*First post in a series on language, so please be patient and know there’s much more to be said about LGBTQ language. We’ll take the conversation one step at a time!
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to talk to my grandparents now that I’m all grown up.
The last conversations I had with them, I was just a kid, so we’d have a lot of catching up to do.
After we all got over the initial euphoria, the sheer joy of seeing each other again after all these years, I’d probably start by showing them pictures of the moments they missed, and of all the new kids we have in the family. Pictures stored on my laptop.
“What’s a laptop?” they might say.
Because we didn’t have ‘laptops’ or any kind of computer when my grandfather died in 1969.
In the same way that ‘texting’ wasn’t a part of my mom’s vocabulary before she passed away only four years ago.
And if you’d asked her to ‘google’ something, I can just hear her saying, “do what?”
Not too long ago those words either didn’t exist, or meant something different.
Language is constantly evolving, adapting to our needs, to the environment in which we live, and the advancements we achieve as a society. Every year words are added to the dictionary and definitions are adjusted to better fit the ways in which we use language.
There’s no denying that the meaning of words changes over time. Here’s one reason why.
We derive meaning for words from two sources: denotative meanings – a definition we can look up in the dictionary – and connotative meanings – thoughts and feelings that we attach to language based on experiences with a particular word or phrase.
For instance, when we hear the word ‘dog,’ two types of meaning become apparent. First, the dictionary definition, or a four-legged canine animal, etc., and second, the individual meaning that we attach based on our very personal experiences with a dog. The feelings that may arise when we encounter that word, then, may be positive, negative, or neutral, depending on our experiences.
Imagine trying to create a connection with a new friend talking about childhood pets with someone who was bitten by a dog as a child, resulting in a tremendous fear of dogs. Simply hearing the word ‘dog’ may conjure up all kinds of difficult emotions, therefore a sensitive conversation partner, upon learning of the painful experience, will alter the way he or she talks about dogs around the new friend. A simplistic example of the complexity of language, but nonetheless the example illustrates that while words have concrete, objective meanings, they also have very personal, subjective meanings as well.
That’s why it’s important to understand the meaning of language, not only from a dictionary, but even more importantly from our conversation partners. Otherwise we may totally misunderstand each other.
And close a door to building a relationship that’s really important to us.
Consider some examples of language within the LGBTQ community. (More about the LGBTQ+ acronym in a later post)
Take the word, ‘gay,’ for instance. It meant something very different to me when I was a kid. I first heard it in the Flintstones’ cartoon theme song and it meant ‘happy.’ To this day there’s a part of me that hears “gay” and instantly pictures that ridiculous stone-wheeled car with Fred and Wilma in the front seat and Barney and Betty in the backseat, singing at the top of their lungs, “We’ll have a gay old time!”
But somewhere along the way – high school, college, young adulthood in the 1970s and ‘80s – the meaning of the word changed for me.
The word ‘gay’ came to mean someone who was homosexual, or as we’ve come to say more recently in the Christian realm, “experiences same sex attraction” (more about the use of this language in a later post). And there was something about the way the word was used in the broader context that implied sexual promiscuity. During that time of my life, if I heard someone described as gay, I automatically thought that meant the person was sexually active.
A lot of people thought that, and we didn’t just dream that up. Historically, a sexual connotation has long been associated with the word, ‘gay.’ (See etymology)
But here’s the thing – it doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone today.
I know plenty of Christians who identify as gay, some of whom are committed to a life of celibacy (i.e., Wesley Hill has written extensively on identifying as a gay Christian). The word gay refers to a broader description of oneself that includes how we see ourselves, how we relate to others emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, in addition to who we’re more naturally drawn to in relationships. Physical intimacy is only a part of that.
Occasionally I talk to people, particularly Christians, who are sincerely deeply troubled by someone identifying as gay, not understanding the ways in which the word has come to be used today. Instead of talking more and seeking to understand, sadly they’ve opted to allow one word to close the door to meaningful relationship for both of us.
Saying you’re gay doesn’t mean you’re sexually active.
Yes, it might very well mean that to some.
But not to everyone.
If I were to hang on to the meaning that I’m most familiar with – the meaning that evolved during my young adulthood that says someone who identifies as gay is automatically promiscuous – I could make some assumptions that aren’t necessarily true about someone. Allowing those assumptions to shut down conversations and damage a relationship before we ever got started. I don’t want that to happen. That’s why I rely on my younger friends to keep me informed as to how language within the LGBTQ experience is continuing to emerge.
Because I care deeply about communicating with younger generations.
My grandparents aren’t here to have a real conversation with anymore. I can imagine sitting down with them at their kitchen table, though, and telling them what I’ve learned about myself in the last 20 years. I can’t imagine them not being willing to listen.
And of course, they’d want to learn the name of that new-fangled gadget that had all those pictures of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
A word they weren’t familiar with before.
But they’d be certain to learn any word that better connected them to their grandchildren.