While traipsing about the internet recently, gathering literature for my senior thesis, I discovered an interesting article written in 2010 by a couple of social workers who were conducting a larger study on LGBT youth identities. These folks became particularly interested in the construction of identity through language that they observed among genderqueer youth, in particular, and returned to their population to do a more focused analysis (Saltzburg and Davis 88). After observing conversations among a group of 10 youth, positioned as “outsider witnesses (92),” the authors made the following observation, among others:
“The social vocabulary used to represent gender does not match how they have come to know themselves, leaving them mislabeled and misrepresented by conversations that do not include them” (Saltzburg and Davis 94).
Saltzburg and Davis explained that the youth look to disrupt and re appropriate gendered language to better fit their non-binary identities (94). They use words such as “femme,” “fluid,” and “genderqueer” to create variations of stagnant terms that are used in mainstream society to modify behavior and identity (94). “Language,” as the authors so clearly put, “constitutes and creates the meanings of our lives” (Saltzburg and Davis 95).
This notion harkens back to Judith Butler’s claim that the experiences of those whose identities are deemed false or unacceptable qualify as “unlivable lives” (218). She writes that although being accused of being a copy is a form of oppression, if one is oppressed than one is, in fact, an intelligible subject. In order to experience oppression, one must exist. Those people who are labeled unreal suffer from something worse than oppression: “To find that one is fundamentally unintelligible (indeed, that the laws of culture and of language find one to be an impossibility) is to find that one has not yet achieved access to the human” (Butler 218). Saltzburg and David reiterate Butler’s sentiment in their data analysis, saying, “Absense of social recognition [lack of language] translates as invalidating and dishonoring of their ‘lived experience'” (99). Language is the tool that brings ideas into reality–without the power of language reclamation and creation, genderqueer people do not exist.
Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.
Saltzburg, Susan, and Tamara Davis. “Co-Authoring Gender-Queer Youth Identities: Discursive Tellings and Retellings.” Journal of Ethnic And Cultural Diversity in Social Work 19.2 (2010): 87-108. Print.