“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.” – (Dr. MLK, Jr., 1963)

Sixty years after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education to desegregate public schools, many U.S. schools are profoundly segregated and the allocation of funds and resources continues to widen the gap. Legislation no longer drives these divisions. This is one of many scenarios that seem to me to indicate a socially constructed separate but equal belief that prevails 118 years after the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson[i] found segregation to be constitutional. Are the gears simply turning slowly in this vehicle as we move toward true inclusion? Or, is this residual segregation evidence that once a population is considered “less than”, “outsiders”, and “separate but equal”, then that group is ultimately doomed to be seen (at least, to a certain degree) through that lens indefinitely?

People sometimes make the argument that as older generations die out their prejudices die with them. I will concede that point as far as polls and percentages are concerned. However, what about the language and institutional relics still standing long after the generations that founded them are gone? I am thinking specifically about the sexual binary myth that has shaped the established theory of gender and sexuality in our country (as well as others the world over) for more than a century and is upheld by the continued use of the words “heterosexual” and “homosexual”.

One need not look very far to find evidence of institutions using such terms to differentiate between sexual behavior that is considered moral (heterosexual), and sexual behavior that is considered immoral (homosexual). I will make an assumption here for the sake of brevity. If you are reading this, you likely understand “heterosexual” and “homosexual” as labels for specific individuals as well as actions. For instance, a man who engages in an act defined by society as homosexual can be identified as a homosexual. (I often wonder about the legitimacy of extending the word used for a sexual act to encompass a human being.)

I cannot ignore the feeling in my gut that these commonly used words (and their synonyms: gay, straight, etc.) are doing damage despite what might be deemed as their necessary existence. To deepen my understanding of the pro’s and con’s of such binary language, I turned to an interview with author Hanne Blanke. According to Blanke, the belief that certain sexual practices were good and correct while others deserved judgment — even punishment — was commonplace prior to the adoption of the specific labels homosexuality and heterosexuality.

“Heterosexual” was actually coined in a letter at the same time as the word “homosexual,” [in the mid-19th century], by an Austro-Hungarian journalist named Károly Mária Kertbeny. He created these words as part of his response to a piece of Prussian legislation that made same-sex erotic behavior illegal, even in cases where the identical act performed by a man and a woman would be considered legal. And he was one of a couple of people who did a lot of writing and campaigning and pamphleteering to try to change legal opinion on that matter. He coined the words “heterosexual” and “homosexual” in a really very clever bid to try to equalize same-sex and different-sex. His intent was to suggest that there are these two categories in which human beings could be sexual, that they were not part of a hierarchy, that they were just two different flavors of the same thing.” – (Blanke, 2012)

Two thoughts form clearly in my mind when I read this quote: 1. The hierarchy existed before the language. 2. The language was manipulated from its original intention to subvert the hierarchy and was co-opted instead to support the hierarchy. Labels having been established, the modern myth of the sexual binary was born.

However, if the judgment against same-sex behavior existed before the labels, then some might think it pretty clear that the prejudice itself is the problem and not the language. After all, individuals were put to death for same-sex sodomy long before the 19th century. “In England during the reign of King Henry VIII “sodomy” became a civil offense with the passage of the Buggery Act of 1533.” (Houston, 2014) I agree that prejudice can exist even in the absence of terminology to define it. However, I do not think that lets our vocabulary off of the hook. If a system of thought is based on a fabricated dichotomy, in this case the theory that there is “either heterosexual or homosexual”, should the people who stand up to challenge that system continue to use terminology that implies that false dichotomy?

Currently, it seems to me that the language we use is as much a part of the solution as it is the problem. What once was constructed as a linguistic tool is now assumed to be fact and used to define people, relationships, and our understanding of human diversity. In Blanke’s interview, the gay male interviewer, points out to Blanke that he likes being a gay man and wants to continue to identify as a gay man. He does not like the idea of that being taken from him. Blanke replies:

“See, that’s the thing, no one is going to take that away from you. No one can take that away from you. The only thing they can take away from you is the illusion that this is not something that is constructed. And that’s very, very different.  Just because something is constructed as a social category, doesn’t mean that it’s not enormously meaningful.  It doesn’t mean that we haven’t built a whole damn civilization on it. Doesn’t mean that we don’t live our daily lives on it, doesn’t mean that we don’t use it all the time every time we’re walking down the street.  This is real. It’s stuff that has physical manifestations in the real world. But that does not mean that it is organic.” – (Blanke 2012)

The words we use to identify who we are become a part of our own understanding of ourselves and the sense of safety we feel in society. People rely on these labels to find others like them and spend time apart from mainstream culture to bond over their similarities and support one another. Through history and culture the language that labels our differences gains context and becomes personalized, communal, even political. Again, a quote from Blanke gave me some insight into the political necessity of “difference”:

