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My Take on the Words in Question - Mo's Journal
September 20th, 2007
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My Take on the Words in Question
Okay, so I acknowledge this was a badly constructed poll. I was trying to get at whether the terms are annoying in of themselves or in context, but neglected to allow for different contexts for different terms.

That said, here are some comments on why terms do or do not bother me:


General Terms
Sexual Preference - I don't mind this one at all if it is used for what it means. People do have preferences for specific sex acts, or specific circumstances of having sex and so forth. I think anyone could write a whole essay on his or her sexual preferences (and, actually, I'd love to read them if anybody on my friends list wants to write one, because I'm prurient that way). But I hate it when it's used in a context where it's meant to refer to being gay or lesbian. It trivializes our lives and denies the reality of sexual orientation and sexual identity. And it's never used for heterosexuals, just to set us apart.

Gay, as a noun - I can't really say why this happened, but it seems to me that somewhere around the mid-1970s this usage went from a general one to the exclusive province of homophobes. People say "I am gay" or even, in McGreevey's case, "I am a gay American" but nobody says "I'm a gay" and if someone says "gays and lesbians" instead of "gay men and lesbians" it's a bit of a tip off. Now, obviously someone could say "gays and lesbians" just because s/he doesn't know who uses it, but in general I find it is not a good sign when this term is used.

"Lifestyle" bothers me much like "sexual preference." It trivializes our lives. Straight people have lives but we just have lifestyles. Blecch!

I resisted "queer" for a long time. At one of the first organizing meetings of Queer Nation someone stood up and said "Why do you want to use that word? That's the word they use when they're beating us senseless!" I cheered that guy. I didn't want to reclaim it - I think, like pink triangles, it's a symbol of our oppression, not our pride. But I've given in. Partly because it's just so ubiquitous now, and partly because it's so useful. We really need a general term that covers gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered and isn't an unpronounceable collection of initials.

"Dyke" and "Fag" are terms that are fine to me when used by dykes and fags, but I find them suspect when used by others.

I think "gay marriage" both trivializes our marriages (they're not marriages, just "gay marriages") and is inaccurate.

I think "homosex" is just fine, which is where I came in on this one. I use it, I hear it used, my characters use it; I think it wholly unremarkable and a useful term to cover a variety of same-sex sexual activity. I do think it's often used ironically, but I don't mind when it's not.

Terms for a Member of a Committed Same-Sex Couple

Lover - I find this one pretty contextual. In straight society, lover means "sex partner" or even "illicit sex partner" but in gay and lesbian circles it has long meant that one is a member of a social couple. Tom Hanks showed his understanding of that when he thanked his lover (meaning his wife) when he accepted the Oscar for his role in Philadelphia. It's starting to sound a little old-fashioned, I think, as other terms have been taking over, but in queer circles I think it's always understood as meaning something more than a trick.

I hate "roommate" and "friend." I can't think of a good context to use those when referring to a committed partner. People use it about their own partners when afraid to come out and people use it about others' partners when not wanting to acknowledge the true nature of the relationship.

I seem to be the only one bugged by girlfriend/boyfriend but I feel it trivializes committed relationships (making them seem less than straight marriages and more like the precursors to straight marriages) when used for such. And even for relationships not at that level of commitment (e.g. dating relationships) I feel that for those of us well past boyhood or girlhood it's infantilizing. "Girlfriend" in particular also is potentially confusing - it can mean "female friend". I was at my lover's union's annual picnic a couple of weeks ago and she said "Come on - I want to introduce you to the president of our local." I said, "Fine, but don't call me your girlfriend."

"Significant Other" and "Partner" are okay with me, but I'm not thrilled with either. The first just feels so coined and the second is often subject to confusion, particularly if one has a business partner. My friend Leah once said "I wish partner didn't sound so business-y and lover didn't sound so bedroom-y." But I do think "partner" has become kind of the default term used by accepting straight people.

I used "spouse" when I was married. I thought it made things really clear. People did assume my spouse was a man, but I corrected them right away and underlined the point I was trying to make in the process: our relationship is just as valid as theirs, even though we don't have equal rights.

