How do you say “lesbian” in sign language? Chances are that you and I both haven’t the foggiest idea. In all likelihood, we’re (a) not hearing-impaired, and/or (b) do not talk about the existence of LGBTQ people in our daily conversations. And how do we know that something exists until we try and find a word for it?
Semiotics is a term that scared me off the first time I heard it. But it’s really quite simple. Thanks to old Uncle Saussure (the guy who made it an important part of college syllabus) semiotics helps us understand how words work. A symbol, sound, or word (he’d call it a signifier) calls into existence both tangible and intangible things. You know how when you hear “apple”, you immediately think of something shiny, red, maybe you think of Original Sin, Newton, “Twilight” – any of the numerous associations you’ve learnt over the years. When you (a more or less informed English speaking person) hear “queer”, you might think of the rainbow, a pink triangle, a Hollywood actor.
Words help us recognise the world around us. Where do the words for queer people exist? In English, you’ll find an entire parade – the initials of which make up “LGBT*QIAPHK+”. As unwieldy as that acronym may sound, it has advanced the conversation on lived experience, human rights, healthcare, and more. Do these words exist in Indian languages? “Hijra” is probably the oldest, used amongst Hindi and Urdu speaking persons to refer to a transgender person from a specific community. Hindi also has “समलैंगिक” (samlaingik) for same-sex attracted people. In Tamil, trans people have coined words like “திருநங்கையின்” (Thirunangai) and “திருநம்பி” (Thirunambi). What about Bangla? A young pansexual woman from Calcutta does not have a word to describe herself in her mother tongue. In fact, Bengal can only offer “মেয়ে ছেলে” (meye chele), a derogatory word for trans women.
But let’s forget text-based language. What about sign-language?
First, it will give people with disabilities the appropriate mode of communicating their ‘non-normative’ gender and sexual identity.
Second, it is important for the PWD community to acknowledge queerness in their midst, just as it is important for the queer community to acknowledge PWDs.
And it’s only uphill from there.