”We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.”
What difference does it make in what way we label minority groups? When language is perpetually in flux how do we know which words or expressions we should use?
In her research Anna Vogel studies how new expressions that label groups, especially minority groups, enter the language. In this article she gives the history of the expressions LGBTQI, Romani, and ‘physically challenged persons.’ She also describes how they entered the Swedish language and discusses how labelling is connected to power.
Anna Vogel has a PhD in Nordic Languages and is a University Lecturer at the Department of Swedish Language and Multilingualism at Stockholm University. She is currently on leave of absence to work on a research project for Save the Children (Rädda Barnen).
” We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.” This was the cry of the gay activists in the streets of New York in the 1990s—hereby labelling themselves. What we call ourselves matters. What others call us also matters. It is a question of power and participation.
One research interest I have is how words and expressions enter language while other words leave it. I have studied loaded expression and specifically the labels we give minority groups. Questions I have asked are: How do new expressions enter language? Who decides what words we should use?
The words I have focused on in my research are the expressions in Swedish used for LGBTQ persons (in Swedish hbtq personer), for the Romani (romer), and for persons with disabilities (personer med funktionsnedsättning). All these expressions entered the Swedish language around year 2000, the turn of the millennium. There is a lot of attitude surrounding these words. “Today one no longer knows what one is allowed to say. What is the correct word nowadays? What is wrong with …?” Others go further and rebel by actually using the older expression, such as the exonym ‘Gypsy,’ and motivate this by saying that it does not matter which word one uses. However, words are never neutral. Had they been neutral, companies would not spend such vast amounts of money and energy in search of the right company or product name, one with many positive connotations. And parents would spend no time or energy finding a name for their child. And writers would not think twice about the title of their next text.
As regards the expression LGBTQ, it entered the Swedish language when the Swedish NGO RFSL (The National Organization for the Rights of LGBTQI Persons), which earlier only included homosexuals and bisexuals, started including also transsexual persons. This was the result of a normative change that took place during the 1990s, when the gay movement no longer wished to enhance how similar they were to everyone else, but instead pressured for the questioning of the concept ‘norm.’ In the slogan “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it” the last phrase expresses this meaning. At the start one said LGBT (hbt), which soon developed into LGBTQ (hbtq), where the LG represents homosexuals, B stands for bisexual, T for trans-persons, and Q for queer, Where the last word is a general contest of the norm. The first time LGBT was mentioned in the Swedish Press was in 2000 in RFSL’s magazine Come Out (‘Kom ut’), more specifically in Greger Ekman’s leader “Welcome to the LGBT Society” (‘Välkommen till hbt-samhället’), an article that challenges the norm.
The word Romani has a very different history. Earlier, it has sporadically been visible in Swedish literature, as in Katarina Taikon’s eponymous books about Katitzi in the 1970s and 1980s. The word originates from the Indo-European languages and means ‘human’. But it gained a more stable platform in the 1990s. During the Balkan Wars, many new Romani arrived in Sweden, and they reacted to the then current use of ‘Gypsy’ (‘zigenare’) instead of Romani. In Balkan the equivalent to ‘Gypsy’ was regarded as discriminating and was never used officially. When the new Romani arrivals to the country saw the sign ‘Gypsy Consultant’ on doors in the corridors of power, it was received as an insult. These two examples, the Romani introducing the word Romani into the Swedish language and RFSL introducing LGBTQ, indicate that language change often begins within the social groups that are directly affected by the change.
Up until the 1990s the Swedish Romani were marginalised due to a lack of housing, education, and other social rights. Nevertheless, the Romani still had a certain status in specific areas, such as in the cultural sphere, especially in connection to music, dance, theatre and the crafts. What difference did the Romani from the Balkans make? They began to use the word Romani in pamphlets advertising cultural events at prestigious places such as the Concert Hall and Nybrokajen 11, which are only accessible for those who have great quality entertainment to offer. This added status in the field of culture, along with the prestigious venues, became a powerbroker in the context, which forwarded the label Romani. The Romani, however, also had access to a more formal kind of power. During the 1990s, prior to the governmental ratification of the Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, several Romani were invited to sit in various work groups within the governmental departments. In their contacts with politicians, the media, and the public they used the word Romani. In our research we claim that new words can be initiated on any social hierarchical level, but for the word to become successful it is necessary that an elite, or a powerful counter elite, appropriates it. The elite in this example were the various governmental departments.
