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My thoughts on imaginary lesbianism - Her Most Regal Majesty, the Queen of Snark — LiveJournal
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My thoughts on imaginary lesbianism
Thanks for sharing your views in the last poll. It confirmed something that I honestly hadn't suspected. There's a sizeable minority of people who believe that people have a right to self-label their sexuality.

Here's the problem I have with that position. The primary purpose of language is communication. If the way you use a word is confusing and contradictory to the majority of people who you use it to, then you are failing to communicate, and while in some sense you still have a "right" (oh how I hate that word) to label as you wish, you are being counter-productive by doing that.

Let's take our example one step further. I have known men (not MtF transsexuals - those are called "women") who self-define as "lesbians trapped in a man's body". Often this is jokey, but just occasionally I get the impression that the person saying it is genuinely serious. They like being men, are happy to have a willy, but in some sense self-define as "female".

Now clearly some people would defend their right to self-define this way. I'm not really wanting to get into a detailed discussion of the politics of gender-queer here, but offer this up as a more extreme example of (in my opinion, incorrectly) self-defining as lesbian without any real justification for so doing. Yes in some sense if they feel that way I can in no way stop them from self-defining in that way. I do, however, feel it is within my rights to mock and deride them for interpreting the word "lesbian" in a way so radically different from what the vast majority of people understand the word to mean as to be making themselves patently absurd by so doing.

In just the same way I reserve the right to mock and deride fish-eating "vegetarians". (Although in the latter case I feel more personally involved, since their misappropriation of the word actually causes me personal inconvenience in the form of people providing fish-based "vegetarian alternatives". Doubtless were I a lesbian, I would be more annoyed by people who don't match the consensus definition of the word self-defining in that way.)

What am I getting at here? Language is not your bitch. It does mutate, but you can't make it mutate on your own just because you're unsatisfied with the way it currently works. I should not define "ballerina" as "someone who sits on their fat arse all day typing bollocks into LiveJournal" and redefine myself as a ballerina, because *no-one else will understand what I have done* and it will make communication with me more difficult.

Relativism has its place. Consensus use of language is not that place. At best you will confuse people, at worst you will offend them.

Now I cannot stop anyone self-defining as lesbian to their heart's content, and don't even want to. However if you choose to do so, you must be prepared to accept the consequences. If I don't have a "right" to tell you not to define as lesbian, you don't have a "right" to tell me not to define you as not a lesbian. Also I will regard you as silly.
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j4 From: j4 Date: November 8th, 2007 04:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
As a lesbian toaster I completely hatstand with your views.
sesquipedality From: sesquipedality Date: November 8th, 2007 04:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
Argh, j4 has been kidnapped by a lesbian toaster!

We should do lunch again soon. Not seen you in way too long.
ar_gemlad From: ar_gemlad Date: November 8th, 2007 04:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
More thoughts (my thought processes have been quite random today, so this might actually contradict what I said earlier!):

She has a 'right' to call herself lesbian (I also dislike the word 'right') - assuming she wants other lesbians to think she's available, if you see what I mean. If she called herself bisexual but then turned every man down then that would be a miscommunication.

Again, I still don't see why you'd want to label yourself something which isn't relevant because of a relationship - it's like saying I'm interested in men on Facebook, whereas really I'm only interested in my husband.
Saying that though, sexual preferences are seen as more defining to some people than they do to me.
sesquipedality From: sesquipedality Date: November 8th, 2007 04:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
But but but ... sexuality says nothing about availability. It just says what you like. If a married man told me he was heterosexual I wouldn't assume he wanted to sleep with anyone other than his wife.
ar_gemlad From: ar_gemlad Date: November 8th, 2007 04:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh yes - and feel free to regard me as silly whatever I state my labels to be. I reckon 'silly' is definitely a label I would apply to myself.
undyingking From: undyingking Date: November 8th, 2007 04:41 pm (UTC) (Link)

"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument,'" Alice objected.
sesquipedality From: sesquipedality Date: November 8th, 2007 04:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
queenortart From: queenortart Date: November 8th, 2007 04:45 pm (UTC) (Link)
I should not define "ballerina" as "someone who sits on their fat arse all day typing bollocks into LiveJournal" and redefine myself as a ballerina, because *no-one else will understand what I have done* and it will make communication with me more difficult.

