My Language Doesn't Have the Terminology to Describe Who I Am

English vocabulary is evolving with our understanding of LGBTQ+ identities, but its dominance risks alienating older languages.
October 14, 2020, 8:45am
LGBTQ+ illustration

Growing up in a household that spoke English, Urdu and Punjabi, I’ve always been curious about the boundaries of language. But as I began to explore fluid labels around my own gender and sexuality, I discovered a rift between my identity and my languages. As I continually struggled to find the right words and labels, I drifted away from wanting to use my native languages and, instead, found myself only using English to communicate.

As the way we think about identity has progressed, so too has language – especially in a Western context. But what does this mean for languages that are geographically closer to home, or those that might tie into our cultural backgrounds?

Jas Samrai, originally from Kent, identifies as non-binary and bisexual. As a Punjabi speaker, they found that their family lacked vocabulary to talk about the queer community. “The culture didn't have the words, but there was a real lack of exposure to the LGBTQ+ community in general,” they explain over the phone. When Jas moved to Wales to study at the University of Aberystwyth, they encountered similar language barriers around their race and gender identity.

“There was always a shock that a brown person could speak Welsh,” they tell me. “Welsh has now started to adopt more terms for people of colour, but that hasn't happened with the LGBTQ+ community.”

Depictions of queer Welsh identity date back as early as the 1600s and can be found in medieval literature, in terms such as deuryw (bisexual). Some newer Welsh terminology is loaned from an anglicised root, with heavy phonetic similarities; take cwiar (queer) and lesbiaidd (lesbian) as examples. However, the language hasn’t progressed much further into the scope of modern LGBTQ+ identity. “I can't express myself in Welsh or Punjabi, but I can in English because it has a broader vocabulary,” Jas adds.

Ffion Clarke, from Cardiff, identifies as bisexual and hopes that Welsh vocabulary will expand as time goes on. “Everyone I've come out to has been in English, but if it had to be in Welsh or if I identified as pansexual instead of bisexual, it would've been harder to explain,” she says.

In 2019, Welsh Education Minister Kirsty Williams introduced new legislation making LGBTQ+ relationship and sex education compulsory in the Welsh curriculum. These reforms, which will be rolled out in 2022, are a leading example of how forward-thinking education can help bring older languages into the present. One benefit is that schools now have the opportunity to address some of the inaccuracies that are carried through language.

“[In Welsh], ‘rhyw' is sex and 'rhywedd' is gender, but gender is the one that is predominantly used,” explains Ffraid Gwenllian, a medical student and sex education presenter for the Welsh media platform Hansh. “We rarely used ‘sex’, unless it was in a medical context, and the terms have been used interchangeably – but now there's more meaning attributed to them both.”

While Ffriad has no issue with Welsh LGBTQ+ terminology having anglicised terms, she is concerned that people aren’t aware of pre-existing Welsh terminology because the education hasn't existed. “There's a lot of Wenglish, and it's a bilingual country, so a lot of English goes into a conversation,” she explains. “It’s important the LGBTQ+ community can communicate in their own language, and I think education is the way forward.”

These kinds of barriers can be found in a wide range of languages and, as with Welsh, wider cultural context also plays a factor. Sabina Westen grew up in Warsaw, speaking both Polish and English, and feels her relationship with her native language has decayed. “I don't really speak Polish anymore,” she admits, adding that, for her, the rift between the queer community and the language left space for miseducation.

“It was very easy to convince me, as a naive teenager, to think that queerness was a trend influenced by people in Western Europe,” she explains. “We’ve now grown to adapt queer terms with anglicised origins into Polish, but when you try to come out to your grandmother or a family member that doesn't know English, you sound fucking crazy!”

Uma Arruga, who lives in Barcelona and identifies as bisexual, has a similar experience. Lacking terminology in her first languages of Catalan and Spanish, she was initially introduced to LGBTQ+ terminology in her teens through the One Direction fandom. Keen to know what they were saying in their songs and interviews, Uma spent a lot of time on Tumblr. “Seeing English every day [on social media] helped me learn the language,” she tells me. “I was introduced to [LGBTQ+] terms in English because of the queer community on Tumblr.” As a result, Uma’s experience as LGBTQ+ is closely tied to the internet.

“I came out as bisexual when I was 14, but I didn't really live my queer life in real life. I wasn't dating girls and I wasn't telling people that I was bi – it was more of an online experience,” she explains. “There's no accommodating language here, but in English I can say I have a girlfriend. It’s easier in English because it's the language I discovered my sexuality in, but it’s just another language – it's not my real language.”

The environment you grow up in plays a significant part in your understanding of language. Jamie Love was born in Italy and his first language is Italian. He started learning English around age 11, and moved to the Middle East when he was 13, which is where he realised he was gay.

“Being from an Italian Catholic family, [being gay] was seen as a very negative thing,” he says. “It was difficult to have real conversations, because you can't really express yourself and have to dip in and out of English. The terms we can use in English don't really translate into other [languages].”

When Jamie did come out he was living in the UK, and it was in English. “It was just more natural in English, because it felt easier to process,” he tells me. “I've always struggled to articulate who I am in Italian, and it has had an impact on the relationships I have with family. It's a never-ending cycle: I won't talk about it because I don't know how to, but nobody will talk to me about it, so I don't learn any terminology.”

In my effort to find terminology that suited the LGBTQ+ community, I recalled being taught about a culturally protected third recognised gender in Pakistan, often labelled “Khwaja sira” in Urdu – an umbrella term used to refer to transgender, intersex and non-conforming people. Similar to indigenous identities, their status of recognition and acceptance has, historically, been held in tandem with colonialism and imperialist attitudes.

Jaz, whose grandparents are from India, reflects on what she knew about the community: “Even though there’s not supposed to be a hierarchy, the third recognised gender is seen as less because they don’t conform to typical gender ideas. They are outcast and seen as taboo in society.”

Lincoln is part of the First Nations (Nêhiyaw) and identifies as two-spirit. For them, the modern concept of two-spirit is relatively new.

“It was first introduced as an identity separate from Western identity structures, because they do not represent the spiritual roles queer Native peoples used to have,” they explain. “With colonialism increasingly marginalising the roles queer indigenous folk have within indigenous spaces, we needed this identity so we might remember our right relationship as spiritual peoples, as medicine folk, as people who provide important guidance to the people.”

Nova identifies as trans, non-binary, bisexual and two-spirit. He has first-hand experience of how the dominance of the English language can lead to the erasure of longstanding terminology. “There’s a lack of knowledge about these terms due to the colonisation my people have faced, and how many Native people have internalised that colonisation,” he states. “Our most popular term is ᎠᏎᎩ (pronounced ‘Asegi’), which means ‘strange’, but is an identity that many people have pride in.”

As we explore and try to integrate the growing Western LGBTQ+ vocabulary into our societies, it cannot be done without understanding the history and wider cultural examples that have existed before. We fail ourselves by excluding identities that have long been established outside newer Western movements towards LGBTQ+ inclusivity.

Whether it's trying to come out to a Catholic family in Italian, or striking up a conversation about transgender rights in Urdu, it seems that education on the globally rich history of queer identities is what will lead us forward.

@zoyashvikh