the language of queer: always on the outside

It’s very interesting, being in Toronto this week, and having spent a month travelling in the States and on the West Coast. I’m beginning to get a sense of just how different queer culture is in the “outside” compared to what it’s like in Montreal, and the big difference is language. I know, I know, anyone in the rest of the world thinks of Quebec’s language politics as this big huge pain in the ass, but living in Montreal, it just feels like an everyday reality – not some huge cross to bear, but a source of incredible richness and productive conflict and vast and nuanced learning.

That said, the political ramifications of language reach far and wide. I just got an e-mail today from a Montreal group of which I’m a peripheral member, called the Raging Trannies. The group is mainly populated, from what I know, of English-speaking university students, but the e-mail was written first in French (and well written, or perhaps well-translated, not badly translated by some pseudo-bilingual hack) and then in English. It was wonderful – a lot of groups in Montreal are firmly grounded in either English or French, and while hostility is generally quite minimal between those groups, the communication gap is not always easy to bridge and the cultural differences can be gigantic. It’s not just a question of translation; it’s about culture, with all the power inherent therein. And for the language geeks who are familiar the Sapir-Whorf theory, you will know that language creates culture as much as the other way around.

In other words (ha), there is no language in French for “genderqueer,” no concept of “boi” or “gyrl,” a freshly hatched and barely recognized translation of “queer” (“allosexuel”) and virtually no well-translated queer theory available in French. And that’s just the queer side of things. There’s also no word for “bottom” or “top” – only for “dominant” and “submissive.” You can imagine that this language affects perception, which affects how culture develops and moves forward, which affects how people think and behave, which affects how their sexuality develops and gets named and recognized… and so forth.

And the worst part is that the vast majority of anglophones (especially outside Quebec) who read that last paragraph will percieve that language difference as a lack – as something that makes French-speaking culture inferior, somehow less advanced than the English-speaking world, rather than seeing it as a completely different system and community and manner of thinking and way of relating that has its own warmth and love and value and intelligence and logic and cohesiveness.

That’s not to say there’s no room for change. I’ve worked with tons of Francophone queers, and many of them are critical of their own culture, in a positive and productive way. And there are wonderful examples of people bridging the differences and learning from each other, or at the very least extending an active welcome to one another (like the Raging Trannies have done) rather than sitting back and saying “yeah, they can show up if they want to.” Bilingual events abound, especially in university settings; English- and French-speaking groups collaborate and share resources; and so forth. There are differences, but those differences do not necessarily spell divisiveness. In fact they can inspire really creative collaborations and strategizing. It’s downright impressive sometimes.

But I think largely the English-speaking world, particularly outside Quebec, either dismisses or fails to consider the Francophone perspective on queer questions entirely. And being outside Quebec has made it really evident to me the extent to which my own politics are inextricably wrapped up in language. I remember my father telling me that living as a fluently bilingual anglophone in Quebec, I would be affected for the rest of my life – in English-speaking places, I would hiss at people who criticize French-Canadians and French speakers because those people are my community and my home, and in French-speaking places, I would forever be branded the Anglo outsider. And damned if he isn’t right. 

In Vancouver, I found myself bristling with irritation when I saw signs in English only, or worse, with shoddy use of French that’s used as a pretension to European charm or Canadian pseudo-inclusiveness. In Toronto, I’m starting to get tons of event invitations and such from within the queer and kinky community, and I always feel a little twitchy to realize that nobody here even thinks about French when they write them up – understandably in some ways, because if you live in Toronto you must necessarily speak enough English to get along – but it’s nonetheless really weird for me. Where are the politically astute Raging Trannies of Toronto? They just don’t exist. French is not on the menu.

I can’t help but think of it in reverse. Toronto is a super-multicultural city, as is Vancouver. If you live in either place and you’re part of pretty much any progressive community, you pretty much have some awareness of race politics; you kinda can’t avoid it. Even if you’re a lily-white suburbanite, your world will be populated with folks of colour everywhere you turn, and there will be discourse around racism, anti-racism, cultural sensitivity, cultural appropriation and so forth. It’s just part of reality.

