In A Queer History of the United States (for Young People), Michael Bronski/Richie Chevat writes “The words that we as LGBTQ people use to describe ourselves can change the way the world looks at us and the way we feel about ourselves.” With this in mind you can understand why it is important to have words that we feel positively represent who we are, as these words help to shape society’s understanding of us. It is easy for someone – who is privileged, or who, at least for the majority, fits into what society deems acceptable or ‘normal’ – to misinterpret our need for accurate terminology, and to simply wave away our problems. They do not face these problems themselves, thus they do not understand the importance. It is not simply the labels that we need. A word is just a word. However, the way in which society interacts with us, based off of the inherent emotion reactions to these words and the histories of the words that have been used prior to the invention of these new words, drastically impacts our day-to-day lives in more complex ways than can be comprehended by most. Slapping a new label on an old practice or identity does not suddenly change things, but it does help people adapt and allow us all to consciously evolve – which shapes our future.
The Power of Terminology
Changing your terminology isn’t just an act of self-love and strength, it isn’t just about you. The way in which you decide to label things affects the rest of us, as well. You, along with all of us, have the power to change things for ourselves AND others. It affects the community as a whole. Nonetheless, we have to remember that these labels cannot be all encompassing, and have very hard limits on their abilities to accurately depict an individual’s entirety. Labels help to improve the way in which we see things, but cannot give a complete image of who someone is. Even when labels are overlapped to the best of their ability, no one person can be fully described by the labels that are pinned to them (or the labels they pin to themself). As Michael Bronski/Richie Chevat writes “Words are important because they are not neutral. The word we use to describe something can change the way we feel about it. This is especially true when we use words to describe groups of people. We have to remember that these labels are shortcuts and can never fully describe any individual.”
The History of it All
The part that most people don’t take into account with terminology, though, is its history. Not only the history of the words, and the words that came before those words, and the times in which they had a lack of words, but the ways in which those words did, and continue to, impact people. James Baldwin once wrote, “History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”
Knowledge is Power
With that in mind, it can become very evident why LGBTQIA+ histories need to be taught in schools. Not just because we, as everyone else, are humans and our histories are part of the histories of humanity; but because the act of learning about these histories will impact the way in which we – and all others within the LGBTQIA+ community – see ourselves, as well as impact the way in which others view us. Only by understanding someone’s past will you be able to see them fully in the present. Without a knowledge of past events there is little reference for us to know how to move into the future. Knowing where we are from, understanding all that has impacted us, acknowledging the ways in which society has been shaped – as a whole – by the histories of those like us, and the histories of those who have impacted us, has a ripple affect.
Allies Not Enemies
The idea here is not to hold onto the past, but to allow our past to propel us into the future. We don’t need to hold grudges for the ways in which we were once treated. We do not need to get back at people. Revenge in never the answer, and it won’t help. It is perfectly acceptable, and understandable, if you become angry about things that have happened in the past. But we should never allow actions of the past to impact us more than the influence of those actions still lingers within our society. The presence of ideas, or beliefs, and the ways in which people treat each other, all matters! But do not hold someone accountable or responsible for actions or words of those other than themselves. It is easy to get lost in the idea that everyone who is in some way descendant from those who mistreated your ancestors deserves to pay for the past, or that they somehow owe you forgiveness. Be careful here. Do not create enemies where there are none. Do no create hate where there is ignorance. Ignorance can be tended to, whereas hatred is not so easily resolved.
Where there is a qualm there is also an opportunity. Do not push people past the brink of understanding. If someone is open to learning, allow them time to learn. Do not fight against their current lack of knowledge. Our society plays a big part in the ways in which people are taught about things, and the things in which they are taught about. It is not always an individual’s failings for having less than what you had hoped they’d have in respects to knowledge about your people’s past or present. You by no means have to be the fountain of knowledge here. It is not your responsibility to quench their thirst for curiosity. However, we need to remember that the fact they have the curiosity is a step in the right direction already. Do not squash what could be the start of someone’s journey into knowledge. This individual may become an ally. An ally, or potential ally, should never be turned away due to ignorance. Even those who seem the most unlikely can eventually, with time and research, become quite powerful allies.
It is also important, when learning for yourself or when helping others embark on learning, that you are able to find and engage with reliable sources. WHO has written the histories is just as important as WHAT is within them. It’s all about perspective. A history written by someone who was not at all involved within that history has less merit than one written by someone who was at the heart of it. Though, it is important to to note that realities can sometimes be very distinct and sometimes blur together, regardless of where you’re getting your histories from. Also, that it is important to review histories from multiple perspectives, since even just perspectives from two individuals who were both at the heart of the same history can have very different views. The previous histories of those individuals impacts the ways in which they perceived the histories they now write about. All histories intertwine, as do all people. Impacts, no matter how small, spread out across a population and ultimately interact with everything. We are all connected by this.
Still, it is important to check the reliability of those who are sharing histories. What ways are they connected to those histories? What are their credentials? What previous works have they published? Who is willing to stand with them to help prove the truth of their histories? Though fulfilling all these research categories is not always necessary, or even possible, it is still important to use critical thinking when examining bits and pieces of history, as we want to try and get the most accurate interpretations as we possibly can in order to make educated decisions about our own futures, and to form adequate views of others. The best sources are those that are first account sources; though we must take everything with a grain of salt, and remember to not let the words of one individual derail our ability to stay open to new information from others.
Take pride in your histories, in our histories. Be conscious of the ways in which you impact the present, as well, since all of today’s events will become tomorrow’s histories. Help us take leaps forward, not small steps back. Accept diversity, help combat ignorance, and try to hold a true understanding of yourself and where you come from. Allow the world time to evolve, but continue to nudge it along so that it never becomes static. Be compassionate towards others. Always use humility when trying to get to know someone. And above all else, be honest with yourself – for no good change will come from one hiding one’s true form. Though others may never fully grasp our identities, our realities, or even our histories…we must always be capable of holding confidence within, and appreciation for, ourselves. Keep both feet in the present, while your mind delves back into the past, and you’ll be able to embrace our future.