LOL - superb!
sesquipedality From: sesquipedality Date: November 8th, 2007 04:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
Why thank you, m'dear.
the_magician From: the_magician Date: November 8th, 2007 04:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
Sadly people bend English everyday to make it mean what they want them to mean

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,' it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master - that's all.'

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. 'They've a temper, some of them - particularly verbs: they're the proudest - adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs - however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That's what I say!'

'Would you tell me, please,' said Alice, 'what that means?'

'Now you talk like a reasonable child,' said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. 'I meant by "impenetrability" that we've had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you'd mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don't mean to stop here all the rest of your life.'

'That's a great deal to make one word mean,' Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

'When I make a word do a lot of work like that,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'I always pay it extra.'

'Oh!' said Alice. She was too much puzzled to make any other remark.

sesquipedality From: sesquipedality Date: November 8th, 2007 05:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
I love that passage.

Doesn't mean I have to like people doing that or agree with them though. And the one-sidedness of saying they're allowed to pick their own meaning of a word but I'm not allowed to disagree irritates.
simont From: simont Date: November 8th, 2007 05:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
When these arguments about self-definition come up, I'm increasingly tempted to start asking people, repeatedly and to obnoxious extent, whether each occurrence of them describing somebody with a particular label means
  • "<person> falls within the generally understood definition of <label>"
  • "<person> would be happier if they personally were referred to as <label>"
  • "<person> would like the word <label> to be generally used in a way which includes them"
  • "<person> thinks the word <label> is generally used in a way which includes them"
  • "<person> considers <label> to be in some unorthodox sense the closest match to their nature/opinions/whatever out of the available labels despite not technically fitting the definition"
  • other-please-specify.
I don't like having to get all pedantic1 about basic linguistic concepts such as the verb "to be", but I often suspect that people using the language of self-identification are either unconsciously or consciously conflating several of the above concepts.

you don't have a "right" to tell me not to define you as not a lesbian

I think this has to win my Best Use of Multiple Negatives award for the week. Good work! :-)

1. Warning: may not be true.
sesquipedality From: sesquipedality Date: November 8th, 2007 05:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
*Applause* Thank you for stating that so succintly.

And thanks also for the award.
the_magician From: the_magician Date: November 8th, 2007 05:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
The thing about communication that some people forget is that it's a complex thing. And you start by having something you want to say, then you encode it into a bunch of words and send them (along with visual and vocal cues if you are face to face, without if you're only sending text) across to one or more other people, each of whom decodes the message you sent by assigning meaning to the words received based on experience, education, blind guesses and with adjustments based on the vocal and visual cues (e.g. sarcasm, inquiry, emphasis, uncertainty etc.)

So if you send me the word "vegetarian" as a meal choice, then I have my own lookup table of what that means, and that might vary if I've seen you in the past eating fish. Or if you're a Hindu I may know that vegetarian includes no eggs but milk and cheese are ok.

