Caribbean Adventures With Jas – WI Language

Jas, the gender binary and language troubles. Credits: gadl via Flickr

Jas, the gender binary and language troubles. Credits: gadl via Flickr

Let’s get the introductions thing done: my name’s Jas and I’m agender, polyamorous and queer, so am pretty much in every part of the LGBT+ group. I am on my year abroad at the moment, so this column is going to look at the first-hand experience of life for someone like me both the Netherlands (notoriously liberal) and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean (notoriously less than liberal.) I’m going to make a start by tackling an essential part of the queer abroad experience: navigating the language (de taal, la langue) as a non-binary person.

As a child in an Anglophone country, I called everyone singular ‘they’ instead of he and she because genders didn’t really make sense in my head – I didn’t like choosing which word to use. The sad fact that I used to actually get told off for this lack of unnecessary gendering is a story for another day, but the point I want to focus on is that ‘they’ is a word that exists in English, and can be used in the singular.

Yet, I am not baby-Jas in an Anglophone country anymore. I am big-Jas being a Brit in a Francophone country, and it’s not easy. To complement the fact that my French is nowhere near fluent – it takes me 20 minutes to explain what a vegetarian is every time I meet someone new, never mind what non-binary genders are – French itself is not helping me out.

For one thing, there is no gender-neutral pronoun like ‘they’, and ‘ille’ as a go-to-non-binary pronoun hasn’t really caught on yet. Even worse than the pronoun situation is that EVERY. OTHER. WORD. IS. GENDERED. I admit that these are mainly ‘grammatical genders’, which is still annoying but really not so bad— it doesn’t actually mean a mouse is a girl and a tap is a boy. But when it comes to people, it’s different. I can’t just be English, a singer, strong, or a surfer. I have to be either anglais or anglaise, chanteur or chanteuse, fort or forte, surfeur or surfeuse.

Undeterred by this, and ever-creative, I thought: “Aha! I will just invent my own use of language like I do in England. I will ask to be called English they (just like how the German sie/hir pronouns became a thing in English) and alternate masculine and feminine adjectives and nouns. So I will say : ‘Je suis Jas, le pronom que j’utilise est they/them, je suis anglais, chanteuse, fort et surfeuse.’ ”

But, dear reader, my plan failed. Because what this translates as, when you try and do this in a language other than your mother tongue, is not: “I am Jas and I am using language creatively to express outwardly something about my experience of gender deep within my being.” It is: “I am Jas (and I know you don’t understand this name and will end up calling me Jazzmeeeeeeen against my wishes), and I don’t speak French. In fact my French is so bad that you may want to stop talking to me right now.”

Oh what a good genderqueer start to my life in Guadeloupe – everyone I try this with thinks I’m a-francophone, not agender.

(On a similar note: when you get mugged and the mugger spits the insult ‘maitresse d’esclaves’ (‘slave mistress’ – more on racial tensions in Guadeloupe in coming weeks) at you, the correct response isn’t: “mais non, maître d’esclaves!” You not only accidentally confirm that indeed you do own slaves, and help native Guadeloupeans of colour to hate Caucasians even more, but you don’t get your wallet back.)

Jas Rainbow (GR. Columnist)

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