So if you can imagine (most particularly if you are a white person) moving from Toronto or Vancouver to a place where everyone is white and nobody’s ever really heard of people of colour except maybe for those people over there in that place across that border where they do things differently and make all sorts of trouble… even if they’re not aiming that ignorance (even if it’s not mean or hostile) and lack of consideration at you per se, you would probably feel bizarre, like somehow the world has become more one-dimensional and you’re the only one who’s seeing the other layers.

Well, that’s how I feel sometimes outside Quebec. Like I walk around “passing” as an anglophone just like everyone else, except that I’m from that place with those people  over there across that border where we do things differently, and I know very well that we’re not making trouble, we’re just trying to live and be respected, and want to learn without being condescended to, and want to be appreciated for what we are and what we have to offer rather than being seen as backwards and ornery. And even though when I’m in Montreal I’m not actually officially part of the “we” – I am not and cannot be considered Francophone – I am nonetheless swimming in French-speaking waters all the time, and surrounded by that culture and language and people and thought. So when I’m outside that territory, I can’t help but be an unwitting and clumsy ambassador, and seeing the ways in which the overwhelming power of the English language and the English-speaking majority of Canadian culture – despite all the gorgeousness of it, and all the amazing political work that gets done within it – does serve to obscure and belittle other ways of thinking and doing things, other richnesses.

There are no easy answers. But at the very least, being ever on the outside keeps me stocked with plenty of food for thought.

8 thoughts on “the language of queer: always on the outside

  1. First of all, you’re the first non-anthro I’ve ever met who knows of Sapir-Whorf *sigh*. About the “constant outsider” thing, I hear you. Although I’m francophone by blood, it is NOT reflected in my early upbringing, which happened stateside until the age of 11. So “coming back” to Québec felt more like immigration to me and having to go to school to learn my mother tongue was, well, laden with cognitive dissonance. Even today, I feel like an outsider in a group of francophones, even though I’m technically one of them.

    But to address your main point: I’ve always felt that the coolest thing about knowing more than one language was the wider range of ideas it gives one access to. Each language has its own richness and there are things that are just expressed better in one language than the other. If the French language is “lacking” in certain terms like genderqueer, I think it reflects a) the relative linguistic, and thus cultural, isolation of the francophone community in North America which leads to things sometimes happening a little later here than elsewhere, or at least being talked about a little later even when they’re happening and b) the easiness of simply incorporating English words relative to inventing French terms.

    Things always seem to turn out awkward when attempts are made to create French terms for English words. Allosexuel just doesn’t seem to catch on – is it just too gosh darn cute for such a deep concept? My personal problem with allosexuel is that it fail to capture the political nature of “queer” (I realise that queer is not political for everyone but I do see that tendency).

    This also brings to mind recent discussions on Montreal’s French polyamory list. A French equivalent for “compersion” have been sought and debated for over 2 years, I believe, with no firm conclusions. The term polyamory itself is a point of contention, partly because of its importation from the U.S. with all the cultural markers that this bears and partly because francophones have a very culturally specifuc take on love and everything that it entails.

    So . . .umm . . . yeah. Language. Sociolinguistics. Parole vs langue. Paralanguage. Yummy.

  2. Oh, Nancy Boy. You make me so happy with your thoughtful and informed responses to these posts. As I clicked “publish” I thought to myself, “I bet Nancy Boy will have something smart to say about this,” and lookee here, I was right. Thank you. 🙂

  3. Well SexGeek, the truth is that I hire someone to write these smart sounding things that I contribute to blogs, mailing lists, etc. You may have notice that I rarely sound this smart in person.

    All kidding aside, one thing I forgot to add about my problem with “allosexuel” is that it almost appears to refer strictly to alternate sexual orientations. Hearing it doesn’t connote the inclusion of gender variants the way that “queer” does, although I know that even in the anglo community, many people are unaware that “queer” goes beyond lesbigay.

