Code-switching is a term used in linguistics for describing the experience of people who must alternate between different languages or ways of communicating in different contexts. This idea goes way back: during the colonial era, indigenous people might have alternated between their own language and the language of a group in power over them, or perhaps a mix of the two.
For minorities, it might not always be two different languages, but different styles (for instance, the 'languages' of the streets and of the boardroom). One person may speak many codes – I might switch between academic language I use with scientists, business language for business colleagues, kid-friendly language, slang with my friends, and so on. When I lived and worked in the South of the US, I picked up some 'southern' and drop back to it now and then.
Code-switching can also be seen outside spoken language – you may maintain different sets of partially overlapping wardrobe to 'fit in' in your social and occupational circles. And maybe if you ever tried to 'Like' a text message on your cell phone, you realised you didn’t code switch between your technologies! All in all, though, there’s a nice side to code-switching – it makes us all feel like we belong to speak in our own semi-private codes. On the other hand, anyone left in the 'majority' – our straight, dominant culture men friends, for instance – they don’t have to switch between codes much, because the world was 'coded' for them; is this really fair to us?
Queer code: switching within our own spaces
Code switching can be a really important part of the LGBTQIA+* experience, too, particularly early in the coming out process. A lot of us find immersing ourselves in queer-friendly spaces, from gay bars to Pride, to activist spaces; a really important part of building our queer** identity. But these spaces have their own codes.
Transgender spaces, for instance, often explicitly describe gender identity ('I identify as a woman') and pronoun preferences ('I prefer she/her'). In other queer spaces, this may be new thing – lesbians and gay men who don’t go to transgender spaces may not be any more used to this than straight folk. In activist spaces, I can talk about intersectionalism and make references to Shulamith Firestone or Julia Serano, be understood, and bond through this understanding (in other spaces, maybe you talk about your favourite football club to do this).
Shared code = sense of belonging
So, these queer spaces, in which we find our identities, bring with them new codes. These new codes make us feel like we belong to something – coming out and transitioning seems far easier to me when I have my sisterhood. Another layer for those of us in the process of coming out is that we may be open to be in these spaces in a way that we cannot be in public. For me, as a transgender woman, a big part of that was allowing myslf to be visibly a woman. That is, wearing make-up, jewellery, skirts, and heels.
Moreover, it’s having people 'gender' me as a woman and respond in complex ways, good and bad, to perceiving this about me. I’m not trying to 'impersonate' anything, but I did kind of keep my instinctually feminine ways of interacting – how I occupy space, how I gesture and gesticulate, how I use body language – sort of 'in check' during my history of pretending to be a man (this is how I see it, anyways, and for sure, I’m not getting invited for guy nights, so I’ve never been sure how much I’m fooling anyone!). So, I don’t really try to 'put on' feminine mannerisms so much as I now let them out, although I do have to learn, of course, things like how to sit in a skirt without exposing myself and where to put the extra inches of leg my heels give me.
Something particularly interesting I’ve experienced as part of this is the increasing number of people who now know me both as a woman and as the sad-imitation-of-a-man-I-have-to-keep-up-for-just-a-while-longer (sorry, no offense to actual men… I love you, I just could never be you!). Some people now mostly know me as a woman, but occasionally bump into me in male guise. Many more have known me for a long time, and are adjusting to the idea of my transition and may have just seen me in feminine form a couple of times. For the ones I know both professionally and in queer spaces, they’ve been extremely gracious about the fact that they run into me in both forms, somewhat unpredictably, based on where they might see me. Sometimes, they see 'girl me' one night and 'guy mode' the very next. They actually have been amazing about this – friends comment on Facebook that it was good to see 'Mira', when there was no 'Mira' out that night. And they are so gracious when I’m having what Jenny Boylan calls a “bad gender day” and I look like a hot mess!
Managing my own code
Occasionally, there are slip-ups. A dear transgender woman friend greeted me loudly across the room, in a public space, as “Mira,” when I was in male guise, and I freaked out! The moment passed, and it was an amazing night (Laverne Cox was in town to speak). At other times, I’ve let slip in a conversation that I know so-and-so, and I have to scramble to find a discreet way of explaining how I know them, since the actual explanation would be difficult without outing myself.
For me, I have some visibility in my pre-transition life, and I think the only really serviceable way of transitioning is to let the world know who and what I am, but I also don’t want to have to have my trans-ness be the topic of every conversation, and during this critical time period when I am not 'full-time' (that is, presenting in a way that matches my gender identity, i.e., as a woman, all the time), it makes sense for me to manage who knows what, when, so that I can make sure friends get my coming out directly from me, that important business relationships feel supported through this, and just generally so I'm safe, since transgender people, and transgender women in particular, do face a significant risk of violence.
So, during this part of my transition, I have the unique experience of living this interesting life, presenting as male and female, trying as much as possible to keep some kind of barrier between the two, although I do find myself also relaxing my attempts to keep my feminine behavior out of my supposedly masculine identity. I find myself mentioning queer theory concepts in 'straight' professional spaces and realizing I let the wrong kind of code slip (although I think all these straight people need to read more feminism, personally!). I kind of smile and nod, and don’t really make a big deal out of the points of confusion.
Let the mistakes happen!
Today, I’m in 'guy' mode, although I’m wearing mostly androgynous but technically women’s clothing. When I went through the scanner at airport security, I needed a pat down, and the male inspector initially called over a woman, who turfed me back to him. I just smile and nod and let them pat... It’s not worth drawing attention to the situation, and part of me is gently amused as I stop getting 'gendered' as male. I switch my codes as I need to, as best I can, and when mistakes happen (me or someone else), I remember my symphony conductor in high school. He used to say, on concert night, “let the mistakes fly,” meaning it will seem more natural to everyone, and often they won’t even notice them, if you don’t raise the warning bell yourself.
What are your own experiences with code switching? Do you feel that you speak one or more queer codes? Have you had slip-ups or close calls, whether they’re funny or they had serious consequences for you? And as you’ve continued past the early days of coming out, do you see your code switching as a strength, a kind of secret language of queer people that helps us build community and feel connected to each other (much as sites like gays.com do), or a burden or blockade to your authenticity, that keeps you from a simpler life where you could just be you, everywhere? And how much do you think we should do to expand our code into the common vernacular? Should we push the majority to understand queer experiences not just by listening to queer stories but learning the way we talk, just like we have spent our lives learning the way they talk? Would the world be better if our schools and our board rooms and our locker rooms were compatible with the code of queer spaces?
*Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trangender, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, and Allies… that is, all of us!
** We don’t have a really good language to include all of us, but I’m going to use queer as the way I identify, both with respect to my gender identity and with respect to my sexual orientation, and when I say queer, I mean all of us who do not conform to society’s expectation for one or both of those things.
Mira Charlotte Krishnan is a psychologist and freelance blogger. She writes about transgender issues, inclusivity, feminism, and helping the queer community take its rightful place in the broader world, including the professional/business world.
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