M. Carroll: The words that you choose matter
November 23, 2013
Editor's note: This column originally appeared in the Nov. 15 edition of The Denver Post.
"Say what you mean and mean what you say because the words that you choose matter."
When Boulder activist Ash Beckham made that remark earlier this year at Ignite Boulder 20, she was primarily talking about the outdated and pejorative use of the word "gay." But her larger message of tolerance and acceptance seems to be spreading.
Broadmindedness is not a topic that's offered as a course at the University of Denver, but these days it's a hot-button issue there nonetheless. A couple of weeks ago, graffiti describing some students in hateful terms followed by the word "Beware" was scrawled on a mirror in a campus dorm. Fortunately, the bigotry targets found a way to turn the tables — and tone — on the animosity directed toward them.
To counter the verbal assault, students posted their own graffiti around campus as part of a makeshift campaign called Be(A)ware, with missives such as, "I am a Latina, and I am proud to be a Pioneer because DU celebrates the differences that make us unique and stronger as a community. I belong here."
A message of inclusiveness is also pervasive at the progressive Colorado College, perhaps most especially as it came to light recently that the school uses the word "queer" on job applications in a box whose choices are also "not disclosed," "male," "female" and "transgender" for candidates who voluntarily agree to indicate their gender.
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While the school acknowledges "queer" can be seen as offensive, they also say that "others have reclaimed it and are comfortable using it to describe themselves," according to The Denver Post.
John Kichi, 66, who took Colorado College's use of "queer" public, and who is gay, told ABC News he thought it was just as distasteful as if they included the N-word in a box describing race. It might, indeed, be a dicey matter to put "queer" on a job application, but Beckham argues that those younger than Kichi have a more modern definition of gender expression, identity and sexual preference.
"They don't want to conform to what they think checking the standard boxes mean," she told me. " 'Queer' isn't the ideal word choice for everyone, but (Colorado College) has done their homework. They're trying to reach out to the people who struggle with the existing options. They're bringing visibility to those people who don't identify all the time as one or the other. 'Queer' is a small but underserved group that is invisible without that box."
The problem is that words can be a complicated and exponentially nuanced matter. Think about the butterflies in your stomach the first time someone reciprocated your feelings of romantic love. Or how your mouth gets dry and heart races while waiting for a doctor to deliver dreaded test results. What of the spring in your step upon receiving an encouraging review from your boss? Words move us — emotionally, of course, but also physically.
Preschoolers are taught that words can hurt as much, if not more than, punches. Along the way, however, some forget that what comes out of their mouths has a tremendous amount of power, and use their words irresponsibly and even violently. While there are a smattering of laws protecting against hate speech, they don't always cover places like the Miami Dolphins locker room or school playgrounds. The scars left from words can remain long after the physical wounds heal. "You can legislate tolerance," said Beckham — who is a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activist. "(But) you can't legislate acceptance. That takes a societal shift."
Colorado College may not have made the best choice by their use of the word "queer." Still, they got people thinking about the right things for the right reasons, which might not have been their intention, but like the students behind the Be(A)ware campaign at DU, at least they're heading in the right direction.
Meredith C. Carroll, of Aspen, writes regularly for The Denver Post. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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