The Importance of Language in Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation

The Importance of Language in Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation

This article began as an understanding of how it is to be a teacher from the LGBTQ+ and the challenges one has to face has to be a challenge. But during the interview, as my interviewee was answering, I realised something. I had missed out on a major component to the perception of gender identity and sexual orientation. Language. I don’t mean it in the narrow sense of English, Kannada, or French. I mean it in the sense where you can detangle your feelings and experiences enough to make sense of it. So here’s my attempt to breakdown the complexity and explore the idea from the perspective of an anthropology professor who is also a homosexual man.

Introducing, Chandan Bose.

A professor whose list of area of interests is longer than all my weekend to-do lists combined. He dabbles in Ethnography, Critical Craft Studies, Critical Heritage Studies, South Asian History, and Historiography, and more. I met him as a student at Manipal Center of Humanities and was blown away by his speeches and ideas on contemporary society.

As a professor of Anthropology, Chandan’s affiliation with language definitely gives rise to a perspective that I had not delved into before. And it was honestly, very enlightening. Let’s begin with his idea of Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation. Exclusive/The Importance of Language in Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation
Courtesy: The MCH Blog

Categories of Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation

“And they are categories! These become acceptable to an individual only when he or she is made aware that there is a lack. I believe gender and sexual orientation is only acceptable to you as a result of violence. By violence, I mean, you are only made aware of your gender in certain situations. Any situation when you are reminded that you are not performing it the way it should be performed. I feel like it is a result of intrinsic violence of what you have configured yourself.”

Don’t be startled. Think about how you came to terms with your sexual orientation or gender identity. Forget that, even if you are straight, think about the times your gender and sexual orientation was a topic of conversation. To go against the norm itself is violence. That’s the violence that Chandan is discussing about. This could be considered the base of his perception of LGBTQ+.

He connects experience, emotion, and language.

Talking about the terms gender identity and sexual orientation, he adds, “It’s an introduction in your own stream of consciousness. You are oblivious, and then you are reminded. And words like gender identity and sexual orientation are registers of this introduction. They are registers that remind you that you have to know them to understand where you fit.

These categories are like any language. And in this case, how language operates with thought is like a product of violence to your own way of being in the world. It’s only a product of you being brought to notice that you are inadequate. This is when gender and sexual orientation becomes palpable for the individual.”

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity are products of violence. We have established this. So when Chandan connects this violence to the categorisation, the role of language falls into place. To understand that better, we have to walk a few steps into his past.

Also Read: Do You Know What These LGBTQIA+ Terms Mean?

Experiences as a child, a teenager and a story from a rock concert.

A forewarning before he got down to elaborate on his experiences.

“There is certainly a gap between when you recall an experience in its entirety and when you recall the experience of having that experience. A lot of ways in which I understand my childhood and a teenager, the experiences have been reconceptualized with my own training after knowing certain things through my discipline or through texts and discourses.”

His initiation into the journey of homosexuality has something to do with the lack that he spoke of earlier. The one that came with not performing as expected. The lack, the violence and the filling the gap.

“While I was growing up, I was in an all boy’s school. And that doesn’t make it easy. Again, at that point, growing up in the 90s, you only knew about a lack and the inadequacy. You didn’t have the language to access that gap. So a lot of effort went into fit in, and to discipline my own body. I would obviously be noticed for my mannerism and the way I spoke. I would stammer, on top of that. This did become fodder for the boys to crack a joke.”

Only when I confronted the lack, I went around looking for a word that could fill that lack.

All I could access were the narratives around me. The stories of the boys I was studying with, about their girlfriends and how they were attracted to girls. I placed myself in this narrative. I knew what girl was, I knew what attraction was. And the two were not equated in my case. It was only through the other person’s narrative that I could then have access to mine. It is an important part of the homosexual experience, that your access point is through the other’s narrative. If there was no contrary narrative, you won’t be made aware of your own narrative. The assumption is that we are all the same and my experiences correspond with yours. But it is the lack of this correspondence which causes one to find a way to fill this gap.

Also Read: What Is Gay/ Transgender Panic?

The way I see the situation now is different.

