The Revolution of the Misspell

Fury on pronouns, spelling and language as tools for oppression and empowerment

At the age of 5, I had to kiss goodbye to red brick houses, the scent of eucalyptus leaves crushed in hand and the reddened hues of Australia. My mother took my brother and I to Auckland, where we would spend the rest of our childhood. In doing so, she put the entire Tasman Sea between me and my father. He was not consulted. Despite how I feel about my childhood, he has always felt forced into the role of the absent father.

One of the few threads that has linked us together since I was born was the fact that he gave me my name. My last name, Telford, linked our shared lineage back through England. My middle name, Stella, was in direct tribute to his mother. My first name was given to me at his insistence.

When I came out as trans and asked my father to use the name “Fury”, he grieved. He tiptoed towards the conversation, rather petulantly saying, “I gave you that name.”

I empathise. I can see how this would feel like I was severing myself from him and our history. I understand how it might hurt him, but it hurt me too.

For those of us who choose a new name, there is power and pain in taking such ownership

I don’t often talk about my birth name because it is redundant. Like a conch shell, the name has become too small for me. Whenever people can’t understand why I might change it, I’m not sure how to explain the ways it was beginning to suffocate me.

Despite the long history of artists changing their names (Prince, Marilyn Munroe, David Bowie, Elton John, Puff Daddy, Snoop Lion), trans folk are rarely extended the same courtesies. People often flat out refuse to use my name, only recognizing my birth name – and so it is used as a weapon to delegitimise my gender identity.

My birth name is Lucy. My brother’s name is Luke. Luke is 18 months older than me and was designated male at birth. I understand now that the combination of these factors meant that from my birth, the power was skewed in his favour: I was the Eve born of Adam’s rib; I was set up to live as his shadow. Whether or not my parents intended it, I was pitted against my brother — constantly in competition for identity, definition and autonomy.

Naming holds endless importance. Owners name their pets. People name their cars, their boats, their computers. There is a tradition of women taking their husband’s name when wed. In the Catholic tradition, when nuns take their vows, they also take a new name to show their commitment to their new life. Children, of course, are named by their parents and for those of us who choose a new name, there is power and pain in taking such ownership.

Ntozake Shange, a black writer from the US, was born Paulette L. Williams. Paulette, roughly meaning “little Paul” or possibly “feminine Paul”. It is a name that literally derives itself from a man. Ntozake Shange is a conscientious step away from Paulette L. Williams. It means “she who has her own things” and “she who walks with the lions” respectively.

Within the trans community there is an unofficial ritual not unlike Shange’s renaming, where trans people request those around them to adopt their new name. It is a form of reclamation, celebration and rebirth.

This process of renaming is often not recognised outside of queer communities as a legitimate expression unless it is enshrined in legality. Often people use the fact that it is not legally documented to justify their rejection of my autonomy. Considering that the legal system is inherently geared against me as a transgender, queer person*, I am constantly baffled by this bizarre benchmark.

However, this is just one expression or instance in which the legitimacy of a thing is defined by the designated authority.

Within the trans community there is an unofficial ritual... where trans people request those around them to adopt their new name. It is a form of reclamation, celebration and rebirth

In response to a Slate article noting that the Oxford Dictionary has added “fo’ shizzle” and “twerk”, writer and social critic Trudy Hamilton comments: “White ppl being White. Once they parasitically consume twerking, then it’s “valid” & can be added to dictionary. Hence pic.”

The picture she refers to is that of Miley Cyrus. Though the article mentions the history of twerking drastically preceding white, mainstream usage, Slate still chose to couple the dictionary’s absorption of the African American born word with a white figurehead.

Words, in themselves, are actions.

Every time my father catches, then corrects himself using the wrong name or pronoun, it is a reminder. Like the Wizard of Oz, I have stepped out from behind the curtain and, though perhaps I am not what he expected, he is showing that he respects me; he acknowledges me; he sees me.

