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Tom BeaudoinOctober 06, 2012

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. 

Tom Beaudoin

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.

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Liam Richardson
10 years 12 months ago
I preferred the traditional practice of my undergraduate alma mater, The University of Virginia: professors and students in conversation, the one with the other, referred to each other as Mr/Mrs/Ms/Miss. No other titles. Worked very well. 
Marie Rehbein
10 years 12 months ago
Maybe this is more an effort to remove the negative connotation from the appellation than it is a desire to be called queer?
Amy Ho-Ohn
10 years 12 months ago
When I was in college, there were a bunch of guys who stayed up late every night drinking beer and came to class stinking like stale beer and vomit and completely unprepared. We called them "drunks" but they were always insisting they were really just "partyers."

Eventually my friend started going out with one of them, so I thought it would be polite to refer to him as a "partyer," at least when she could hear me. But, you know what? Calling him a partyer never made him one bit less stinky and he still flunked out.

Euphemisms are tactful, but they don't really change anything.
David Smith
10 years 12 months ago
William (#25), I apologize for not answering your question. No, ''gay'' did not until very recently have the tiniest bit of sexual meaning - at least in my personal dictionary. It was, in fact, I suspect, on its way to total disuse, a fate that befalls many words as language evolves (including ''befalls'', probably). But now, I think, it's come to mean homosexual, at least - almost certainly - for the huge majority of English speakers.

One point worth making here, I suppose, is that if you and others want ''gay'' to have a larger meaning - or, much more ambitiously, a different one - a *lot* of work is going to have to be done in the media. Right now, for the general public, it simply means ''male homosexual''. 
John Donaghy
10 years 12 months ago
I agree in large part with your position, especially when it is a case of calling people what they want to be called as a way of respecting their dignity. I also resonate with the need to identify people as they want to be known and to avoid negative epithets suchas ''anti-life'' or ''anti-choice.''

But I don't think it's always correct to call people as they want to be called.

I live in Honduras, which is a very classist society. Here if anyone has a title, many use it as a way to distinguish themselves from others. How often have I heard people addressing others as not only Profe - a teacher, Doctor - a medical doctor or one with a doctorate, licenciado - one who has a university degree, or abogado - lawyer. Even colleagues will refer to each other by titles. I myself had an expereince where  a friend called me ''Juan'' until he found out I had a doctorate and started to call me ''Doctor.'' I corrected him and he calls me ''Juan.''

This is, perhaps, a case where calling someone by their name, rather than a title, is a subversive way of affiriming the dignity of those who have no titles, no degrees.

But it is also subversive to call a campesino ''Don'' - Sir - and to insist that they call me Juan or Juancito  (or, if they want to use a title, Hermano Juancito is fine with me.)

The dignity of those on the margin is perhaps a very important issue, more than calling people by what they want to be called.

William Lindsey
10 years 12 months ago
Marie, I agree: I think that those seeking to shift public consciousness about the term "queer" have an uphill battle as they pursue this goal.  At the same time, I'd also say, having grown up in the American South during the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s, that I'd have judged back in that time frame that people of color had a steep uphill climb to shift how the culture at large spoke of them.

And yet, they did eventually and spectacularly succeed in effecting that shift.  They did so, I suspect, because fair-minded people who care about matters of justice recognized that the fundamental principle to be applied here is that stigmatized minority groups have every right in the world to name themselves and discard stigmatizing nomenclature imposed on them by others. 

I suspect if we'd have asked in, say, 1960 whether the bulk of the population would shift from the term "homosexual" to "gay" several decades down the road, we'd have concluded that this shift would hardly be likely, since prejudice against and the attempt to keep discrmination against homosexuals alive was so unrelenting in those years.

