I spent some time this weekend catching up on the news and came across a story called ‘Trial opens for lesbian seeking to return to the military‘ (edited to add: the story has been updated and is now titled ‘Former colleagues testify for lesbian flight nurse’). The title of the article drew my attention because I was curious as to why the Seattle P.I chose to label Maj. Margaret Witt as a ‘lesbian’ rather than call her by her name. I wondered, what was so important to this article that the Seattle P.I felt it necessary to call this person a lesbian above and beyond all other things? What power does the word ‘lesbian’ carry that Maj. Witt’s name does not?
Tiffany, we’ve been having a lot of conversations lately regarding identity and the power that words play in establishing identity. And, I think this story is a striking representation of what we mean when we say our culture is all too willing to marginalize certain people by placing arbitrary labels on them. For example, if this story had been about a straight white woman, would it have read ‘Trial opens for heterosexual white woman seeking to return to the military’? Absolutely not. Yet, to label Maj. Margaret Witt as ‘lesbian’, and nothing more than such, is somehow considered appropriate. Could this possibly be about fear over the so-called ‘radical homosexual agenda’?
Maj. Margaret Witt has served her country in the military for 19 years. In order to do so, she was forced to hide a part of who she is. Now, unjustly, she is having to fight for her honor in a court of a law. And, ironically, the one aspect of herself that she was forced to hide is now the one aspect she is being identified as! Shouldn’t we as a society have enough maturity to respect her service, move beyond fear and understand that her struggle is a civil rights issue, and not a ‘lesbian’ issue? We should. But, apparently ‘othering’ Maj. Witt as a lesbian for the sake of a catchy, fear-mongering news headline is still acceptable.
To offer some context to this issue of words, I ran across another column that I encourage everyone to read. In her article ‘What are Words Worth?’, Princeton University Professor and Nation Magazine contributor, Melissa Harris-Lacewell argues that social and political structures at play are what truly bring power and meaning to the words we use. As examples, Harris-Lacewell looks at the cultural and political background surrounding some of our nations most historically significant speeches on social justice. Although her article doesn’t specifically focus on GLBT issues, her points are still applicable to Maj. Margaret Witt’s story.
Sadly, our culture continues to be polarized by fear of ‘others’. Harris-Lacewell ends her article with the following quote “Do not be afraid of the talking; it is time to work”. I couldn’t have said it better myself.