I do find "husband" and "wife" grate a little to me still. They feel too gendered to my ears. But I believe in calling people what they want to be called and use the terms in referring to people who prefer them (e.g. my sister and the woman she is married to refer to each other as "wife"). I think over time I'll get comfortable with them.



I'll end by echoing marag's comment that any term rubs me the wrong way when clearly being used as a slur.

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From:wesleysgirl
Date:September 20th, 2007 01:47 pm (UTC)
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Hi! Browsing by on friendsfriends and just wanted to say that I enjoyed reading this. I find myself instinctively trying to use "sexual preference" for some reason, even though I dislike because I feel like "prefer" has a connotation of choice. I guess it could be used fairly harmlessly for someone who was bisexual but had a slight preference for one gender or the other -- "I'm bi but my sexual preference is men" sort of thing?

The gay as a noun thing is confusing, because (from my POV) it sounds fine for a woman to say "I am a lesbian" but weird for either man or woman to say "I am a gay." I actually don't think I've ever seen/heard the latter. It might be complicated because "gay" is a descriptive term for a person of either gender who is sexually oriented toward the same gender, but there's not a word JUST for gay men the way lesbian applies just to women.

I use "partner" for same-gender couples I know (when talking about them) but also girlfriend/boyfriend. (I agree with partner being potentially confusing re: business partner, but I generally find that the context of the conversation clears things up: "They just bought their first house, They're expecting a baby," etc.) I use girlfriend/boyfriend for hetersexual couples I know, also, unless/until they're engaged/married, in which case fiance/husband/wife comes into play. I'm not opposed to the word spouse, but I rarely use it for anyone -- not sure why that is.
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From:mofic
Date:September 20th, 2007 02:10 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for stopping by!

The gay as a noun thing is confusing, because (from my POV) it sounds fine for a woman to say "I am a lesbian" but weird for either man or woman to say "I am a gay." I actually don't think I've ever seen/heard the latter. It might be complicated because "gay" is a descriptive term for a person of either gender who is sexually oriented toward the same gender, but there's not a word JUST for gay men the way lesbian applies just to women.

It is funny how it's different. The standard noun for men is really a noun phrase: "gay man." But as you say, "lesbian" works both as the adjective and the noun. I don't know if men used to say "I am a gay" - it does sound weird - but it used to be quite common for people (even gay and lesbian people) to say "gays and lesbians." Now the noun usage is pretty much a giveaway of homophobic sentiments, and generally shows up in contexts like "The gays are asking for special rights."

As mentioned in comments elsewhere, the standard public health term is MSM: men who have sex with men. It talks about what matters from a public health point of view and not about orientation or identity at all. Some MSM identify as gay, some as bisexual, and some as heterosexual (cf Larry Craig).
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From:libgirl
Date:September 20th, 2007 02:27 pm (UTC)
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I'd agree with you that the Wizarding World is rather 1950's in it's conservative family/relationship structures. Somewhere a couple of weeks ago I saw an LJ entry where the person broke down all the families in the book that we knew of.

It was shocking that in the (I think it was 44) families that we know all or part of the structure for, there were no families where there were single parents of any gender by choice. Single parent situations were the result of the death of the other parent or in some rare cases, i.e. Blaise Zabini, by what can be argued as choice. (There's also the Gryffindor boy who's father left when he found out his wife was a witch.) Even in those circumstances, there were very few single parents. Also the rate of divorce is essentially zero. The only person we really hear about being divorced or having multiple marriages is Mrs. Zabini and that information is given to us with a negative connotation.

All this is to say that there is almost no diversification of the family unit at all in the novels. Given the progression of society today, it seems that the acceptance of diverse types of families and differing numbers of parental figures predates the acceptance of diverse families in the sense of sexuality and numbers of Moms or Dads. It seems highly unlikely that any gay character in the books will have an easy time coming out of the closest.

From my own recollection, I'll also say that we're given a world that hearkens back to the 50's again in the relative age of the parents when they marry/give birth. This isn't something that there is a lot of data for and there is a war going on in both time frames where data exists--but it is true that people we know the relative age/age of marriage/age of first pregnancy information for is far younger than what is considered normal today, but not for what was considered normal in the 50's, or I'd even say as late as the 70's.