“Well, you know, minority politics has been a lot easier to sell than to just say, “Being human ought to get you human dignity,” full stop. If you can pin down the difference, if you can make the difference the salient issue, it somehow makes it easier for people to stomach the fact that they can’t go out and just beat people over the head. I don’t know why that is. I find it intensely frustrating.” – (Blanke, 2012)

So, the fabricated difference clearly distinguished by the use of terms like “gay” and “straight” is a necessary catalyst for change? That intensely frustrates me also. Using this argument, it doesn’t seem likely that the deeper truth that “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny” (Dr. MLK, Jr.), will sufficiently influence people toward inclusion and oneness. It leaves me with these questions for those who see me as an outsider: “Why must you see me as different first in order to eventually see me as equal? And, is true equality ever possible once a false distinction is made and a hierarchy is built upon it?” It scares me that I might never appeal to you based on our shared humanity.

The ramification of sharing with others my sexual expression is that I am labeled. In many ways I did not choose that label rather, it was chosen for me. Now, to uphold the truth of sexual and gender diversity, which does exist, I must own the label given to me and with it the ways it implies I am different. The difference is so often met with disapproval, resentment, and discord. That saddens me because I see us as the same. I am sorry I use a label that scares you. I am sorry it makes you angry to hear that I am gay. It is not my desire to scare or anger anyone. I do not relish the fact that I must make you very uncomfortable before you can truly see me.

I am not a big fan of tension but have grown less afraid of it, like Dr. King says,

“But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.” – (Dr. MLK, Jr.)

Will the tension being described here actually lead to true equality? Previously, I felt like the solution at least in part might lie in the discontinued use of divisive language so that we might cast-off the long-held beliefs attached to it. On the other hand, I have personally witnessed the pain caused by challenging a label by which someone identifies, one that makes them feel a sense of safety and belonging. So, in seeking a solution to the dilemma of language, I might be uncovering more questions than answers.

However, I will say with confidence that I do believe the language we speak affects our perception of the world we live in. Assistant Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Stanford University and Editor-In-Chief of Frontiers In Cultural Psychology, Lera Boroditsky conducts research around the world that focuses on mental representation and the effects of language on cognition. She says, “[T]he way we think influences the way we speak, but the influence also goes the other way. The past decade has seen a host of ingenious demonstrations establishing that language indeed plays a causal role in shaping cognition. Studies have shown that changing how people talk changes how they think.” (Boroditsky)

Recently, I listened to an interview on NPR with Danielle Allen, author of the recently published Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. Allen drew attention specifically to the first sentence of the 1776 document:

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” (D.o.I)

What stood out to me, as a piece of this puzzle, was the discussion around the phrase “separate and equal” used in the Declaration. Now, I am not going to start quoting the whole interview. You can listen to it in its entirety here if you desire. I will simply say that I have been contemplating since that interview how powerful the difference is between the phrases “separate and equal” and “separate but equal”. One pairing sees diversity as a component of equality while the other almost reluctantly places it alongside. You might view this as semantics or you might just begin to see my point. One phrase exists in a document proclaiming freedom. The other is a remnant of a dark and divisive time in our history. The difference is language.

 

Sources Cited:

Blank, Hanne. From The Invention of The Heterosexual An Interview with Salon (Sunday, Jan. 22nd, 2012) http://www.salon.com/2012/01/22/the_invention_of_the_heterosexual/

Boroditsky, Lera. From How Language Shapes Thought extracted from Scientific American, pg 62 – 65(February 2011)

The Diane Rhem Show. National Public Radio. Danielle Allen: Our Declaration an interview. http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2014-07-03/danielle-allen-our-declaration

Houston, Larry. From Before Homosexuality: Sodomy (Tuesday, Apr. 8th, 2014) http://www.banap.net/spip.php?article122

King Jr., Martin L. Dr. From the Letter From Birmingham Jail (August 1963) http://www.uscrossier.org/pullias/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/king.pdf

National Archives, Washington D.C. From Declaration of Independence (July 1776) http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html

National Archives, Washington D.C. From Separate Is Not Equal http://americanhistory.si.edu/brown/history/1-segregated/separate-but-equal.html

 

[i] In 1890 a new Louisiana law required railroads to provide “equal but separate accommodations for the white, and colored, races.” Outraged, the black community in New Orleans decided to test the rule.

On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy agreed to be arrested for refusing to move from a seat reserved for whites. Judge John H. Ferguson upheld the law, and the case of Plessy v. Ferguson slowly moved up to the Supreme Court. On May 18, 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court, with only one dissenting vote, ruled that segregation in America was constitutional.
(Courtesy of National Archives, Washington, D.C.)

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