore, become mainstream; "LGBT" is so well-known an acronym AP Style allows it to be published without explanation, like FBI or CIA. Pew Research Center reported in 2013 that nearly nine in ten Americans (some 87 percent) personally know someone who is gay or lesbian, up from 61 percent of respondents who answered "yes" just two short decades ago. This increase in the number of Americans who maintain an interpersonal relationship with a gay or lesbian individual has been, quite sensibly, coupled with both an increase in the number of people who support gay marriage and in the number of people who have a “favorable” opinion of gay men and lesbian women.
The confusion comes, however, when LGBT is expanded into LGBTQIA+ ( lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, intersex, asexual, and "+" for any other sexuality an individual may identify as), or people are advised to drop the letters altogether and just focus on the concept of "queer." These misunderstandings are only exacerbated when those in the know become unwilling to enlighten those who do understand, or when the meaning of some of these words directly challenges the meaning of words we thought we knew and the biological "facts" we learned in school, as is often the case with transgenderism.
A girl I went to elementary school with recently came out as gay. She is studying at a university situated within an extremely liberal pocket of suburban America. Her parents, who have supported their daughter completely, are friends with my parents. On a recent visit to our house this summer, the parents (who stopped by without their daughter), expressed their confusion with queer taxonomy and dismay at what they felt was a premature and undeserved "old fart" status. They said that they would try to use the appropriate terms, but their daughter would often become upset by what they felt was innocent misunderstanding, and stomp off before ever taking the time to explain.
Hearing this served to support the growing sense that I had on my own college campus of a kind of "queer elitism," or queer individuals and their allies who have a kind of coded language that they expect others to understand but oftentimes don't want to explain. (This elitism is so complete that many rural and conservative queer individuals are excluded from the conversation.)
From the parent's perspective, they are trying to learn, but are not getting the support they need to become fluent. Born in the 1960s, they were raised with an understanding of issues surrounding gays and lesbians in society, but no understanding of "transgender" people, for the term "transgender" had not even been invented yet (it originated in the 1990s), and "transvestite" was still an acceptable term (though today it is considered a slur).
From the daughter's perspective, these terms are not that hard to master, so she interprets her parent's bafflement as willful ignorance. It is also likely she is addled that her queer status catapults her into the position of an unofficial queer ambassador -- because she identifies as a lesbian, people expect her to put the time and energy into guiding them through queer rhetoric, politics, and community life. (Many members of the queer community rise to this challenge and attempt to educate those around them, but they often run out of steam or become frustrated.)
I recently had a short exchange via Twitter with the Jezebel writer Kat Callahan, who wrote an excellent article about the difference between gender dysphoria and body dysmorphia and the importance of not confusing the two. The article, which I found informative and useful in clarifying these concepts for both myself and others, had a title I found, as I wrote on Twitter, “maddeningly self-righteous” in stereotypically Jezebel style. Callahan wrote back, saying “I get to be self-righteous on this topic.” She later elaborated on her supposed right, saying that she encounters people who say they are “trying,” but never really change, despite her best efforts at edification.
Viewpoints like Callahan’s, bred from the unenviable frustrations of advocating for a cause many deride or simply ignore, is common within the queer community. But there is concern that such a harsh response to people who aren't "in the know" may undermine discussion. In April, I covered an event for my school newspaper about the visit of Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), who was on campus to promote legislation to protect queer students from harassment. The piece received the requisite troll comments, with some man arguing, sarcastically, for a “straight center.” However, one of the comments has stayed with me: “queer people on the UW campus are the most intolerant people I've ever met.” Whether or the anonymous author “Kanko” wrote this with sincerity, I do not know, but the message resonated with me, and with many of my friends at the paper and in the campus community at large.
Communication between these parents and their daughter is further stifled by the slippery nature of queer rhetoric, which is rapidly changing along with the ideas and identities in the community, and in the public at large. Journalists Michelle Goldberg and Margaret Talbot recently spoke with Sasha Weiss on the weekly “New Yorker: Out Loud” podcast. Goldberg and Talbot, who have both reported on issues relating to gender and sexuality, said that they have experienced a sense of “walking on eggshells” when writing about the queer community. “[The language] is evolving very, very quickly,” said Michelle Goldberg, the author of “What is a Woman?,” a recent article in the New Yorker magazine exploring, the “dispute between radical feminism and transgenderism.” So quickly, Goldberg says, the language is “probably [developing faster] than a general audience’s ability to keep up with it all.”
The family is further divided by the different radically different gender realities the two generations are living in, especially when it comes to transgender people. For the daughter, these terms make an intuitive sort of sense, for she has known about gender non-conformity about as long as she known about gender conformity. For the parents, however, transgenderism challenges some of their most fundamental understandings of the English language and sexual biology. For older generations, "man" and "woman" have had very set definitions, as do “male and “female,” all of which contemporary queer rhetoric radically inverts. Though many older people are willing to expand their definitions of these terms, it cannot be assumed that such a re-learning process is easy.
Furthermore, it is presumptive to assume that everyone would be ready and willing to restructure their realities. “When you break down these [gender] divisions, say these divisions don’t matter,” Goldberg says, “That is frightening for a lot of people.” Though these traditional gender norms are harmful for many people, they are pervasive, foundational even, and deconstructing them will take time, and despite Callahan’s distaste, immense patience.
However, I think there is hope for a rhetorical reconciliation, at least amongst those who are ready for change. As Talbot said in the podcast, there is a single guiding principle that not only softens the crunch of the proverbial eggshells, but might even keep the eggs from falling to the ground altogether: “respect [a person’s] sense of themselves.” I believe that the queer community and its allies would have enormous success with “heartland” inhabitants, the lay people of Middle America, if they were to shift the emphasis from one of rhetorical precision and “getting it right already” to appreciation of our common humanity. Instead of critiquing verbiage, share your experiences as a gay, lesbian, intersex, or asexual human being. Instead of ranting about the importance of the term “gender dysphoria,” discuss the pain of feeling like you’re in the wrong body, and the relief of altering that body to fit your understanding of yourself. And instead of throwing lofty acronyms around, or suggesting a wholesale rewrite of the English language, take some time to tell people about yourself, who you are, and what you want to be called. Hopefully, they will be decent enough to listen.
For those who are interested in learning more about LGBT terms, the University of Michigan maintains an online dictionary of terms, available here.