Friday, February 22, 2008

Not "gays" but "gay people"

In my research, I've been told that gay people often have an eagle eye for detail when it comes to articles and speech made about them, sieving out the innuendos, implications, suggestions, tone and intention of such texts.

They want to see the situatedness of the text, the context from which it came and the context in which it is presented. From here, the text becomes political; the text becomes a battlefield. There are masterminds and generals (the authors) in this battlefield.

When you subvert dominant discourses, you need to know the direction and the frame of reference from which you will create your subversive discourse. If you want to confront gender inequality, which may be championed and perpetuated by one text/narrative, you have to first extract the aspects and signs of gender inequality that lie within the text - i.e. that particular narrative that suggests gender inequality. The dominant narrative in the text is made salient by the frame of reference you used. And of course, in comes the convenient usage of binary opposition, where you go against the grain of the dominant narrative and create your own subversive discourse.

News in Singapore often refer to sexual minorities as "gays", "lesbians" and "bisexuals". These words are nouns. This is in contrast with the usage of the words as adjectives, as in "gay person/man", "lesbian person/woman" and "bisexual man/woman/person".

So, why do the mainstream media use these words as nouns?

Before we can answer that, we need to know the implications of such usage.

To call a gay person just a "gay" is to conflate, dumb down, dilute his identity, reducing it to just sexuality. "Gay" as used as an adjective, describes only one aspect of a person's identity. After all, one's identity does not only consist one trait.

It is a mechanism for heterocentric society to categorise and label the "other" or the "outsider", which translates to the naturalisation of language, for example the naturalisation of "gay" and "lesbian" as nouns. When society becomes comfortable with such a use of language, it will think in a certain way.

Language is not neutral, and neither is its usage. Language creates reality for us, while its usage frames its. A host of narratives is present in its usage. When you refer to sexual minorities as "gays" and "lesbians", you are selecting a narrative, a framework for your discourse, whether consciously or unconsciously.

What sexual minority rights advocates should be concerned with is the unconscious usage of these terms, rather than the conscious. The unconscious consumption and subscription to ideology pose the most difficult obstacles for self-reflexivity/reflection. A person will, due to ignorance, buy into the narrative and its accompanying ideology and eventually internalise it. "Gays" and "lesbians" then no longer become people, but dehumanised things, and this shapes discourse to a large extent. How then are you going to discuss equal rights for a "people" that do not exist?

Visibility (for minorities for example) is always an important ingredient for civil rights, but I feel that visibility has to be carefully articulated by a careful selection of vocabulary/language. The visibility of sexual minorities is enframed by the rhetoric of the economic imperative and the kind of language as mentioned above, where "gay" and "lesbian" are used as nouns. Such a frame that has been created, will be inevitably adopted by civil society and rights advocates.

If the institution uses and prescribes a certain set of rhetoric, narratives and socio-cognitive/ideological frameworks, society will follow suit. This is how "common sense" and logic become moulded. To connect with society, you will have to use the same framework and language to communicate, and in the process internalise the rhetoric.

I brought up this topic in a recent conversation with Alex Au. He said he favoured a more conservative usage of the word "gay", as in etymologically "conservative, where "gay" is an adjective. By using "gay" as an adjective for a noun like a person/man/woman, you are consciously describing one aspect of a person, rather than reduce him/her to a mere sexual identity/orientation if you used it as a noun.

The "gay" is homosexual. That's it. Very simplified. Using "gay" as a noun, legitimises sanctions, disincentivisations, disciplinary mechanisms against gay people. The "gay" may be a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen, but such a label will allow for such discrimination, as if he/she is inferior, a lesser being, a criminal, worthy of ridicule, ostracism, marginalisation and maybe recorrection. You are punishing the "gay", not the person/citizen/human being. The "gay" person is a person who is among many other things/interests/descriptions, gay.

I feel there needs to be a shift from the usage of "gay" and "lesbian" as nouns to adjectives for sexual minority rights to be properly recognised and respected. By adding man/woman/citizen/person/people after "gay", you are implying that these people form part of society, the economy and culture.

People will think differently, as according to the linguistic framework they are part of. A conservative use of language in this case will lead to a change in the socio-cognitive framework of individuals in society.


budwisest said...

ow, my head hurts.

youve given me, a gay person, some thing to think about. hmm.

- tim

Sam Ho said...

people/society do the defining, but the person does the redefining.

"gay" is just one of many other identities that are marginalised to various extents, subjected to various matrices of inequalities.

solving inequality is not the recommendation, but rather we should be aware of the inequalities that surround us and that are internalised by us.

Leon Koh said...

oh.. I am just being myself, a good son, good buddies to many, a respected uncle, and a property broker who happens to be gay... a term to define me/the group I belong to, well.. remains as a term.. it's just like dates are nothing more than numbers

it's more about self worth and respect than to what others do to define me/us

Sam Ho said...

i totally agree