December 15, 2008

Framing Your Words

 Concolor, Java's spousal unit aka Superman, asked a good question in his comment on "After The Rallies, Then What?" He wanted to know how a straight ally might also promote gay rights. Here's a distillation of a part of the presentation I made to my pastors, talking about strategy.

A "frame" is a way of looking at an issue. There are several frames from which to choose when talking about gay rights, and all of them are viable for different audiences: politics (civil rights), religion (what the Bible says), and families (the stories of the GLBT community). In reaching the straight, uninformed population, it is the frame of "families" that will be most effective. Straight people need to hear stories and put faces to the reasons behind why we need to fully embrace the gay community, in civil rights and in church.

Before I go further, let's address terminology. There are words that are hot buttons that need to be avoided. As my husband and I discuss the issues, we have reached a terminology truce: I may not say "homophobia" and he may not say "agenda." As funny as that sounds, it does make us think of new ways to express ideas which carry a great deal of negative weight and trigger an emotional reaction. We all must do our best to avoid these hot buttons.

There are other words that the Religious Right has co-opted and now carry a negative connotation to the GLBT community. Because we have no desire to be associated with their message, we must not use their terms.  The word "homosexual" has in the past year or so taken on the status of a pejorative, almost equivalent to the word "fag." In any case, it is a clinical term at best. We must avoid using it in talking with our friends. Instead, use the words "gay," "lesbian," "bisexual," and "transgender" as adjectives only and not as nouns. Talk about PEOPLE who are gay, people who are lesbian, people who are bi, and people who are transgender. After all, they are people first, and their orientation/gender identity is secondary to their personhood.

A note about the word "transgender." You will see it everywhere with -ed added to it. That is an incorrect usage of the word. It is an adjective, not a verb or a noun; it is not something you do to someone and it is not a thing. You may find that using it properly as an adjective will form a different picture in your mind about these individuals. If you have a friend who has confused "transgender" with "transsexual," consider this: "sex" is male or female; "gender" is quality of femaleness or maleness (often applied to nouns in other languages). "Sex" is biological; "gender" is psychological.

In discussing whole populations, you can talk about the GLBT community or gay community. I've seen the acronym LGBT used equally, with a "ladies first" appeal. It's easier to say GLBT aloud, for what it's worth. The phrase "gay community" is interchangeable with GLBT in most cases, and it is more easily accepted since it has fewer political connotations and is self-defined.

Equally loaded terms are "lifestyle" and "family values." If you find yourself leaning toward using those expressions, use descriptions instead. Understand that "lifestyle" implies choice. It is an appropriate term for behaviors but not for inborn qualities. Don't even approach anything that could be mistaken for "family values." The phrase is so corrupt that it brings forth a rush of emotion from just about anyone on either side of the issue.

The sentiment "Love the sinner, hate the sin" is an example of false piety that elevates the one who believes it above her intended target of so-called love. It is an example of barely-concealed condescension and must be avoided, much like "tolerance." Do not mistake tolerance for acceptance. If you tolerate me, you find something about me that is unpleasant but bearable. I am not an ill-fitting shoe to be tolerated for the sake of fashion. I am not a boisterous child to be tolerated because I don't know any better. I am a fully-human being. Lovingly tolerate my bad habits, my mistakes, and my annoying idiosyncrasies; but my sexuality and gender identity are who I am—who God made me to be—to be accepted and respected as a child of God, just as I accept and respect you.

When I was struggling with Biblical interpretations, it was my desire to understand difficult passages in a way that is consistent with my understanding of the nature of God. Being forgiven and loved in all of my complex brokenness, how could God select me and not someone else? My brother who was gay is loved every bit as much as I am. That informs my interpretation as much as the context in which the passages were written, and they are in agreement. Knowing my brother and his friends, however briefly, helped inform my understanding of the Word.

Now that we have the language and the frame, how do we put forth these ideas? I use the stories of people I've met and those I've read on the web from personal blogs. When someone asks about gay marriage, I tell them the story of Jake in Chicago; there is hardly a more poignant cry for why we need marriage equality. (Please note that I said "we" and not "they." It is in everyone's interest for this couple and those like them to be married.) When the topic of gay adoption arises—perhaps with a push from me—I tell the story of Ron and Kevin in NC, who adopted four siblings no one else would adopt together as a family. Again, it is in everyone's best interests for these men and others like them to be able to adopt. When I want someone to understand why our churches must open their doors and arms, I tell them of the incredible young woman who was cruelly rejected by her mother and found a loving home in her church.

Learn the stories and tell them. Talk about people who are GLBT as family. They are our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters, our fathers and mothers. They ARE family, yours and mine, and it's time we welcomed them home.


tornwordo said...

That was so well stated. You really know your stuff. I vote for you to be the nation's cultural moderator.

Java said...

I second Tornwordo's nomination.

Thank you for this essay. It helps. I hope it helps lots and lots.

Sooo-this-is-me said...

Me three Birdie!

Bandana Jack said...

thanks for including lifestyle in your list of faux pas. nothing sets my teeth so on edge as having my LIFE referred to as lifestyle, as if it were driving a either a porsche or a truck, or living in an apartment rather than a private home.

KittyHawk said...

You might be interested in this recent NPR discussion "The Bible on Gay Marriage" at

Greg said...

Oh, this is wonderful...and a good reminder of the power of the right words to change a situation.

You are certainly something special, aren't you, Mrs. Birdie? : )

Blessings all over you!

em said...

Hi Birdie. Torn sent me over here to read this. Thank you for writing it.

I'm going to be honest with you in the hopes that perhaps it will be another useful story for you in your work opening a dialog. I was raisted by fundamentalist Christians. It has taken me over twenty-five years to begin to understand and accept myself as a lesbian. In the meantime, in my ignorance, I married a man I deeply love. The paIn here, as we navigate what we can honestly do to address this situation is huge. I lay an enormous amount of responsibility at the feet of people who judge homosexuality, people who perpetuate the mythology that something is wrong with being gay because even now I know a young man who is denying who he is with the hope that he can make a choice to be straight and avoid the shame that has been dumped on the sexuality he was born with. As surely as we grow up and realize that we are gay, we internalize the societal belief that gay is wrong.

I'm deeply bitter towards Christians. Honestly I don't believe that most of the Christians I have known are people who deserve the respect for ethical and moral values that we as a society ascribe to them. In the last eight years as precious few Christians have publicly renounced the hateful and cynical gay bashig of Karl Rove and Rush Limbsugh, I have lost much respect for Christians as a group. I tell you this because I still believe that many people who call themselves Christian see themselves as caring people and do not understand the public relations nightmare that they have been a part of either activly or in their silence.

I probably have more to say but I'm going to stop here. I'm typing this from my iPhone and I can't see the top of what I wrote, but I didn't start with the bitter part so if the other part got lost I will come back and repost. Again I deeply appreciate your efforts here. I'm working to forgive Christianity and your actions have helped.

em said...

Hi, me again. FWIW, I wish I had noticed the typos before I posted.

evilganome said...

Thank you for this essay Birdie. Especially mentioning the word tolerate. Which I have a hard time tolerating.

I hope you are able to succeed. Even if it is a small step towards making people think, it will be a huge victory.

I appreciate what you are trying to achieve for gay men and lesbians who are still people of faith. I truly do understand how important faith is to those who believe.

My older brother is still a practicing Catholic and I think at times he really questions his faith and what the churches stance is on a number of subjects, but none the less he also feels as though his faith has helped him through a number of crisis he's experienced in his life.

I have only had determination and pure cussedness to get me through and over the rough spots, but we do what we need to do.

Thank you again.