    Such a complex issue.

  4. I have a hard time not getting exasperated with some of the gay men I know who think that “queer” is simply another term for “gay”. I once referred to a female lover of mine and one guy’s face twisted into disgust. I don’t quite remember what I said in return but my internal monologue was full of exclamations: I am a queer man! I date and fuck whomever I like! including women! including transpeople!

    Conversely, I’ve had some forward thinking dykes feel that, because I work in a gay leather bar and like boys, that I’m a gay man. Full stop. I tend to think in many exclamations about that too.

    In related yet unrelated news, I’m learning a bit of ASL each day. My new favorite sign: bite.

  5. Ahh, don’t even start me on that one. On second thought, do… I will probably now have to post something entirely separate just for the sake of ranting about the various misinterpretations and misappropriations of the term “queer.” Not now, but soon.

  6. Riley;

    I had a gay male colleague argue with me once at the pub after work. I referred to myself as queer and he said: “No, you’re not. You’re bi.” Even my hetero colleagues were aghast. I didn’t even have to react. They proceeded to enumerate the ways I was queer (!): “She has sex with men AND women and she fucks with gender. She is into non-monogamy. Meanwhile, you’re living a straight lifestyle, except that your monogamous relationship is with another man. She’s more queer than YOU are.” Of course, it made me smile, even though I don’t believe in that queer one-upmanship type of stuff either, but it was interesting to see how they had an understanding of queer that he wasn’t getting at.

    Looking forward to reading your “queer” post.

    On a lighter note, I have another colleague (well, a faculty dean actually) say something to the effect of: “Well, Nancy, we all know you’re queer but what does that have to do with your sexual orientation?” I love working in a relatively progressive institution of higher learning, even though I won’t do it forever.

  7. I’m born and raised in Vancouver, and I suffered through many years of French instruction in high school and university, which I always thought was pointless in a city where more people speak Tagalog than French. Barely any of that French instruction took, by the way.

    The differences between French and English queer language is interesting. “Two solitudes” as they say.

  8. Ah, you raise an entirely different question – and a good one – that of a multilingual Canada with immigrant populations whose native-language speakers may perhaps now or in the future outnumber those who speak French. I don’t know that I could venture so far as to take a political position on that, but I do find the reality of it quite fascinating, Tagalog being one good example among many. In an increasingly multicultural society, what is the relevance of having two “official” languages for an entire country where dozens are spoken? What practical strategies can be adopted to adapt to new realities? I don’t have answers, but they’re interesting questions to be sure.

    Another question implicit in your comment is the relevance of maintaining a bilingual state in areas of Canada where populations of French speakers are extremely tiny. At the same time as there’s a certain lack of logic to the “equally bilingual everywhere” approach when the geographic realities indicate vast differences in the practical usability of French, the flip side is that this very fact serves to isolate French speakers in specific geographic regions, and that leads to incredible amounts of discrimination in other regions. A friend of mine is a Francophone language activist in Manitoba, for example, and some of the stories she’s told me about the way Francophones are treated – even bilingual ones – are appalling.

    Lastly, your comment stands as an interesting example of how interest level intersects with learning ability. Especially when it comes to language, I’ve read a couple of neat articles (no sources to cite, sadly) in the last year that indicate that a person’s ability to learn is often directly correlated with their interest – and vice versa: if a person does not want to learn, it’s nearly impossible to force them to. So I wonder how much of the French not “taking” is due to your perception of its pointlessness in the first place. I highly doubt it’s due to any lack of intelligence on your part, given what I’ve read of your work, so there must be some reason… Certainly that would resonate with my own experience of some subjects in high school. Anyway, no value judgment here – simply some musings.

    Two solitudes indeed. Montreal queer culture pulls off some incredibly ingenious hybrids, intersections, overlaps, cooperative efforts etc. And yet those efforts always remain in the minority compared to the vastness of the gulfs that remain unbridged. Inspiring and sad at once.

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