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Workshop explores impact, importance of language

| Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Saint Mary’s students, faculty and staff filled the Student Center conference rooms Tuesday for “Language Matters: An Ally Workshop.” The department of gender & women’s studies, the Student Diversity Board and the department of psychological sciences sponsored the event in order to educate allies about civil rights issues and LGBTQ communities.

Associate professor of psychology Bettina Spencer said the workshop responded to an apparent need.

“It grew out of a response for people wanting information,” Spencer said. “People wanted to have discussions on these topics but were nervous. This workshop tries to give people tools to have difficult discussions.”

Darryl Heller, director of the Civil Rights Heritage Center, speaks about the significance of language in the LGBTQ community Tuesday night at Saint Mary's Student Center's conference rooms.Annie Smierciak | The Observer

Darryl Heller, director of the Civil Rights Heritage Center, speaks about the significance of language in the LGBTQ community Tuesday night at Saint Mary’s Student Center’s conference rooms.

Jason Wilkinson, executive director of the LGBTQ Center in South Bend, and Darryl Heller, director of the Civil Rights Heritage Center, came together to speak on the issues.

“The fact that we’re together in some areas would never happen,” Wilkinson said. “There are issues in every community.”

“There’s homophobia in the black community, and there’s racism in the white gay community,” Heller said. “It’s about continuing to work and break down those barriers that keep us apart.”

Wilkinson said he became passionate about language due to his upbringing in a Pentecostal Christian home.

“My entire family was very into the Church,” he said. “It was preached very heavily that if you were a part of the LGBTQ community, you were going to hell.”

Wilkinson said he always knew he was gay, but if he were to say anything to his family, he knew he would be disowned. This led him to become depressed and attempt to commit suicide three times.

Wilkinson said he noticed when the Church talked about gays, it always talked about them in the context of males — never females. This led him to realize language — especially the careful selection of terms — is essential.

“More letters get added to LGBTQ all the time,” he said. “That’s why our slogan at the LGBTQ Center is now ‘All are welcome.’ Even if you’re not a part of those letters, you are still welcome to come help out.”

Wilkinson started off his portion of the presentation by telling the audience he uses the pronouns “he” and “him.” He said addressing people with respect is one of the most important things they do at the LGBTQ CenterIn our society, he said, you can no longer assume how people identify.

Pronouns such as they, them, theirs, zie, and hir are all growing in popularity, he said.

“We as a society are used to ‘they,’ ‘them’ and ‘theirs’ when talking about multiple people,” Wilkinson said. “However, now people who identify as this don’t consider themselves either male or female, or they identify as both.”

However, Wilkinson warned not to ask people about their preferred pronouns.

“When you ask someone about their preference, you’re disregarding who they are,” he said. “It’s like if you’re talking to a transgender person and you’re saying, ‘I’m calling you she, but I really could call you he.’

“Some people may say to themselves, ‘Today, I feel more female’ or, ‘Today, I feel more male.’ So my suggestion is to stick to first names until otherwise told differently.”

Wilkinson said another language issue involves the use of terms like “homosexual.” Wilkinson said although it is commonly used, this term is actually quite offensive in the LGBTQ community.

“Homosexual is such a clinical term,” he said. “It makes gay people feel unwelcome.”

Heller said “homosexual” is a dog whistle term — a coded term that is targeted toward a specific audience. He compared this word to the use of the term “terrorist.”

“When you hear the word ‘terrorist,’ for most people, the first thing that comes to mind is Muslim or Middle Easterners,” Heller said. “Instead of saying, ‘I don’t like terrorists,’ people find themselves saying, ‘I don’t like Muslims.’”

There is a current debate on whether the tragedy in Las Vegas was an act of terrorism, Heller said — because the shooter was not associated with any group, some say it was not terrorism. However, Heller said when a similar situation happened in another location and the man was a Muslim, it was immediately labeled an act of terrorism, even though he was not associated with any groups except the U.S. Army.

“The word is made to sound neutral, but there’s a particular audience,” he said. “We have to be really careful about how we think about it and how we use terms like that. Context really does matter.”

Another dog whistle phrase is “Black Lives Matter,” he said. Heller was a co-founder of a Black Lives Matter chapter in South Bend, launched in response to Ferguson.

“People associate the term with radical, angry, black people,” Heller said. “However, Black Lives Matter was founded by three black queer women. The term is meant to encompass the full intersectionality of the black community. It’s pro-marginalized.

“The thought of Black Lives Matter is that when black women are free, everybody is free. When people respond to Black Lives Matter, they’re saying all lives matter. If you fight for freedom of black lives, you’re fighting for the freedom of white lives.”

Another dog whistle term is “gay man,” Heller said. Many people think of a white man, but there are black gay men too, he said.

“We truncate and marginalize folks unconsciously,” Heller said. “The critical part of changing the world we live in is making what is unconscious conscious and being very thoughtful about that.”

Heller also discussed Donald Trump’s remarks concerning football players who have chosen to kneel during the national anthem. Trump has said kneeling during the anthem was a “total disrespect of our heritage” and “a total disrespect of everything that we stand for.”

“Who is the ‘our’ and who is the ‘we?’” Heller asked. “Do we have a homogenous perspective on that? If the quote does exclude people, who is excluded?”

The word “diversity” can also be problematic, Wilkinson said.

“I hate the word ‘diversity’ — we’ve lost what diversity is supposed to be,” he said. “When we’re inclusive, we’re not discounting someone. It’s not just about acceptance, there’s a place for their voice to be heard.”

Heller agreed with Wilkinson and said “acceptance” implies mere tolerance, whereas “inclusivity” is welcoming and even essential.

“We cannot just tolerate, otherwise the dominant culture, society and values will carry the day, and that’s not inclusive,” Heller said. “It means being proactive. We have to go out and work hard to make it happen.”

In order to be an ally, people should use their words carefully and respectfully correct others, Wilkinson said.

“I’ve known people who have moved from cities because they feel unsafe because of what another person has said,” he said. “It may not have anything to do with me or how I feel, but I say something because maybe someone else is wishing they could say something.”

Senior Taylor Thomas said she attended the workshop because she knows she is transphobic.

“My goal here was to work on tendencies I have to work on,” Thomas said. “The only way to do that is to come here and understand the community. I want to force myself into uncomfortable situations so I can grow as a person.”

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