And yet look what has happened.  As Martin Luther King, Jr., rightly noted, the moral arc of history exercises a powerful tropism, even when it moves slowly. 
10 years 12 months ago
It would help to hear a little more background. For example to what extent did the campus debate reflect the fact that the word (i.e., symbol) “queer” still functions for many outside the LGBT community as prejudicial or hate speech? I understand the empowerment of self-identification by marginalized groups by means of appropriating (and thus subverting) symbols traditionally used against them, but this gets complicated when the symbol or speech in question remains a live vehicle of (self) denigration and (self) disparagement among folks in the dominant culture, or among the marginalized themselves. To state the obvious example: The fact that many African Americans routinely use the “N”–word to address each other hardly leads to the conclusion that white folks ought to (once again or continue to) employ the term. How did the Fordham debate navigate these complexities of symbolic self-identification against these histories of hate speech?
Thomas Farrell
10 years 12 months ago
Tom Beaudoin: if you are interested in a broader discussion of dignity, you might enjoy Donna Hicks' book DIGNITY: THE ESSENTIAL ROLE IT PLAYS IN RESOLVING CONFLICT (2011).
David Smith
10 years 12 months ago
Tom, how do you prefer to be addressed?  Does it depend - on the caller, the context?
Bill Mazzella
10 years 12 months ago
What I get is that a gay person is more than sex just as a straight person is more than just sex. That should not be that hard to get. 

But I would limit granted what a person wants to be called especially when it is Master, Don or Father. Those are superior terms. Except, of course, with one's natural father. 
William Lindsey
10 years 12 months ago
I like your point and how you formulate it, Prof. Beaudoin: "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 agree.  This was a point driven home to me as I came of age during the Civil Rights period in the American South.  

As Wendell Berry points out in his book The Hidden Wound, and as Lillian Smith points out in her book Killers of the Dream, we white Southerners long used demeaning linguistic structures and terminology to reinforce our sense of superiority over people of color.  Even as we patted ourselves on the back and told ourselves that some of the terms we used to identify African Americans were "nice" . . . .

One of the most difficult shifts those of us schooled in these linguistic strategies of racial etiquette (and racial domination) had to make in the Civil Rights period was to begin listening to how people of color chose to name themselves.  And then to follow suit.  And to recognize that those we had claimed the right to name had every right to name themselves, and to ask that we follow suit.

I have long noted the preferential use of the term "homosexual" among some Catholics and other people of faith, even years after many of us who are gay have asked that we be called gay or queer.  I have come to the conclusion that, sadly, the contiuatiuon of the term "homosexual" by some people of faith long after the gay or queer community has asked that this term be discarded is a deliberate statement of disrespect.

It also strikes me as a deliberate attempt to keep alive demeaning assumptions that all LGBT people are about, in the final analysis, is sex.
William Lindsey
10 years 12 months ago
Marie, I have some thoughts in response to the question you ask at #19.  I'm not privy to the dialogue process that has gone on at Fordham and surely can't speak to the reasons the Fordham community took the step that it took.  I'm assuming (and please correct me if I'm wrong) that the "this" in your question refers to Fordham's decision.

Though I can't speak to the specifics of the Fordham decision, I've followed discussions of this topic in the gay community in general.  And I have two thoughts, based on what I know of those discussions:

1. In minority communties, it's sometimes a good-even a healing-political step to appropriate a word that has been used as a slur against you and stand it on its head.  I spent some 15 years teaching in historically black universities, and often heard the N word used in precisely that way by my African-American friends and colleagues.  Defang a word that has been used to hurt and wear it proudly as a badge, even as you continue to contest the use of the word by those using it with a specific desire to demean . . . .

2. The acronym often used both by the secular media and by many people in the gay community-LGBT or LGBTQ-is cumbersome and off-putting to many people.  The word "queer" provides, in the view of many people, an acceptable shorthand way to refer to a community of broad and sometimes disparate coalitions.  (It also has the advantage, some folks think, of not excluding transgendered people from the "gay" community-something that often happens when gay folks speak about ourselves, our community, and our experiences.)  My thoughts for what they're worth . . . .