Nice seeing you here ;)

(Mo, sorry to hijack your journal...she got me thinking again!--I'll post further (coherent) thoughts on the terminology essay later.)
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From:mofic
Date:September 20th, 2007 02:33 pm (UTC)
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Mo, sorry to hijack your journal

Stop saying that! ::stamps foot and looks fierce:: I love comments, I love thoughtful and thought-provoking comments. I don't just post this stuff to sit hear talking. I want a conversation.
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From:cc_writer
Date:October 10th, 2007 01:55 am (UTC)

Assumption that most high school graduates go to college

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Actually, only about 1/2 of high school graduates go on to college today. In 15 states, less than 50% go to college; in another 15 states, 60-something percent go to college. In the rest of the states, its 50-something percent who go.

Who knew?

Here's the source of my info:

http://www.higheredinfo.org/dbrowser/index.php?submeasure=63&year=2002&level=nation&mode=data&state=0
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From:mofic
Date:September 21st, 2007 01:51 pm (UTC)
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Some of my reaction is also tied into my reading of the Wizarding world as being likely very conservative on the issue. While it's true it's never addressed in the books, I think the very fact it's NOT addressed means it's considered one of those things "you don't talk about in polite company."

I agree. I think, in general, the wizarding world appears to be very conservative on issues of gender roles. There's kind of a surface layer of gender equality, and women are shown as warriors when necessary, but the ideal appears to be a married couple with children, with the father WOH and the mother SAH. Family diversity is just not depicted, except as the result of tragedy.
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From:wneleh
Date:September 21st, 2007 12:00 am (UTC)
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Fascinating. I'd never picked up on 'gays and lesbians' before. I *think* I use gay as an adjective, but don't know for sure. (And, really, it's not a word I actually use in speach much. Usually, it's along the lines of, 'Oh, did you know Barry is Gay?' 'Actually, he says he's bi' 'Oh, okay.' This is a conversation you have once and holds for all time.)

'Wife' grates (esp. if the 'wife' is male); I like spouse when the couple is married (readers not Mo - I live in Massachusetts), partner when they aren't. Usually first names are used, though - instead of "X and her spouse" it's "X and Y." Which is about the same for het couples too.

I don't see 'preference' used much - usually it's 'orientation.' I only hear 'lifestyle' in the media, usually in stories about people finding 'lifestyle' annoying, though not always.

But more often, I see people talk around using words that imply that sex is happening. People will say "Johnie's other mother" as opposed to "Carol's lover."

"Queer" is problematic for me. It's not a word I use - it feels like a slur - and of late IME its meaning has expanded to the point of worthlessness. For instance, I've seen arguments that all fanfic is queer because we're subverting the dominate masculine structures of power. And, see http://web.bu.edu/phpbin/calendar/event.php?id=12139&cid=17&oid=0. Queering seems to be anything someone thinks is edgy and/or progressive.

- Helen
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From:mofic
Date:September 21st, 2007 01:54 pm (UTC)
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But more often, I see people talk around using words that imply that sex is happening. People will say "Johnie's other mother" as opposed to "Carol's lover."

Well, if you know someone through kids I think it's pretty commonplace to refer to the adults in their relationship to the kids. As you know, I'm divorced, but even when married I would, when calling up someone whom I knew through kids, identify myself as "Dale, Zara's mother" or whatever kid was in question. I would definitly refer to a dad as "Johnnie's father" if the connection was through Johnnie, rather than "Esmerelda's husband" even if I knew Esmerelday first.
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From:ringthebells
Date:September 21st, 2007 01:20 am (UTC)
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The terms-for-members-of-a-couple thing is hard! It seems to me we're seriously lacking some necessary words.

Personally, I've come to like "husband" and "wife" for their sheer specificity—where "husband" means "male person in a marriage" and wife means "female person in a marriage"—thus a marriage can easily be husband/husband or wife/wife, and I have met married same-sex couples who used those words. Spouse works too, though it strikes me as odd in conversation—it's more the sort of word you'd put on a form where you need to keep a level of generality.