The ability to feel pain has changed. At that point, it was normal to be made fun of. I had no ways to tell them that what they were saying was stupid, and it is okay if I am not behaving like a regular guy or being masculine enough. There was no discourse that said it is okay to be effeminate. Or question why I must perform my masculinity as dictated by someone else. The way people speak to you and touch you becomes normal when you cannot access this language. It is only after I grew up and learnt that it was not okay. I probably felt angry and humiliated then, but I did not want to associate my “condition” to humiliation.

In Delhi, when I was doing my undergrad, It was there that one heard about pride march, and met people who were out. I remember in the early 2000s, there were rock shows every January. Exclusive/The Importance of Language in Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation
Courtesy: The MCH Blog

And I had not come out yet.

In one of the rock shows I attended, there was someone from the Rolling Stones Magazine emceeing. He told he was gay and was HIV+. It was not a watershed moment or anything. (He had studied about it) I think awareness comes to you in bits and fragments. And then it depends on what you do with it.

So a lot of what I can speak about now is because I am able externalise my fears. What I went through was not some form of peer bonding. It was active violence. Having said that, I don’t think I would have behaved any differently to them if I was straight because society was like that. The gripe is not against the people or my classmates. I think now schools have become uber-sensitive and be aware of different kinds of people. Even in terms of career or caste, it was streamlined. So sexual-orientation. Even to acknowledge these as a challenge is an intellectual task. Language that way is a boon and a bane. It has helped me acknowledge what I went through.

This is probably what the adults call wisdom, right? The ability to reinterpret the experiences you have had to learn better lessons from life. This also alters how one sees himself.


The many and the non-monolithic

“The question of how I identify myself is slightly inadequate. It comes from a perspective of homosexuality that is seen as a monolithic, unidimensional narrative. But what I am is also equal to how I am and when I am. For me, I am a homosexual professor, a homosexual anthropologist, a homosexual son.

My homosexuality also engages with how I perceive the world in different situations. I do believe that everyone thinks, acts, and respond to situations. What is more important is how we act during situations, rather than having an understanding of ‘This is what I am’ and seeing the situation from that perspective. I think identity is forged in the details of everyday life. What we think we are, most of the times do not correspond to how we behave and what we do. Exclusive/The Importance of Language in Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation

“How I identify myself as is a part of a larger discourse. I genuinely feel like nobody identifies as one particular thing at any given point in time. One is many things at many points in time. So my homosexuality is mine. It is not divorced from my relationship with my parents, friends, or work. At no point in time is homosexuality, the whole identity of a person.”

My homosexuality is mine, which is different from others.

I think the entire LGBTQ+ movement has to understand that identity is not something you can grasp at a moment. It has a lot to do with your surroundings and everyday practice.

The movement begins with you, when you begin to access this language and vocabulary. It begins with denial because the moment I got familiar with the word, “gay”, the first reaction was to say, “No, this is not who I am”. It is also a resistance to the language, and the capitalisation and separation that language brings about. The cognizance of the movement is also how you have experienced and linked to the core of the movement. If I have experienced it as something that I deny and don’t associate with, then the idea of the movement means something else. It is not a class struggle, where you understand and acknowledge the oppressions. In this case, the oppression one feels is similar to caste oppression because of things like self-censorship. The movement begins when you are made aware of your inadequacy.

I don’t think I have been a part of the movement.

I have supported it and been there when I can. But I think I still have some insecurities. I believe the movement tends to ghettoise identity. And I think that is my inadequacy. And I think this stems from the perspective of homosexuality being monolithic. I think they should expand and look at the context in which the homosexual people exists. Situations like being a tenant or a teacher, or going to gym, engaging with the bureaucracy, those are moments that need to be understood. Since that is what constitutes our lives. The movement for me began with my denial of it. I think one always tries to be a part of it, not necessarily physically. The movement itself evolves with new languages and new debates. So one cannot conclusively say I am part of the movement. You cannot pinpoint an origin or a conclusion, but just where you place in the spectrum.

I know that was a long read. But I have to tell you that there is a part two to this article. Let me know what you thought about it.

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