Crystal, thanks for the greeting, which I return!  Good to hear from you. 
David Smith
10 years 12 months ago
Mm, Mr. (Mr.?) Lindsey, if lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered aren't terms of sexuality, how would you describe them?  It seems to me that they're almost uniquely about sex.  How am I misguided in thinking that?
Marie Rehbein
10 years 12 months ago
Thank you, William, for your response.  I hope that using the term queer works as intended.  I would worry, though, that many people in the larger community outside of Fordham would not want it applied to them.  My impression is that the there is only a very small segment of LGBT community that could be called queer according to the commonly used definition of the word; no larger than the percentage of unusual people who are also heterosexual.  It might catch on, like the term gay has, but in the meantime, it could be confusing.  By contrast, the term N- has only ever meant one thing.
Marie Rehbein
10 years 12 months ago
It seems to me that calling people what they want to be called is OK, but given that the term queer was until recently insulting, it seems to me that it will take a period of queer people calling themselves queer before it becomes comfortable for the average person to use that term for people they respect.
Michael Barberi
10 years 12 months ago
Another issue is name calling as socially constructed by the RCC. Those who disagree with some Church teachings have been called by the heirarchy and their theological defenders of the faith as: Dissenters, Revisionists, the Invincibly Ignorant, the Misguided, the Unfaithful, those Infected with the Ills of the Secular Age, Liberals, Individualists, Relativists, Cafeteria Catholic..among others. For that matter, those that agree with all Church teachings are sometimes referred to as: Traditionaiists, Orthodox, Assenters, and the Enlightened Faithful. 

Catholics who disagree and agree don' like the name calling because such descriptons don't capture the essence of their convictions, character or faith. Such names are often degrogatory and demeaning either implicitly or explicity. 

It is not healthy or respectful, nor does it move the conversation forward when theologians and clergy use inappropriate and degrogatory terms of name calling, and especially when a pope or bishop uses them.  

The only answer I have to these issues, is for all of us to strive to abide by the ephigram that many attribute to Augustine:

In necessary things unity, in doubtful things liberty, but in all things love.

William Lindsey
10 years 12 months ago
Brother David, I hope you won't mind my replying to your question with another one: how is the term "gay" "almost uniquely about sex"?

I'll grant that anything having to do with gay life, culture, and people connotes sex in the minds of some folks, and that there are folks obsessed with tagging their gay brothers and sisters as all about sex, but, stiil: how is the term "gay" "almost uniquely about sex"?

And what would you like to be called, by the way? 
Tim O'Leary
10 years 12 months ago
Within the bounds of truth and logic, I am in favor of calling people by the name they prefer (so, it would be William, and not Will or Bill, if that's what they want). But I would not want to call a person ''doctor'', even if they wanted to, if they didn't have a doctorate or MD. Affirmative action laws have also produced some ridiculous self-identification hi-jinks. When Elizabeth Warren, Democratic senate candidate in Mass, claimed to be 1/32nd ''Native American'' (maybe she isn't even that), it was obvious to most that 1/32nd is a stretch.

Sometimes it is pure nonsense. There was a case in the news where a transgendered person did not want to be called Mr. or Ms. I have heard sports commentators refer to black soccer players as ''African-Americans'' even when they never set foot in America (e.g. born and raised in Europe). What do we do with terrorists, if they want to be called freedom fighters?

There is sometimes a power objective in changing the name, so that a periodic change of a name distinguishes the acceptable crowd from the unacceptable. Mussolini used this tactic, so his supporters could always distinguish who wasn't with them when they spoke. The term black replaced ''colored'' as a step up in self-recognition, catching middle-aged 1950s folks off guard. Then African-American displaced black. The term ''people-of-color'' greatly expanded the group, basically being a term of exclusion against white Europeans.

Homosexual is the medical term, whereas ''gay'' was appropriated to make it sound better (the ''gay nineties'' means something different). But, I think the switch to the ''queer'' word is an unwise PR move, as it will always need some qualification.

I will look to see if the proposed civility argument extends those on the right side of politics, so the Tea Party members are called just that, or the evangelicals are not called fundamentalists.
Sandi Sinor
10 years 12 months ago
#7 - Mr. Smith

Since "William" is a non-ambiguous male name, what is the point you are trying to make with this?

" Mm, Mr. (Mr.?) Lindsey.."
William Lindsey
10 years 12 months ago
Thank you, Sandi-very much appreciated.
William Lindsey
10 years 12 months ago
Mr. O'Leary, you write, "Homosexual is the medical term, whereas 'gay' was appropriated to make it sound better (the 'gay nineties' means something different)."

I think this overlooks an important point that seems to me to flow from Professor Beaudoin's statement, "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."

To me, the point is this: people who belong to subcultures or minority groups that have historically been treated as less than and other than have a right to define themselves.  African Americans had a right to insist on naming the African-American experience and themselves for themselves, after centuries of having had their identiies and names imposed by the dominant culture.