But then what about couples who aren't married? This actually came up in conversation on the commuter train just the other day (!), not originally in the context of same-sex couples but rather in the context of a man talking about his opposite-sex partner of many years (who he refers to as "my partner, Pat"—so you're seriously not sure whether he's talking about a man or a woman until the conversation goes on long enough to involve a pronoun!). As you might be aware, my area (Quebec) has one of the world's highest rates of common-law partnerships. A couple who has specifically chosen not to get married will generally not want to use the words husband/wife/spouse! Thus in heterosexual relationships as in homosexual ones, here, people refer to their boyfriends and girlfriends, or partners. But these have exactly all the problems you mentioned—"boyfriend" or "girlfriend" seem like infantalizing terms for men or women past their teens, imho, and partner could mean business partner, golf partner, or whatever!

When I was a teenager and into Elfquest comics, I thought the elves' term, "lifemate," made a perfect solution. Sadly, I can't use it now without feeling like a giant geek. :P
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From:barenakedrachel
Date:September 21st, 2007 04:22 am (UTC)
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Awww, I love the term "lifemate"! I'd prefer to call my husband "my companion", because that's what our relationship and our love feels like to me. I almost always just refer to him as "Chris", but when I'm talking about him to people who do not know him by name, I just call him "my husband". I gave in to "husband" because anything else elicits all sorts of looks or questions, not to mention when they find out I'm referring to a heterosexual marriage, they think *I'm* a giant geek for using that term :-)

So I call him my husband when I'm talking about him to someone who doesn't know him. But I completely agree with you when you say that we are lacking in terms of describing members of a couple. All of the terms come with some sort of connotation that somebody somewhere is likely to not feel satisfied with.

In my circle of acquaintances, "partner" is used most often, and when someone is referring to a business or golf or whatever partner, they specify that. But my circle of acquaintances is filled, for the most part, with people who are aware of and sensitive to terminology. I guess everything changes depending on who's part of the conversation.
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From:mofic
Date:September 21st, 2007 01:55 pm (UTC)
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What terms do people typically use in French for their non-married-but-receiving-all-the-benefits-of-marriage partners?

Oh and have I missed an announcement or are you still pregnant? :-)
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From:ringthebells
Date:September 21st, 2007 05:41 pm (UTC)
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Good question! I'll have to ask. Maybe there's a better word in French!

And yup, I'm still pregnant. 34.5 weeks now! Still working, too -- I'll be working until 38 weeks, assuming the baby manages to stay inside me for that long (which I hope he does!).
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From:monitorscreen
Date:September 21st, 2007 02:23 am (UTC)
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... I didn't get a lot of the implications, because those terms don't come up often here.

Re: gay as a noun, I'm weirded out if it is used as "I'm a gay", but okay when it's "gays and lesbians". I guess it's just, we're used to the same word being noun/adjective/verb, because Chinese is like that; while the "I'm a..." is clearly English, so I come to mind about grammar *grins*


Sorry, got to run. I'll come finish this comment later, okay? :-)
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From:monitorscreen
Date:September 21st, 2007 04:26 am (UTC)
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Er, I've ten minutes... My bad time management =_=;;

Looking back, re: sexual preference, mm, why is being gay/lesbian not a preference? As in, having a preference in the partner's sex? I don't quite get how that is trivializing, because isn't sex also a part of who we are? I'd love it if you would explain more :-)

And, I didn't realise until you mention it, about the boyfriend/girlfriend being unfitting. Because I am a teen myself, that's how I'd refer to my lover; terms like "lover" or perhaps even "partner" are too committed, it isn't... proper? for our age, as teens are expected to have transient relationships, no matter whether ours is actually so or not. But now as you said, I don't think I'm comfortable with older people referring to their lovers that way.

I don't mind "roommate" or "friend". People can be vague if they don't feel comfortable being specific. I guess I don't mind people shying away from certain topics so much.

... I find that my default term seem to be "partner". Hm. It may be confusing sometimes, but it feels like a safe, neutral term to use. Interesting, that.