Why should we say Romani instead of Gypsy? My research reveals that the first argument is that this is what the Romani want to be called. If I come to a party and present myself as Anna, I do not want to be called Lisa. Among language planners, who give recommendations as to how language should be used in formal contexts, the view is that the group should be allowed to choose how they are referred to. Those who can choose their own labelling have some power. If someone else chooses the label, they are the ones in power. This is how Swedes have wielded power over the Romani earlier. And similarly, Swedes have wielded power over the Sami by calling them ‘Lapps.’ The exertion of power has also been noticeable in other restrictions, such as forbidding the Sami to speak their own language at school and to subject them without their consent to racial biological measuring. Today the recommended term is Sami and a discussion has begun concerning the use of geographical names where ‘Lapp’ is included, such as in ‘The Lapponian Gate’ (Lapporten). Lately, it is more common to instead use its Sami name Tjunoavagge, which means ‘the goose valley’.
A second argument for respecting an ethnic group’s wishes is that the word the group chooses not to be called has a history of negative connotations. For both the Romani and the Sami the older labels are connected to discrimination.
Being in the position to choose which label or word is used is certainly connected to power and perspective. To show a clear example of what I mean by ‘perspective’ I want to address the issue of labelling certain areas in the Swedish urban regions. I am thinking of areas that the police have labelled ‘vulnerable (exposed) areas.’ The motive behind this labelling is that the needs of the area should steer the way the social resources are prioritised and allocated; areas that are regarded as ‘especially vulnerable’ are given the most resources. However, political right-wing politicians, such as Ebba Busch (Christian Democrat, KD), has started calling these areas “no-go-zones,’ by which she implies that people in uniform such as firemen and ambulance drivers do not dare visit these areas. The expression derives from the American Army designating places that are outside of state control. To label ‘vulnerable areas’ as ‘no-go-zones’ is to give a place a label for political purposes. We can draw parallels to how East and West Germany respectively officially labelled the wall that divided Berlin, which in Sweden was called the ‘Berlin Wall’. In Communist East Germany it was formally called ‘The Anti-Fascist Protection Wall’ while in West Germany it was instead labelled ‘The Wall’—different names depending on different perspectives.
Returning to group labelling one may well ask whether it is even important for a group to have a label? We need to remember that categories do not exist in any physical reality. Language creates them. Categories always have fuzzy edges, in other words it is never clear what belongs or does not belong to a category, and there are always border line and unclear cases. “I think instead we should eliminate all categories. The more you divide, the more minorities there are to supress. We are all humans and it is easier if we see each other as humans. I have a picture of myself, my surroundings have another. Who am I? I am a human being. Period.” So says Tina-Håkan Jönsson in an interview in Svenska Dagbladet 2011-01-13. Tina-Håkan, with a name formed as a combination of a conventional woman’s name ’Tina’ and a traditional man’s name ‘Håkan’, won their case in the City Court of Gothenburg in 2009 to be allowed to have both a man’s and a woman’s name as a first name. These two examples reveal a paradox. While Tina-Håkan on the one hand, is of the opinion that we should eliminate all categories to simply label us ‘humans’, on the other hand, s/he fights in court to have the right to have a certain name—to become part of a separate category. This paradox is highly relevant for most minorities. It is important to have a new label, a name one has chosen, with which one can identify. If you belong to a group, then you know that you have characteristics that you share with other people. A label makes it possible by extension to stabilize the group, to pressure certain issues, and to fight politically for your rights. However, in some instances one needs to disregard the label; one notices that it is not always relevant, and above all that it should not be used to single anyone out or be used for discriminatory purposes.
In my examination of the expression ‘persons with physical challenges’ (personer med funktionsnedsättning), I visited various parent’s sights on the Internet and noticed how related expressions, such as, ‘retardation’ (utvecklingsstörning) or ‘intellectually challenged,’ still used in the health services, were being discussed. Parents bore witness to their shock on their first encounter with these expressions, which they had later come to terms with, finally finding some relief in them, especially in the power inherent in a diagnosis, which entails the right to various forms of assistance, resources, and adjustments in the home. This is similar to how many today, both young and adult, can receive help from a diagnosis showing that they have ADHD or ADD.
To label a group in the way the group prefers is to help create an understanding for the group in question. When the activists in the streets of New York shouted “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it” they were envisioning a society where people grew steadily familiar with the fact that people are different, even people in their midst who challenge the heterosexual norm. In the world today, in many places, we see, however, quite the contrary movement. One disturbing example is Poland. A third of its citizens now live in what are being called “LGBTQI-Free Zones”. The Catholic church and the country’s Minister of Education Przemyslaw Czarnek claim that LGBTQI persons should not be allowed the same human rights as other people. They hide behind statements such as the ones that they are not against the individual person but against the ‘LGBTQI ideology,’ and that they are not concerned with what people do in their bedrooms. It is, however, insidious to say that one this easily can discriminate between the ideology and the people who embody it, since in practice it means that people who identify as LGBTQI persons are being persecuted. Just as categories do not exist in the physical world, nor do ideologies; it is instead language, ideas, and feelings that create them. Language can build walls, antagonism, and barricades between people. But what language can build, language can also dismantle. Therefore, we must be wary of the words we use to describe one another.