On the sounds and the furies (of gayness)

An article posted on the gaily grind the other day asked a rather standard question: “Should the LGBT community stop using phrases like ‘Gurl’, ‘She’ and ‘Sister’ in an attempt to combat stereotypes and homophobia?”

The assumption is that sounds matter. That vernacular, tone, lisp, pitch, etc., all function to mark a gay as subject—and as subject to (subjected by) stereotypes and the discriminatory attitudes that manifest as homophobia. That to rid the gays of these stereotypes and combat homophobia, we should be careful of what and how we speak. This is nothing new, of course, and has been the subject of much scholarship, from William Leap’s path breaking Word’s out: Gay men’s English, for example, to more popular interrogations, such as David Thorpe’s 2014 documentary Do I Sound Gay? (self-loathing and disastrously problematic).

The gaily grind article depends on, traffics in, the abs of blogger, Instagram celebrity, fitness guru, and ‘motivational’ quote quipper, Barret Pall. The post links through to Pall’s website, to a short piece that he wrote, a manifesto, in which he answers this question with a resounding yes (just one ‘s’. Definitely not yassssssss). The gaily grind site is an echo of Pall’s original, in which he opens with the following statement:

“Gurl, She, Sister, etc are all things that I totally get as playful and fun, but I feel as if they’re detracting away from our community being taken seriously, and furthermore makes outsiders think these are appropriate things to say to us.”

Just what community is Pall referring to? And secondly, who is outside of it?

What I think he means, actually, is that the gays have a code, a form of speaking (lexicon, inflection, references, etc.) that when spoken to outsiders (i.e. nongays) it can be misinterpreted, misheard, mistaken, and that that incongruence then authorizes those outsiders (the nongays) to appropriate the code and speak it back to the gays—an effort that they will inevitably fail at, and which will end up hurting the actual gays. The gays will be hurt, the logic goes, because the nongays will be taking our playful and fun words and misusing them. Employing them contretemps.

Where have we heard this before?

Pall’s post takes sounds as if they were entirely disembodied, as if the lisp, tone, pitch, were all markers of gayness that can be divorced from the actual person who is making those sounds. Sounds have bodies. Bodies make those sounds. And that means that when you are listening to someone’s gayness, you are also looking at their gayness, or their straightness, but, and this is really the point here, their physical body is also a raced, gendered, classed, regionalized, body. Those voices and those bodies are marked by race and regional history, by class inflection (middle class New Yorkers are losing their accent!), and by nationality (Where is your accent from?).

Pall may not have noticed, but he is white. And he’s repeating ad nauseam the very same critique that queer people of color have been making against people just like him for ages. All together now: cultural appropriation.

So, even for him, if words like kiki and ratchet are “fun” as he calls them, he is actually admitting to his entertainment by way of channeling his inner black woman (you’ve heard this before, right?) and the thing is…nobody wants their words taken and used against them…but you can’t be so hypocritical, or unaware, as to realize that you are doing just that.

Pall must have received some push back. I’m sure. And he notes in an addendum to his original post:

“If you read any of my other written pieces, watch my youtube videos, or know me in real life, you know that I am a fan of diversity, being yourself and living your truth.”

[That was my eyes rolling]

Two final notes:

  1. I am amazed at the way this language has infiltrated what seems like an attempt at contrition: to be a ‘fan’ of diversity? A FAN! Yes, you may think diversity is fun, entertaining, you may support it, you may actually think that what you are doing with your writing, youtubing, and real life, is working toward diversity, but you are woefully tone deaf to the reality of your own language. To be a fan of diversity is to capitulate to its cooptation.
  1. “Living your truth” seems more like burying your head in the sand, pretending not to notice your privilege, your racism, your homophobia, homonormativity, transphobia, etc. Living your truth. A tautology of epic neoliberal proportions. Carte blanche to willful ignorance and the denial of one’s own position in the world.

Coda: Language is pliable. It has histories. It is neither static nor fixed to any particular group. We can learn other people’s languages—we should learn other people’s languages! Learn more languages! But this does not mean that we should be so naïve, or so blatantly ignorant, as to imagine that languages exist without bodies or histories or politics.



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