Louise O’Neill

Irish Examiner - Weekend - - Feature -

IWAS on the phone, go­ing through my per­sonal de­tails. We came to the sec­tion about my re­la­tion­ship sta­tus, and the man asked if I was mar­ried, sin­gle, di­vorced, etc. I hes­i­tated, say­ing: “I’m dat­ing some­one, does that count?”, and he an­swered, “don’t worry about your boyfriend, we’ll put you down as sin­gle for the pur­poses of this form.”

His use of the word ‘boyfriend’ reg­is­tered with me. I could have been gay or bi-sex­ual and dat­ing a woman. He as­sumed I was straight, be­cause he as­sumed het­ero­sex­u­al­ity as the de­fault po­si­tion. That re­minded me of a panel dis­cus­sion on gen­der I took part in last year.

The other three par­tic­i­pants were men (one of whom was a per­son of colour). The mod­er­a­tor was also a man. In the wait­ing room be­fore the panel be­gan, an older woman struck up a con­ver­sa­tion with me, even though I was try­ing to go through my notes at the time. Af­ter­wards she apol­o­gised. “I’m so sorry,” she said, “I didn’t re­alise you were a pan­el­list.” She said she as­sumed I was this man’s wife, a man who is, in­ci­den­tally, the same age as my own fa­ther. I was stunned. The one woman in the room, and it was as­sumed the only rea­son I could be there was be­cause I was with a male part­ner.

Nei­ther of these in­ci­dents might seem like a big deal to you. I cer­tainly don’t be­lieve that ei­ther party meant any harm; it was care­less rather than ma­li­cious. I know some read­ing will roll their eyes at my per­ceived sen­si­tiv­ity for even writ­ing about this; peo­ple who would have found them­selves frus­trated at the con­ver­sa­tions last De­cem­ber around the lan­guage used in cer­tain Christ­mas songs, or who felt af­fronted by the news that the HSE urged nurses and doc­tors to re­frain from call­ing pa­tients ‘love’ or ‘dear’.

There have been a great num­ber of Face­book com­ments of the ‘Po­lit­i­cal Cor­rect­ness Gone Mad’ and ‘We won’t be able to say any­thing at this rate” va­ri­ety, and I know there’s a deep re­sis­tance to many of these new ideas, as well as a lot of con­fu­sion. There’s a scene in the stage adap­ta­tion of Ask­ing For It where the mother says some­thing so deeply hurt­ful to Emma, the main char­ac­ter and sur­vivor of sex­ual vi­o­lence, that there is a shocked in­take of breath from the au­di­ence.

The mother rushes on, say­ing that they (Emma’s par­ents) don’t know the right words to use, they don’t know the lan­guage. What was once con­sid­ered ac­cept­able is now not. I was a teenager in the early 2000s, a time when ‘re­tard’, and ‘gay’ were both com­monly used in­sults. Now, one could ar­gue that we didn’t use those words to de­scribe peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties or who were ho­mo­sex­ual, that we would never have done so, but why would you ar­gue that? Why would you want to con­tinue us­ing lan­guage that is hurt­ful to groups of peo­ple who are al­ready marginalised in our so­ci­ety? Why would you in­sist on your right to use ‘re­tard’ as a syn­onym for ‘lame’ or de­mand that ‘fag­got’ re­mained un­cen­sored in a 30-year-old Christ­mas song when rates of sui­cide amongst LGTBQ+ teenagers are so high be­cause of fears they will be re­jected if they re­veal their true sex­ual iden­tity? And it’s easy to say “it was a dif­fer­ent time back then” when peo­ple crit­i­cise said lyrics or com­ment on how dated some of the sto­ry­lines in Friends seem now, but that’s the point. It is a dif­fer­ent time now.

And we need dif­fer­ent ways of us­ing lan­guage to re­flect those changes. Lan­guage has al­ways evolved, as any­one who has ever wres­tled with an Old English edi­tion of Be­owulf will at­test, and it will con­tinue to do so. There is lit­tle point in fight­ing over why it’s ac­cept­able to say ‘peo­ple of colour’ but un­ac­cept­able to say ‘coloured peo­ple’; there are var­i­ous ex­cel­lent, his­tor­i­cal rea­sons for that pref­er­ence but in the end, all we need to know that is the first term is what peo­ple of colour have said they pre­fer and we need to hon­our that.

The same goes for pro­nouns/names used by trans-peo­ple or those iden­ti­fy­ing as non-bi­nary. A friend of mine made this anal­ogy — if you met a man named Wil­liam and he told you his nick­name was Liam and that’s what he wanted to be called, you wouldn’t think twice about it. You would also un­der­stand that it would be rude to

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