I think the same process has been at work in the choice of gay or queer folks to rename ourselves.  The clinical term "homosexual" was imposed by the scientific community on us.  Now, quite some time after many gay people have discarded this imposed scientific term and have asked others to respect that choice, the term "homosexual" is now used by preference by many people of faith who do not want to accord basic respect and decency to those who are gay, and who wish to reduce the lives and personhood of those who are gay to sexuality.

Saying that gay people have chosen to call ourselves gay "to make it sound better" rather misses the point, it seems to me.  The point is that historically marginalized communities have a right to name themselves.

And, as Professor Beaudoin notes, that it's a matter of mere decency to use the terms people use to describe themselves, insofar as we're able. 
Amy Ho-Ohn
10 years 12 months ago
The danger here is that people (e.g. Fordham) could be deluded into tacitly conceding what they do not believe to be true in an effort to buy a quick and easy peace from sophomoric melodrama.

The term "homosexual" is descriptive. It is used to denote a certain set of acts and the people who engage in them. It includes both those who believe their acts to be morally acceptable and those who acknowledge that the act is not morally acceptable.

Use of the term "gay" assumes an underlying political-social ideology, which Fordham and the Church believe to be false. It assumes that humans have "sexual orientations" which make permissible or even desirable acts which the Church teaches are always wrong; that people are "born that way" and that the various "sexual orientations" are more or less comparable or even equivalent; and that they do not expect to outgrow those inclinations and do not intend to resist them.

When students announce they are "gay," they are implicitly making two statements about themselves. That they have inclinations to commit homosexual acts and also that they think those acts are morally permissible. This is why Fordham should not use the term "gay." Use of the term "gay" implies rejection of Church teaching on the subject of human sexuality.

Most likely, the term "queer" is an attempt to finesse this distinction. It is often meant to denote a wider range of behavior than simply homosexual acts and it does not ordinarily imply that those behaviors are not consciously chosen.

The desire not to offend people is laudable. But the inclination to do bad things should not be excused by calling it an "orientation." Muggers do not have a "mugging orientation" and it is not an offense to human dignity to make rules that there will be no mugging club allowed on campus, no department of mugging studies and no acts of mugging permitted in the dorms.
Crystal Watson
10 years 12 months ago
Names have a certain power.  Sometimes people give somone a name because they want to "put them in their place" ..... some peple call the Roma "gypsies" though the term is disparaging, or some pro-life people refer to those who are pro-choice as "pro-abortion" though that title isn't accurate.  People shouldn't let others define them.  It's respectful to address LGBT people as they wish to be addressed and I think that's what should be done.
Crystal Watson
10 years 12 months ago
PS - hi William  :)
Thomas Rooney OFS
10 years 12 months ago
Amy - you're equating homosexuality with the inclination to mug?  Really??
David Smith
10 years 12 months ago
Sigh. William, I'm going to wimp out of this discussion. No offense, please, but it just feels so silly.
William Lindsey
10 years 12 months ago
David, thanks for your comment to me at #23.  

You say you're going to "wimp out" of a discussion that strikes you as "silly."

And I have to say in response that I'm rather surprised to hear you and I have been having a discussion.

I replied to your comment at #7 with a comment and a direct question to you at #9.

But unless your reply to me was somehow censored, I never heard back from you until #23-when you tell me we've been having a discussion?!

I think perhaps your definition of "discussion" and mine varies as widely as the things we regard as silly.
William Lindsey
10 years 12 months ago
Marie, thanks for your reply.  I agree that there may well be downsides to the choice to speak of the LGBT community as the queer community.  Having experienced the sting of being identified as "queer" at such a young age in my own sheltered adolescence that I didn't even know what the word meant, I personally still struggle with this term.

I'd argue, though, that this is a choice that the community itself needs to work out.  To me, a fundamental principle here is that historically marginalized communities have a right to name themselves.

Personally, based on my experience teaching some 15 years in HBCUs, I don't think I agree that the N- word has only "ever meant one thing."

I've seen situations in which words used to denigrate and oppress others are appropriated by the people whose humanity the words were intended to diminish, and are then used proudly and even defiantly to reassert humanity.  I've heard the N- word used in just that sense by colleagues and friends in the African-American community.

