Over the course of teaching college for the past dozen years, and through my own many missteps, I have come to see it as a basic rule of decency that as much as possible, people should be called whatever they prefer to be called. I have seen this rule of thumb proven helpful in many kinds of conversations across substantial differences.
For example, I have seen it in dialogues between baptized Catholics who are at different points on the theological/political spectrum, where one needs to refer to the other as s/he would wish to be called -- surrendering epithets like "conservative Catholic" or "cafeteria Catholic" in favor of simply "Catholic," or whatever one's conversation partner prefers.
I have seen this act of decency make a difference in dialogues about abortion, where people are not allowed to refer to each other with appellations like "anti-life" or "anti-choice," but need to use the term that the other would use to describe her/himself.
And I have seen it often in the classroom, where it is important to let people define whether they would like to be called "Deacon," "Sister," "Father," "Brother," "Doctor," "Professor" -- or something else.
Of course, in a great many cases, letting adults specify the way they want to be addressed is not only a matter of decency, but also of dignity. This is especially the case where a part of oneself, or even something like one's entire being, has not been acknowledged in situations where it mattered, and where people could have done differently.
So it was that I received word that a community of students where I teach, at Fordham, recently announced some good news about the dignity of recognition. This week, the Rainbow Alliance announced that discussions with administrators had led to the official acceptance of the word "Queer" as a legitimate designation for groups at the university. The announcement, from the students, is here. If you read it, you can see that a range of student groups were involved in advocating for this development.
The word "queer," which began as a form of hateful speech against persons deemed to be outside heterosexual norms/practices, and who were therefore deemed "abnormal," has been appropriated by many LGBT-identified persons, and allies, as a positive term.
As a positive term, it has many meanings, including naming a whole area of academic thought/research that has emerged in the last two decades, queer theory, and which has proven influential in many fields--including religious studies, and, to a lesser extent, theology.
Among many other meanings, queer means the dignity of speaking for one's own identity and desires outside the expectations and constraints of what presents itself in many areas of life as the obligation to be (or become) "straight." This often quiet revolution is happening in uneven, but sure, ways across Catholic college and university life in the USA. I support and am proud of these Fordham students and of Fordham administrators for opening up a new stage of recognition regarding realities that are, to be sure, needful of naming, but about which much more is at stake than only names.
Are there places in your life/work/church situation where there is room for improvement about what people are called? It can be a learning process for everyone, especially for those whose cultural/religious privilege has allowed them to be called what they would like most of the time, and who are free to call others what they think is best, without rejoinder.
UPDATE 22:05, 7 October 2012: The link above to the original announcement is currently down. As I understand it, the announcement will be re-posted. When I learn of the new posting, I'll provide the link to it.
UPDATE 22:37, 8 October 2012: An earlier announcement about the intent of the initiative was posted here.