There are many words that have been hijacked over the years and now have either the opposite meaning, or some overloaded meaning (e.g. "gay", and given the glum homosexuals I've met from time to time, that's sometimes a singularly inappropriate term) ... for that matter "gay" seems to be gaining sway as the male equivalent of "lesbian" where I'm sure it used to be applied pretty equally to both (e.g. GLBT societies)
sesquipedality From: sesquipedality Date: November 8th, 2007 05:10 pm (UTC) (Link)
To the extent that I now find myself longing for a word that unambiguously means "male homosexual". I wish they'd reclaim the word "poofter". It has such a wonderful sound. PLBT also works.
taimatsu From: taimatsu Date: November 8th, 2007 05:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, although I do rather lean toward self-labelling I'm right with you on accepting the consequences. You can call yourself what you like, but you can't expect people to understand what you mean if it's way out of the norm for that word. So no, it's not useful, but as there is no rule-making body to define 'what is a lesbian' that the woman in question can appeal to I think borderline cases do raise this issue. .
sesquipedality From: sesquipedality Date: November 8th, 2007 05:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think we should appeal to ISO.
triskellian From: triskellian Date: November 8th, 2007 05:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
I didn't comment on the earlier post, but I'm broadly pro-self-definition (while agreeing with your point that my right to self-define in no way takes away your right to think (or even say, in some circumstances) that I'm being silly).

The trouble is that sexuality (like most of the other areas where self-definition is a relevant position) is almost all made up of grey areas. Somewhere between "has only ever been sexually interested and involved with women" and "is equally interested in, and had equal involvements with, men and women" is the boundary between lesbian and bisexual, and part of where anyone in that grey area draws the line is the importance she herself places on each piece of evidence.

Is someone who briefly fancied a man ten years ago allowed to call herself a lesbian? What about someone who once kissed a man? And so on, into the grey area. You obviously think that "having a current relationship with a man" is on one side of the line, whereas she thinks it's on the other. Most people (me included, actually) would agree with you, but we're not able to look into her head and see how she's personally weighting each data point. Maybe he's a really 'effeminate'* man, maybe all of their sex involves her fucking him with a strap-on, maybe she's thinking about other women the whole time, and this is the only way fucking a man works for her - what then? What if next year he realises that he's transexual, and starts to transition? What if after this relationship she goes back to exclusively sleeping with women; at what point does she get her lesbian cred back?

Anyway. My point is, we don't know. She knows her own sexuality far better than we do; in any case it's not a thing that's primarily defined by what you do, so while I might mock her for using lesbian, I still think it has to be something she defines for herself.

*I hate this word, and the ideas it encompasses. Nevertheless I'm afraid it's the one I need :-(

(This seems to be my 'lesbian' icon ;-)
sesquipedality From: sesquipedality Date: November 8th, 2007 05:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'd say that like stocks and shares, with sexuality past performance is not indicative of future trends. My own feeling is that current relationship status is relevant however, and this is where she falls down. I'd be far happier to call her a lesbian were she not in fact in a sexual relationship with a man at the moment.

Oh, and re "effeminate". I don't see why "feminine" wouldn't work in this context. I try to reserve "effeminate" for drag queens or nelly queers (what's the politically correct term for those these days anyway?), since their behaviour is quite stylised. (Also in the former case at least patronising and somewhat objectionable, but probably best not getting into that now.)

Edited at 2007-11-08 09:51 pm (UTC)
akcipitrokulo From: akcipitrokulo Date: November 8th, 2007 05:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
The vegetarian one irks me a lot mainly because it directly affects me - as you said, I DON'T want to be offered fish...

On a semi-related note, organic irriates me a lot. I'd find it difficult to find anything in a supermarket that isn't organic! (Possibly the trolleys if you remove the tyres, plastic seats & hand rail...)
sesquipedality From: sesquipedality Date: November 8th, 2007 05:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, while the misappropriation of "organic" is annoying to anyone with a background in chemistry, I think that these days we just have to accept that the word has multiple meanings and move on.
naath From: naath Date: November 8th, 2007 05:45 pm (UTC) (Link)
On the other hand you have to be allowed to define yourself because no-one else has the evidence - I'm bisexual but even though I'm poly I don't have a girlfriend (to go with my boyfriends); if you just asked about who I'm dating now you wouldn't know that.

Or maybe if I decided that I hate all men and am never going to date them again then I would say that I'm a lesbian so that men didn't think I was available (even if I was attracted, physically, to me).

