Dehumanization begins with the smallest instances of maligned word choice.
It’s quite a feat of mental gymnastics to comprehend how far we’ve come as a country in queer representation and gay rights over the past decade. Gay marriage is now law of the land— though it is now precariously positioned on the Supreme Court’s cutting board. We’ve seen hundreds of members of the LGBTQIA+ community come out as their authentic selves in various sports leagues and branches of local, state, and national government. The FDA approved Truvada, which became the first HIV PrEP drug to come on the consumer drug market. The transgender military ban was repealed; “they” became a word of the year.
All of the above represent incredible accomplishments that have been decades in the making. However, this isn’t to say that destructive, traumatic rhetorics of years past have gone away the way of illegalizing gay unions.
We still live in a greater culture defined by the verbiage used by heterosexual cis-white men. It’s odiously exclusive. And the recent choice of words used by San Francisco District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin is a glaring example of just this fact.
In a recent endorsement for former San Francisco Police Department’s Director of Strategic Communication Matt Dorsey to remain the City’s D6 Supervisor, Peskin employed a poor string of phrasing to profess his support for the ex-SFPD employee. Dorsey, an openly gay man, will be running against Honey Mahogany — a prominent SF progressive who currently serves as Chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party, making her the first trans chair of any local, city, or regional party in the country.
“We have, in the current political environment, very different political stances on some issues, but he is the kind of person who I can work with, who listens (and) who knows and has a lot of history at City Hall,” the D3 Supervisor declares, per the San Francisco Examiner, before uttering a line of contextually anti-trans language: “People who I think are real people and who are human and aren’t the stereotype of a political climber are people who are interesting to me, and people who I think are worthy of support.”
Whether an oversight or purposeful jab, Peskin questioned not only Mahogany’s sexual identity but her very humanity — “people who I think are real people and who are human.” By contesting the two, Peskin implies Mahogany’s right to exist as an openly trans woman is, somehow, less than. She’s not human nor familiar; an entity in between that’s still open to interpretation.
Dorsey, who is also a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, was appointed to represent District 6 by SF Mayor London Breed in June after former Supervisor Matt Haney won election to the State Assembly.
Dorsey is a cis-white male. Who comes from a place of vocational privilege. More of his experiences exist within a cannon of implied affluence.
Offsetting Mahogany’s individuality as an openly Black trans-woman in defense of Dorsey is an odious mistake. At best.
At worst? It was an attempt to delegitimize her place in society — and, by proxy, separate individuals like Mahogany from the greater collective.
David Smith, a professor of Philosophy at the University of New England in Biddeford who earned his Ph.D. from the University of London, Kings College, states in his book, Less Than Human, that dehumanization is a slow process. Rather than a sudden shift in thinking, it’s a sequence of cognitive ways, thoughts, and emotions that build over time. And the series of events and understandings that coincide with the dehumanizing populations always begin with language.
Humans are a social species; our understanding of the environment around us is tied to our ability to extrapolate experience from terminologies; in order to cross a busy street, we’ve synonymized crosswalks with safe passageways because of the adopted rhetoric around them.
Words shape our lives — our experiences, our relationships, our ideas of righteousness and humankind. When we use language that moves a certain cohort of people out of the collective, e.g. inviting debate on whether or not someone is a “real person” based on their biology, it gives permission to say whatever we want, to do whatever we want to them. Because the members of that group aren’t human.
These beings, in such examples, occupy a space outside the realms of our morality. Thus, they become other than and less than — a process that all begins with language, which includes diction.
After a dehumanizing tongue is established around a group of people, mental imagery is then built around these words to further push them out of our ideas of humanity. As researcher and New York Times best-selling author Brené Brown has profoundly pointed out in her work: “During the Holocaust, Nazis described Jews as Untermenschen—meaning ‘subhuman’—describing Jews as disease-carrying rodents. The Hutus who initiated the Rwanda genocide called Tutsis ‘cockroaches.’ Indigenous people are often referred to as savages. Serbs called Bosnians aliens. Slave owners throughout history considered slaves subhuman animals.”
These aforenoted descriptors all denote some subsets of humans as vermin or outright unearthly entities that are not from this mortal coil. The language used above, too, is more coded; members of these groups weren’t vilified for immoral actions… they were tossed aside from civilization because they didn’t fit into the majority culture.
In the days following his endorsement of Dorsey, Supervisor Peskin released a formal apology on Twitter (in a very Notes-app-screenshot way).
“I would like to sincerely apologize to the trans and LGBTQ communities for the harm caused by my inelegant comments in support of my longtime friend and colleague Matt Dorsey,” Peskin wrote in a post to his Twitter account this past Sunday, describing himself as an ally to trans people and others who make up the LGBTQIA+ community. “While it was very much not my intent, I could see how those words could cause harm. “I acknowledge my poor choice of words and have been in touch with community members, including Honey Mahogany, to ensure that my intentions are made clear and to prevent further harm.”
The admission from Peskin about his language is admirable. It’s also needed to save face in what is unarguably the gay mecca of the world. While I’m sure his apology will be accepted, it’s no less a cautionary tale as to how pervasive, damaging, and insidious anti-trans language remains.
Dehumanization is akin to cancer — it grows at an anemic pace before overwhelming the host’s body, killing them in the process. And just like when malignant growths are discovered, it’s best practice to remove these tumors before they have a chance to swell and spread and consume healthy cellular life. Let this use of transphobic language be an example we heed, understand, and nip from our aggregate lexicons.
Charnock sure wound himself up over this. Renaming oneself something like “Sugar Kane” or “Candy Mintz” or “Azure Skye” does create an impression about that person’s penchant for theatricality. Strong Oake? Frosty Peak? Shaky Aspen? Cookie Limon? ad nauseum.