That's all :-) *runs*
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From:mofic
Date:September 21st, 2007 01:58 pm (UTC)
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I agree that it's perfectly appropriate to use boyfriend and girlfriend at your age, for dating relationships. OTOH, although unusual it's not unheard of for people your age to be married. And it would be considered *very* strange - at least here - if a married woman of 19 or 20 referred to the man she's married to as "my boyfriend" or "my roommate." She would be assumed to be saying it ironically or jokingly, yk?
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From:monitorscreen
Date:September 22nd, 2007 12:02 am (UTC)
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Of course, it's different if they're really married :-) But for unmarried couples, sounding too committed too soon would detract from the dedication to the relationship. For example, if I, at 19, unmarried, say somebody is my spouse, I sound like the kind of casual girl calling a boyfriend a husband after two months of dating, and people would take our relationship less seriously than if I refer to that person as "boyfriend/girlfriend". It's just that people would assume we haven't been together long because we're young...

And, mm, we kind of look down on people who marry in their teens here. Decent, responsible people shouldn't do that. Because teenage affairs are not lasting, supposedly, and we should be established before trying to make a family no, mostly because we aren't even supposed to have sex, so marriage? It's several steps too far. So, mm, of course a woman of 19 would call her spouse that, but I think a lot of people would take their relationship less seriously than that between boyfriend/girlfriends. There is a lot of stigma with marrying young.
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From:mofic
Date:September 21st, 2007 02:08 pm (UTC)

More on "sexual preference"

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First of all, I do think some of this is culturally based, so it may not resonate the same way with you. With that as a caveat, we generally refer to preference in matters where one is choosing between two or more items, activities, etc. where either one is sufficient. So I'd say that I prefer raspberries to strawberries, for example, but I wouldn't say "I prefer to eat rather than to starve." If I did, that would be assumed to be said ironically or sarcastically.

Since most of us who are gay or lesbian view our sexual orientation as an essential part of our personality, we see it as both more important than a mere preference and not subject to the changes that preference is. After all, I might change my mind and prefer strawberries tomorrow but I'll still be a lesbian.

I think people really do have sexual preferences as I mentioned. Some people prefer certain sex acts over others. But a preference for oral sex is just that - a preference, not the way someone is wired to get off.

Another way to look at it is that no one heterosexual ever refers to their orientation as a "preference." It's assumed to be an essential part of who they are. It's no less important to us.

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From:monitorscreen
Date:September 22nd, 2007 12:03 am (UTC)

Re: More on "sexual preference"

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Ah, I understand now with the example you give. Thanks :-)
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From:barenakedrachel
Date:September 21st, 2007 04:02 am (UTC)
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Very interesting thread! I've really enjoyed reading all of the comments on this subject.

The first thought that comes to my mind when reading all of these terms and hearing everyone's dislikes and preferences is that none of these terms truly describe *who* a person is. I think it's ironic that our language is so filled with descriptive vocabulary, yet somebody could introduce themselves to me using ten pages filled with adjectives they feel describe themselves and I may still come away from that introduction feeling as though I don't truly know that person.

It has always been interesting to me how gender, sexual orientation, age, race, etc. can be so defining. And it has always been equally interesting to me how a certain word used to describe gender, sexual orientation, age, and race can mean quite different things depending on the context, including who the speaker of that word is.

I do know that I dislike the word "fag". I even hesitated to write it out in that sentence! I'm pretty sure I dislike it as much as I do because I really only hear it in a degrading context. Blech. It's not so bad, for example, when I hear it used on Queer as Folk by gay men referring to themselves or their friends and partners in a way that is clearly loving. But still. I think it's a loaded word and has not quite been entirely reclaimed, like "queer" and "dyke" have. Although I have to say I'm less comfortable with "dyke". It has a harsh sound to it, to my ears. "Queer" for me has become OK, probably because of its widespread use in television, like in Queer Eye For the Straight Guy, Queer As Folk, and the L-Word.

When it comes to terms used to describe a member of a same-sex couple, "partner" is what I hear the most, and feel the most comfortable using myself. I don't know why, but the term "lover" in reference to any couple sounds to me like there is an "unacceptable" affair going on! But I likely only feel that way because of my own conditioning and exposure to that word. Just thinking about it... there is no way I could openly refer to Chuck as "my Uncle's lover". Why? I don't know! But, just the same, I could never refer to my parents (who are in a different-sex marriage) as lovers. Blech. Nor would I refer to my husband as my lover. In fact, I view my husband as more of a partner or companion. Hmmm... this is interesting to me!