It is through words that we create space. Not literally, per se, but space in terms of societal construction. There is a symbiosis between how you represent yourself through your use of language and how your language constructs a context for you. This is why people of a certain generation tend to lament that they don’t “get” text speak or why people of colour and their allies have been advocating against the appropriation of the southern drawl by Iggy Azalea.

For this reason it strikes me as strange that so many people feel comfortable following an offensive statement with the defense of humour. That “it was just a joke” is an excuse I have heard endless times. I suppose the intent is to minimise the impact — and by implication, responsibility — of the words they use. With cringe-inducing irony, these people are often affronted when they are subsequently called bigots.

I am assured this is just the nature of the internet. The anonymity and distance that we are afforded through the medium leads us to less accountability and a more flagrant approach to argumentation. Conversations on forums or social media are often derailed. This happens in so many ways, too often as false comparisons or loaded questions. The most telling is when a person is sidelined because they did not conform to certain spelling or punctuation expectations.

Words, in themselves, are actions

Randall Stephens is a Melbourne-based performance poet. In 2011, he won the Queensland Poetry Festivals Filmmakers’ Challenge for the animation of his poemI Statements. In I Statements, he espouses the importance of ‘correct’ punctuation. He tells listeners not to “sell yourself short with incorrect grammar… I, for you, belongs in the upper case, so don’t talk yourself down”.

By linking the use of correct punctuation directly with self-worth, Stephens falls into a fairly basic pitfall. He assumes that those who don’t use said punctuation aren’t aware of what they are doing. He feels the need to 'correct' their spelling not unlike a teacher corrects a student. He does so without considering the writer’s expression of class, race or political agenda may be just as important — if not more so — than buying into, perpetuating, and upholding the status quo assumptions about language and punctuation.

While working at my last job, I came out casually to my workmates but was met immediately with resistance. When I requested that they use the pronoun “them or they, like you were talking about two or more people”, a colleague who I had just met replied with, “I am not going to do that. I speak the Queen’s English… Are we going to have a problem?”

Across Anglo-colonisation, the eradication of culture and identity has been in part due to the forced submission of indigenous populations to the Queen’s English. Through the severing of traditional languages and cultures, forced assimilation meant that indigenous populations became estranged from their cultures and heritages. This is particularly devastating in places such as Australia where the documentation of first nations’ histories are predominantly oral.

Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s poem We Are Going documents the feeling of displacement of the Aboriginal people in the wake of the destruction of colonisation:

Notice of estate agent reads: ‘Rubbish May Be Tipped Here’

Now it half covers the traces of the old bora ring

They sit and are confused, they cannot say their thoughts:

‘We are as strangers here now, but the white tribe are the strangers’

Even the criticism of Noonuccal’s poetry has been laced with racism, with some critics doubting that she had written her work because she was Aboriginal. She recalls the comments of other critics:

…then when they said ‘She must be writing these poems’, they said ‘Well, the reason why she writes good poems is because she’s not a full-blood, you know. She’s got white man’s blood coming out in her’[1]

Ntozake Shange, by way of combat against the racism inherent in the poetry community and, indeed, wider community, purposefully breaks down Anglo-mandated categorisations and rules. "for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf" is described as a choreopoem which is part play, part poem and part dance. It transcends definitions, creating grey areas in the categorisation of art in order to usurp the viewers’ understandings of binary, taxonomic approaches to situations creative and otherwise.

Throughout the script, the spelling of the words and structure of the lines are specifically written in a phonetic way. Readers are able to hear the specific dialect used by people of colour from the US, as an active rejection of ‘correct’ English, subverting and recreating the identity of people of colour. Shange’s work is deeply concerned with the development of language away from the status quo.

