COLUMN: Respecting boundaries surrounding controversial language is part of allyship

“Controversial” language, linked to identity, is not for everyone, and people in the community deserve the right to draw boundaries surrounding it.


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Abigail Ruhman is a sophomore journalism major at MU. She is an opinion columnist who writes about student life, politics and social issues for The Maneater.

This column is part eight of Abigail Ruhman’s “Twelve Gays of Christmas: The Sequel” series. Twelve Gays of Christmas is a 12-column series about a variety of LGBTQ topics. During the holidays, members of the LGBTQ community are more likely to experience depression. By informing readers of the issues facing the LGBTQ community, these columns are meant to support the community this holiday season. This year is the second year of this series and shows that even though it can seem like things are fine, there is still a lot of discrimination and challenges facing the LGTBQ community.

Being a part of the queer and gender-nonconforming community is hard. There is no instruction manual on how to shut down homophobic behavior, especially when it is coming from the people closest to you. Not everything that is homophobic or transphobic is as blatant as people think. Just because someone is friends with a queer or gender-nonconforming individual that doesn’t mean that they are immune from crossing into the territory of homophobia and transphobia. Sometimes it is unintentional, but that isn’t an excuse. One of the quiet forms of homophobia is when people assume they have access to community-based language or humor. While friends tend to copy each other’s sense of humor and vocabulary, this doesn’t always apply to identity-based words.

Some interactions are reserved for the queer and gender-nonconforming community. With the ever-present notes of homophobia in society, people within the community may reclaim words and phrases into their humor. This is why you may hear some queer people joke about things “being gay,” but this doesn’t mean everyone is granted the right to say it.

In many cases, these inside jokes can be shared with cisgender straight people within a queer or gender-nonconforming individual’s friend group. The individual may feel as though this is fair because they know that their straight and cis friend’s intention and that, hopefully, they won’t use it at an inappropriate time. However, if a friend has said this is okay, you should still be cautious in situations outside of that friend group.

For many people, hearing a community joke or word used by someone outside of the community can be a sign to stay away. While this may not be your intention, the impact on the queer or gender-nonconforming individual is more important to consider. Some individuals in the community don’t mind the use of these phrases, others prefer you earn their trust before you use them and others may ask you to never say it around them.

It may seem complicated, but there is a complex relationship with the humor and vocabulary of the queer and gender-nonconforming community. As an ally, it is your responsibility to respect a person’s boundaries when it comes to community-based language and humor. With issues pertaining to sexual orientation and gender identity, queer and gender-nonconforming individuals have the right to ask people not to use a certain word or phrase. Just because one person lets someone use the vocabulary doesn’t mean that everyone can use it.

Having a queer or gender-nonconforming friend doesn’t give you permission to use the language all the time. This is not an excuse to disrespect someone’s boundaries. Explaining that your friend allows others to use this language around them shouldn’t be a way to escape an apology. It shouldn’t be used as a way to avoid discussions about boundaries and respecting queer or gender-nonconforming individuals. Rather than doubling down, people should recognize that the boundary is not theirs to control. When someone points out that something you said is problematic in relation to the community, you can mention that your friend lets you say it, but you should then respect that boundary from there.

This also applies to discussing someone’s sexuality or gender identity in a new setting. Just because someone in the community has said something around you does not mean you have permission to repeat that. Individuals in the community have the right to come out and discuss their experiences with anyone. People outside the community do not automatically get to take that knowledge and spread it.

There is a reason that the vocabulary of each marginalized group matters so much. The way that people in the queer and gender-nonconforming community interact with each other can be deeply personal, just like every other community. Using the words, phrases or jokes that are personal to the community without considering the people around you puts them in the uncomfortable situation of having to dictate their boundaries. By not using the humor or possibly offensive term, such as the infamous f-word or saying something is “gay,” people can provide the community with a safe world where they can form confident boundaries without fear.

Edited by Bryce Kolk |

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