And I agree that "husband" and "wife" are a bit too gendered. Hmmm, it seems that pretty much every term out there comes with its own set of connotations.

Oh, one other word that gets to me that was not mentioned (or was it?) is "straight". For some reason that sounds like being gay is "unstraight" or wrong or whatever and I don't like that. I tend to use the words homo- and hetero when referring to the two different couplings. The word "gay", however, is just fine with me (mostly makes me think of the word "happy"), but it is funny when I think about it because I have a friend named Gay :-)

I don't know... I'm somebody who does not like limiting myself (or others) to ANY label. But labels, as harmful as they can be, make conversations shorter, so I do think they are useful as long as they are used thoughtfully.

But then there is the whole phenomenon of only the "minority" being labeled (ie, when people say "homosexual lifestyle" yet nobody says "heterosexual lifestyle" - never mind that I completely agree with your opinion on the use of the word "lifestyle" in the first place!). That has always bothered me. Almost always, if a story that one is relaying to another involves two people of different races, the races will be mentioned (ie, "The black guy said to the white guy"), but if the story involves two people of the same race, no race will be mentioned ("one guy said to the other guy"). Oh, and then race is also almost always mentioned, I have noticed, if the story involves two people of the same race, but a person of a different race is telling the story (ie, a white person says: "so these two black guys...").

I dunno... this is all just very interesting to me!
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From:barenakedrachel
Date:September 21st, 2007 04:09 am (UTC)
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One other thing, real quick! I had a very interesting experience as an exchange student for a year in Finland back in 1996. In the Finnish language, there is no gender. None. The same word is used to indicate both "he" and "she".

I was often very confused in the beginning, in part due to the basic difference in the grammar, but also due to my own heterosexual conditioning to assume that couples were male/female most of the time (the only exposure I had growing up to openly gay committed couples was to my Uncle and his partner). It was interesting to see how the way I viewed people in general changed so much in that one year. I no longer anticipated gender, no longer held common gender stereotypes, and eventually no longer saw gender -- just people. It was lovely. Of course, it's been hard to maintain such a state of non-judging back here at home, but the experience has stuck with me.
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From:mofic
Date:September 21st, 2007 01:59 pm (UTC)
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Very interesting about gender in Suomi! There are gendered terms for kinship terms, right? "Daughter" is different word from "son," no?
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From:barenakedrachel
Date:September 21st, 2007 02:16 pm (UTC)
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Yes! Different words for daughter and son, mother and father. But no he/she his/hers and no gender assigned to any nouns like in the romance languages.

It's always fun listening to a Finn speak English because they almost always confuse she and he at least once or twice per conversation. A man will say something like, "I have to go home to my wife because he is expecting a baby any day now!" Or something like, "I want to go watch my son play baseball because she is so excited to be on the team this year" :-))
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From:mofic
Date:September 21st, 2007 02:25 pm (UTC)
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LOL! Cross-language mistakes can sound so funny. Have you ever read Twain's essay about trying to learn German: "The Awful German Language"? It's very funny. I particularly like this bit about gender:

Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl. See how it looks in print -- I translate this from a conversation in one of the best of the German Sunday-school books:

"Gretchen.
Wilhelm, where is the turnip?
Wilhelm.
She has gone to the kitchen.
Gretchen.
Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?
Wilhelm.
It has gone to the opera."

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From:brak666
Date:September 22nd, 2007 12:28 am (UTC)
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I really really hate the word "queer" and still don't use it. Though I do understand the practicality of it.

I find gay as noun to be rather humorous. I suppose because I've never actually met anyone who uses it that way without irony and the only time I've seen it used that way in media was with deliberate humor.

One word, I love that I don't hear much any more is 'homo'. Or maybe I just like it when I refer to myself as a homo and people get all scandalized because I'm using a bad name.
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From:mofic
Date:September 25th, 2007 10:45 am (UTC)
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I really only hear "homo" used jocularly...
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