Barbara Kruger’s artwork You Are Not Yourself is a representation of De Beauvoir’s concept that women are a non-essential social construct. A woman looks into a fragmented self-reflection with the words “You are Yourself” featured prominently and the word “not” far less prominently. It reflects the idea that women, in particular, are expected to be multiple (often conflicting) things. They are expected to be chaste but not frigid, sexual but not ‘sluts’; they are supposed to be mother and daughter and lover — though never at the same time. These expectations create this fractured idea of self that is sold to women, in particular, as a singular identity – an “I”.

Poetry is one of the few writing mediums that allows for flexibility, play and calculated deconstruction of form in sentence structures or spelling

Poetry is one of the few writing mediums that allows for flexibility, play and calculated deconstruction of form in sentence structures or spelling. Because of this, it is often chosen as a creative medium for activist thought.

Those who are upholding oppressive structures often assume traditional forms as they buy into the cissexist, racist, classist hierarchy that surrounds the Queen's English and acceptable modes of expression. With this in mind, there is an irony hidden in Stephens’ I Statements about people who try to define others. “One shouldn’t put oneself in the lower case/there are millions of mediocre men to do that for you.”

Personally, part of the way that I create my identity is through the use of the pronoun 'they/them'. Contrary to my ex-colleague’s belief, “they/them” is perfectly accurate to identify someone singular.

Consider this conversation:

“I was moving my house this weekend so my friend came over to help out”
“Oh? How long did they stay for?”
“Just the Saturday.”

In instances where the gender isn’t specified, the use of 'they' in the singular sense is completely coherent in conversation. The objection and subsequent struggle, therefore, lies with the person’s definition of the subject. The person who struggles to comprehend the use of the word 'they' is doing so because they have already gendered the subject but are being forced to revert to the non-specific pronoun usage.

I hear a lot of people complain about the usage of 'them' and 'they'. At the previously mentioned job, another colleague was speaking to a contractor. The contractor referred to me as 'she' in passing and the colleague, knowing I was within earshot, corrected him. I swung my chair around and began watching. The contractor, being of the blokey variety, had no context in which to comprehend this new information. His eyesight flicked to me and back again and he defaulted to “What?” on repeat.

In the end, my colleague just said, “Never mind,” and we all went back to what we were doing.

By using the pronoun 'them/they', I am aware that I am, in part, foisting my own circumstances onto those around me. They are forced to consider the same options that I make daily — Do I correct this person? Will I have to explain to them what trans is if they don’t understand? Will I have to defend my colleague if this person is then reductive or bigoted? Do I have the energy to navigate any feelings of awkwardness or embarrassment? But it is a very considered choice as I know it is small, low-key encounters such as these that will accelerate the structural dismantling of transphobia.

Equally I hear a lot of people complain about the other variations of neologism pronouns that have been conjured by the community. 'Hir' is a combination of his and her. Spivak uses 'ey/em/eir' which is the latter half of 'they/them/their'. I have had friends even consider reclaiming the pronoun 'it'. In all instances, however, people can and do claim that these choices are illegitimate because they are supposedly ‘made up'.

I chose pronouns 'them/they' as an active recognition of the deeply complex nature of my selfhood. It is not appropriate for me to deny the fact that I identified as a cis gender girl and woman for most of my life. To consider my cis gender status as a placeholder until I came into my queer identity is to assert that being cis gender wasn’t an active choice. I feel this concept sets up being cis gendered as a “neutral” or “normal” state of gender identity, which is false. It relegates trans identity as marginal, different, wrong or “other”. With the pronoun “them/they” I acknowledge my past and my womanhood in the context of my more authentic present self.

While it is commonly perceived that gender and sex exists as a binary of male to female, this is a fallacy. This binary erases the existence of intersex people and those who do not adhere to the labels “man” and “woman”. While I could acquiesce and use the pronouns “she”, that would effectively hide my gender identity. I want my authentic existence to be acknowledged because it challenges people to redefine their own concept of gender.

I choose to recognise the complexity and accumulation of experiences, opinions, desires and tastes that has lead to my present self. As Walt Whitman said, “I am large. I contain multitudes.”

Cover image by Think Again Training

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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