Sep 14, 2014
“Occasionally you’ll hear politicians, religious leaders, and newspaper columnists talk about something – vaguely mysterious, possibly fabulous – called a ‘homosexual lifestyle.’ As a card-carrying, lifetime member of homosexuality myself, it disturbs me that I don’t know more about what this so-called lifestyle involves. Homosexual Lifestyle. It sounds like a magazine digest I should subscribe to, or a gay version of IKEA that sells furniture named FUKKENSTOOL and OLKASCHLONG or a TV show about gardening, cooking, and anal. --Benjamin Law, Franke Magazine Issue 60, Summer 2014 Benjamin Law, hilariously and brilliantly, makes an excellent point. Terming something a lifestyle is an insidious act of microaggression imparted on individuals who identify as part of the LGBTQ community.
How so? Let’s unpack what the term microaggression means. The term was first coined by Harvard professor and psychiatrist Chester Pierce in an attempt to define the way members of dominant cultural groups demean and belittle minority groups. More recently, Derald Wing Sue (Columbia professor, psychologist, and author of the book Microaggessions In Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation) defines them as "brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership." Lifestyle is a neutral word though, right? How is it a denigrating term?
Ask yourself the following questions: • Have you ever seen the term homosexual lifestyle used in a positive way? • Does the term promote inclusiveness? • Do you ever see the term heterosexual lifestyle used in media or in conversation? • Or, to corrupt Caitlan Moran’s rule for identifying sexism to my own purposes...do you see straight people having to put up with this? The answer, of course, is no. Using the term lifestyle to designate the LGBTQ experience does several things. It imparts an otherness and implies an inherent difference in existence. It also, in a subtle way, implies choice. It denotes something we do rather than something we are. George Carlin railed against the word lifestyle as a silly part of the English language.
In his HBO stand-up special “Doin’ it Again” he announced: “You will not hear me refer to anyone's lifestyle. If you want to know what a moronic word lifestyle is all you have to do is realize that in a technical sense, Attila the Hun had an active, outdoor lifestyle.” Joe and I had breakfast at Starbucks with another couple yesterday. This couple happened to be comprised of two men. We discussed work, church, the weird stuff that happens when you are raising kids, and why you always spill coffee when wearing a white t-shirt. If there is a Homosexual Lifestyle, I guess I am as gay as they are because our experiences are pretty identical. The point is, of course, there is no such thing. We are all just living our lives…the only difference is we love different people. Franz Boas, the anthropologist, made an interesting discovery when studying American Indian languages. Published in his work, Handbook of American Indian Languages, he found that there is a bi-directional flow between thought and language. What we think impacts what we say. But equally important? What we say impacts what we think. If we use a word like lifestyle, we perpetuate a perhaps unintentional microaggression, but we are also wiring our brains to see difference, rather than similarity.
We are telling ourselves there is an otherness, when we are just people but our LGBTQ friends and colleagues are engaging in a lifestyle. We are all just living our lives, no style necessary. Listen for the term in media and in conversation. Think about how you might choose to respond. I would love to hear what happens.