On the other hand I think "lesbian" ought to imply "woman seeking woman" or "woman who has a girlfriend" or "woman who would be seeking woman if she were interested but isn't right now" and not include "man" or "woman seeking man".
sesquipedality From: sesquipedality Date: November 8th, 2007 05:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
Life is full of messy little edge-cases, no?
hairyears From: hairyears Date: November 8th, 2007 06:44 pm (UTC) (Link)

The other reason you have the right to apply whatever label you choose to yourself is that labels aren't about communication: they are about labelling.

I say "J's a hatstand", K hears "J's a prop for wet overcoats, a perverted thing for nurturing the smell of wet and musty wool, J's disgusting and perverted and smells of sheep".

Better that J chooses her labels, then, than K. Though I am baffled as to why anyone would 'out' themselves as tall and skinny and overly-enamoured of standing around in hallways. Labels are like that: an abrogation of communication.

sesquipedality From: sesquipedality Date: November 8th, 2007 06:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
Labelling seems pointless if communication isn't the goal. I have a labelling machine. I could theoretically go and label my entire library on the basis of an arbitrary classification, like say the colour of their spine. There wouldn't be any point to doing that though, would there?
From: vyvyan Date: November 8th, 2007 06:44 pm (UTC) (Link)

Predictable linguistic comment :-)

I don't see the big problem in this case (or the vegetarianism one, for that matter; and as you know, I am vegetarian). This woman's orientation seems not to fit easily into one of the boxes English currently provides; the boxes ('lesbian', 'bisexual' etc.) also are not clearly-defined things with sharp edges, because they're like any other words in English or any other language! Unlike the ballerina example, I can't really know who a person is attracted to in general simply by observing their behaviour, so it makes sense to me to let them self-label in such an area. (Another similar area might be religious belief, or the lack of it: if a friend who observes Jewish rituals carefully at all times tells me that he is actually an atheist, I will believe him - though I might avoid mentioning it to his parents :-)

However, you and others seem troubled by the possibility of people generally using words to mean whatever they like, with an apparent result of mass miscommunication. I wouldn't worry. It doesn't happen. Historically, words tend to drift, get fuzzier round the edges, split into more than one word, merge with other words etc. in a fairly slow and gradual way, with understandable semantic steps between the stages, allowing communication to continue. If (and when) individuals use words in such dramatically differing ways that no one could discern the meaning, they will simply not be understood, and will probably revert to consensus usage or something near it. If (and when) people push the boundaries of word-meaning in a small way, there is a chance that others will adopt the usage, and eventually the meaning will change for the language as a whole, or some variety of it. Complaining about other people's perceived misuse of words (or grammar, or pronunciation, or whatever) seems to have virtually no effect on large-scale language change. So although you are of course entitled to do it, it seems entirely pointless to me.
sesquipedality From: sesquipedality Date: November 8th, 2007 06:53 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Predictable linguistic comment :-)

Ah, but I'm not complaining. I'm disagreeing.

If "lesbian" acquires the meaning discussed above via linguistic drift there's very little I can do about it (cf. "organic"). But it hasn't yet. And I don't think it should. Or will.
gin_gerkitten From: gin_gerkitten Date: November 8th, 2007 10:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
I see the points being made, but I love buggering about with language. It's there to be played with for the right effect, and to interlock with and stimulate everyone else's ideas, not to mimic them exactly.

This is not to say I won't absolutely respect someone else's right to define important elements of their identity - gender, sexuality, and race being specially relevant.

My old definition of myself was 'I'm a gay man in a lesbian's body - subject to change at short notice".

I used that to obfuscate and confuse my sexuality, because I don't really like being labelled. I will use dyke, bi, bi, queer, genderqueer, lesbian, etc, as a convenient shorthand, but in fact the only definition that covers it all is 'my sexuality', and a full account of that will take a couple of hours.

'The goats did have names ... not least, "Goat Who Is This Goat".' Equal Rites
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