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by Lyric Rivera

Jan 5, 2024

The Great Power of Language – Why the Language We Use for Both NeuroDivergent and Queer People Matters and Is Life-Changing

Why the language we use for both NeuroDivergent and Queer people matters:

Our biases impact how we perceive and treat people. When we are unaware of our biases, we may mistreat people without realizing it, meaning people may unintentionally discriminate against those they are biased against. We live in a society that favors and values straight, cis, NeuroTypical people more than it values Queer, NeuroDivergent individuals, and the language of our culture and its social hierarchies reflect that.

Language is powerful because it shapes our social reality, influencing how people think and behave. We can destroy negative stereotypes or unintentionally reinforce them through our chosen language and words. Our language can enhance our empathy and understanding of one another (if the language is humanizing and affirming). However, if language is stigmatizing (or separates people from other humans), it can further harm and contribute to the exclusion and stigmatization of marginalized people. Using more positive language can help those in society become accepting and accommodating of members of various groups. Because language is powerful, it can be a tool to oppress (or liberate) people.

Language is often used to preserve society’s values (and prejudices) by enforcing societal norms and standards.

Hierarchies (that place the value of one type of person above another) have historically been reinforced through the use of degrading and stigmatizing language. When we describe a group negatively, it affects how society views and treats that group (and may also impact how people within the group view themselves). We can use inclusive language to break down social hierarchies and stereotypes, creating environments where we are included equitably and feel valued.

Over the past few years, as a trans person, it has been terrifying watching the wave of anti-Queer propaganda, bills, and media sweeping many parts of the United States (where I live) as well as other parts of the world. A few years ago, things seemed to be looking up for Queer people, but now I find myself watching in horror as the anti-Queer hatred spreads.

Throughout history, behaviorists have dehumanized the groups they work with by creating categories for their behaviors. Conversion Therapy is ANY behavioral modification program that uses negative and positive reinforcements to coerce someone into emulating behaviors that are forced and unnatural to them to make the person blend in and appear more “socially acceptable.”

As a multiply-NeuroDivergent Person, I’m used to people using stigmatizing and pathological language to describe my NeuroTypes and having my “behaviors” categorized as “undesirable” (especially concerning my Autism and ADHD). They separate us by labeling things (such as meltdowns, shutdowns, and overloads) “Autistic Behavior” instead of seeing that Autistic People are showing normal human behavior (for the amount of stress we’re under while not having our needs met).

The anti-trans movement has done similar with trans people.  Anti-trans people will sometimes say “transgenderism” instead of “Trans People.” This language is used in an attempt to dehumanize Trans People by creating a category for “trans behavior, “Implying “no Trans People exist,” only people who “engage in” or “practice” “transgender behavior” or “transgenderism.” We saw similar use of dehumanizing language and other forms of Queer medicalization in the 1970s-when being Queer was considered a mental defect, treated with gay conversion “therapy”(with devastating results).

The anti-queer movement says those of us who don’t fall in line with cis-hetero-normativity are immoral,” “unwell,” or “attention seeking” – ignoring the fact that many of us have tried to blend in, tried to be straight, tried to fill the roles of the gender we were assigned at birth (and were miserable or near death from it). They dehumanized Queer People by separating our behaviors from our personhood, labeling anything “Queer” as “undesirable behavior” that needed to be “extinguished” (similar to how society currently does with most forms of NeuroDivergence today).

There are people in this world who like to pretend cishet and NeuroTypical people are the default state of society. Nowadays, people cry, “I’m not cis, I’m normal,” and “Cis is a slur.” Not long ago, it would have been, “I’m not straight; I’m normal!” Our society’s social hierarchy places “normal” (a social construct dependent on time, place, and space) at the top, and everything that can be “othered” falls below this ideal of normativity.

If heterosexuals are considered the default state of humanity, and all other orientations are considered secondary, it places them below heteronormativity. If cis-gendered people are considered the default state of humanity and trans people are othered, it places us (trans people) below cis-gendered people in the social hierarchy. Similarly, if “NeuroTypical” is set up as “normal” and those of us who “diverge” from that “norm” or average (aka NeuroDivergent people) are othered, we are placed at the bottom of yet another social hierarchy.

Ideally, no one group listed above would be considered “the default state of humanity,” we would all be viewed as normal human variants in gender, orientation, and brain type. Ideally, we would use more positive, humanizing, and affirming language (that doesn’t enforce oppressive hierarchies and structures) to describe members of various marginalized groups, rejecting language that harms, stigmatizes, and keeps people down.

Gender Identity, Mental Health, Neurodiversity

by Lyric Rivera

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