Why is it so impossible to understand when people ask you to use certain language to describe their lives, experiences, gender?

I was on the phone, going through my personal details. We came to the section about my relationship status, and the man asked if I was married, single, divorced, etc. I hesitated, saying: “I’m dating someone, does that count?”, and he answered, “don’t worry about your boyfriend, we’ll put you down as single for the purposes of this form.”

His use of the word ‘boyfriend’ registered with me. I could have been gay or bi-sexual and dating a woman. He assumed I was straight, because he assumed heterosexuality as the default position. That reminded me of a panel discussion on gender I took part in last year.

The other three participants were men (one of whom was a person of colour). The moderator was also a man.

In the waiting room before the panel began, an older woman struck up a conversation with me, even though I was trying to go through my notes at the time. Afterwards she apologised.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, “I didn’t realise you were a panellist.” She said she assumed I was this man’s wife, a man who is, incidentally, the same age as my own father. I was stunned. The one woman in the room, and it was assumed the only reason I could be there was because I was with a male partner.

Neither of these incidents might seem like a big deal to you. I certainly don’t believe that either party meant any harm; it was careless rather than malicious. I know some reading will roll their eyes at my perceived sensitivity for even writing about this; people who would have found themselves frustrated at the conversations last December around the language used in certain Christmas songs, or who felt affronted by the news that the HSE urged nurses and doctors to refrain from calling patients ‘love’ or ‘dear’.

There have been a great number of Facebook comments of the ‘Political Correctness Gone Mad’ and ‘We won’t be able to say anything at this rate” variety, and I know that there’s a deep resistance to many of these new ideas, as well as a lot of confusion. There’s a scene in the stage adaptation of Asking For It where the mother says something so deeply hurtful to Emma, the main character and survivor of sexual violence, that there is a shocked intake of breath from the audience.

The mother rushes on, saying that they (Emma’s parents) don’t know the right words to use, they don’t know the language. What was once considered acceptable is now not. I was a teenager in the early 2000s, a time when ‘retard’, and ‘gay’ were both commonly used insults.

Now, one could argue that we didn’t use those words to describe people with disabilities or who were homosexual, that we would never have done so, but why would you argue that? Why would you want to continue using language that is hurtful to groups of people who are already marginalised in our society?

Why would you insist on your right to use ‘retard’ as a synonym for ‘lame’ or demand that ‘faggot’ remained uncensored in a 30-year-old Christmas song when rates of suicide amongst LGTBQ+ teenagers are so high because of fears they will be rejected if they reveal their true sexual identity? And it’s easy to say “it was a different time back then” when people criticise said lyrics or comment on how dated some of the storylines in Friends seem now, but that’s the point.

It is a different time now.

And we need different ways of using language to reflect those changes. Language has always evolved, as anyone who has ever wrestled with an Old English edition of Beowulf will attest, and it will continue to do so.

There is little point in fighting over why it’s acceptable to say ‘people of colour’ but unacceptable to say ‘coloured people’; there are various excellent, historical reasons for that preference but in the end, all we need to know that is the first term is what people of colour have said they prefer and we need to honour that.

The same goes for pronouns/names used by trans-people or those identifying as non-binary. A friend of mine made this analogy — if you met a man named William and he told you his nickname was Liam and that’s what he wanted to be called, you wouldn’t think twice about it.

You would also understand that it would be rude to continue calling him William if he specifically asked you not to do so. Why is it so impossible to understand when people ask you to use certain language to describe their lives, experiences, gender?

If you’re white or straight or cisgender, society may have led you to believe that all that matters is how you feel, that your identity is the ‘normal’ one, and that you’re entitled to say whatever you want, regardless of who you offend or upset. In a new, fairer culture, we must accept that is simply not the case and the language we use must reflect that. This isn’t about us, and we can’t make it be about us any longer.

Ireland has changed rapidly over the last 20 years. I’m sure it’s easy to feel as if you’re being left behind and I know many of us are afraid of getting in trouble for saying the wrong thing.

Of course, there needs to be room for mistakes, room for us to learn and to grow. But there also needs to be a willingness to learn, a desire to make language — and thus the world — a more inclusive space for everyone, not just people who look like us.

Louise Says:

Listen: Lily Allen’s memoir, My Thoughts Exactly.

The audiobook is read by Allen herself, and is searingly honest.

Watch: I’m very late to the party with this but I’ve just discovered The Doireann Project on RTÉ Player.

Written by Fiona Looney, the sketches are brought to life by Doireann Garrihy with rapier-like wit.

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