It makes a world of difference who is using what appelations for what reasons-or so it seems to me. 
Marie Rehbein
10 years 12 months ago

A difference between the situation HBCU and this at Fordham...

It seems the students at Fordham do not simply apply the adjective queer to themselves among themselves, but want to formalize the use of this word so that we all get in the habit of referring to homosexual persons as queer.

Unlike N-, though, queer is an adjective in common use, while the N- word, though derived from an adjective - negro, which means black - has no other use but as a disparaging nickname.  No one uses it as an adjective to mean black. However, queer is a wonderful adjective to describe something as unusual or peculiar.

The use of the word within the community is different than its use by the general population.  While HBCU students calling themselves and one another N- might have been healing, it would still be completely unacceptable for you or me to apply that to them.  Even if they have managed to remove the power of the N word to hurt them, they have not done so by making it a neutral word in the language.

I suspect the Fordham students hope to make the noun queer into a neutral word, but I believe that, given the word's usefulness as an adjective, the effort will not have the intended result.  As you seem to be say, also, even if they succeed at Fordham and the Fordham community refers to them as queer, there are people in the larger society that will still be offended.  That I think is the problem with this.
Margaret Riordan
10 years 12 months ago
I had a mammogram screening this week. At the clinic they take great care to make women feel at ease, and one of the ways they do this is by the use of your name. On the form you fill in, they specifically ask what name you prefer to be called by, and that is what they then use. I prefer to be called by my first name, while others no doubt prefer to be called Mrs. They give us the choice, and it really does help you to feel relaxed. Margaret
William Lindsey
10 years 12 months ago
David, thank you for your reply and for answering my question about the sexual content of the word "gay," which your previous posting imputed to that term.

You say, ". . .[I]f you and others want 'gay' to have a larger meaning - or, much more ambitiously, a different one - a *lot* of work is going to have to be done in the media. Right now, for the general public, it simply means 'male homosexual'. 

And I have to admit, I'm astonished that you seem to think there's still a *lot* of work to do to persuade people in general that the gay community would prefer to be called gay or queer instead of "homosexual."

There's superabundant evidence that that particular cultural shift has long since occurred, and it places religious communities that doggedly insist on the tag "homosexual" because they wish to stigmatize and denigrate their gay brothers and sisters in a wee bit of a culture bubble.

Perhaps inside that bubble you imagine that most people, including most Catholics, continue to think as you do about these issues, David, but you're quite simply wrong.  And it takes very little research to demonstrate this.

Churches that decide to live in little sequested purist arrangements apart from the larger world tend to lose their ability to speak coherently or effectively to that larger world-which they no longer even seek to understand, since they, as churches, imagine they own unilateral and absolute truth, as they consign the evil world to hell.

This has not typically been the approach of Catholicism at its best. 
Mike Brooks
10 years 12 months ago
You can name a group whatever you want, but as long as the group's membership characteristics remains relatively static, the name is not going to change public perception of the group; so what's the point of the name change if it changes nothing but the name? 

Personally, I think that the formation and labeling of groups based on minority characteristics just makes them adverse to assimilation which can breed resentment and even ridicule by the majority.  Such groups tend to create subcultures that expand the minority characterstics beyond the original singular characteristic.  Thus, "gay" not only means men who are attracted to people of the same sex, but it also means men who talk with a lisp, wear make-up, are fashion conscious, neat, like to shop, are sexually obsessed, etc...  So now you've created this group whose name stands for a bunch of things that aren't characteristic of large numbers of people in the group; and those members are challenged with overcoming those stereotypes on a daily basis. 

If you want to talk about dignity, then you should talk about the dignity of people making all sorts of assumptions about you based on a label, be it "gay," queer," or "LGBT."  Activists who create groups with labels seem to want to ioslate themselves from the rest of society; that's unfair to those who just want to live amongst the rest of us without being judged for that which they are not.  I think that many people with same-sex attraction adopt the "gay culture" because that's what being "gay" dictates, but that many more just want to live "normal" lives. 

If the goal is to fight discrimination against people who have same-sex attraction then the better solution is to form groups made up of diverse individuals with a common belief, i.e., that discrimination on the basis of sexual attraction is wrong.  If the goal is to isolate, then continue with group formation based on the common traits of the members and isolationist labels.

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