Léah Miller: Queer Identity Within Gendered German

people walking through colorful gallery

I had a layover in Dublin and I enjoyed this rainbow walkway. Too on-the-nose?

Hi everyone! I arrived in Berlin a day and a half ago and I am so glad to be back in the city, with a fresh set of intentions. I spent last fall at NYU Berlin and I am glad to continue my relationship with the city through a new academic adventure that brings me closer to my intellectual interests.

My project concerns the affective and bodily experience of having a gender, while primarily using a gendered language—in this case: German. My broader Gallatin concentration is called Labels as Tools: the Linguistics of Identity. I am fascinated by the way that people shape their identity with (or without) labels and then come to understand these narratives as something stable and internal—often without attributing it to the level of conscious thought. For this project, I will speak to Germans, ideally some queer and trans Germans, about how they grapple with a binary language that completely genders all pronouns, nouns, and articles. What words do people choose to define themselves, what words are ascribed to them without their consent, and what is the relationship between these words and physical embodiment? Of course, most people do not usually reflect on these topics in their own native tongue, so I have crafted questions that will hopefully get them to discuss this naturally, leaving plenty of room for me to analyze the data.

I have only just arrived, and unfortunately, I have yet to interview anyone yet, so I do not much to share on this blog yet. I have several interviews lined up in the next few days and even more set up for early next week. I will certainly check back in after I get a few done so I can really comment on my process. Right now, I am full of anticipation and excitement and a big floating question mark.

I am personally invested in this research, as I identify (in English and in selective spaces) as non-binary, and use the singular gender-neutral “they” pronoun. I study many languages and often travel, and this topic is of immediate relevance to me. I also believe that relevance carries over into a broader audience. I am not yet certain exactly how, but I know I will do much reflecting on that as I begin to draft my paper. I am currently struggling with the line between a valuable inclusion of my personal narrative surrounding gender and language and attempting to keep a more traditionally structured “objective” research agenda. I am not trying to empirically prove some hypothesis on the psychological effect of gendered language on a person’s relationship to gender; rather, I am hoping to analyze my data as personal narratives rich with possible connections. Firstly, I am not qualified for such a task neither as a new researcher, nor within the scope of this small-scale project. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I am not entirely convinced such a venture is possible and/or desirable. While I do understand and value the importance of contextualizing oneself amidst a body of knowledge, I also believe that no reported Truth can be taken at face value—knowledge production is socially/historically/culturally situated, and the history of research and knowledge about gender difference and queerness has been especially fraught with (often violent and painful) political and social agendas. (As always, I’m thinking about my pal, Michel Foucault and his understanding of power networks).

I am still a little bit free-floating with my research questions. I was hoping to be more settled at this point, but I am hopeful that it will start to clarify and focus in as I begin to talk to my subjects. I do not think I will get to the root of these questions, but here are some of the things I am thinking about as I dive in to my research.

  • Is gendered language necessary? What purpose does it serve in grammar and semantics?
  • Is it possible to have truly gender-neutral language (that accounts for systemic exclusion and inequality—where neutral isn’t always assumed straight, white, male, cis, and so on)?
  • What does it feel like to embody gender within gendered language?
    • Outwards: one must decide/assume a stranger’s gender in order to speak of them
    • Inwards: gender is constantly ascribed to you by strangers based on physicality, voice, clothes, hair, and so on.
    • Grammar: Is there a link between human gender and gendered objects/abstract ideas?

Okay, that’s all I’ll say for now, but I am looking forward to really getting into it. I also just found out that this weekend is Berlin’s Pride (called Christopher Street Day). How serendipitous! I hope to take advantage of that, if I can!

Bis bald im Wald! (my favorite German expression–it literally means “see you soon in the forest”, but it’s an equivalent of the English “later, alligator!”)

Not immediately relevant to my work, but I visited my favorite museum again yesterday, das Jüdisches Museum (the Jewish Museum). There was an amazing new temporary exhibit called Cherchez La Femme [“Look for the woman” in French] about various practices of modesty and faith that require/ask women to cover themselves in different ways. It was curated partly as a response to the well-documented banning of the “Burkini” in Nice, France last summer. [Top photo] “Covered” by Anna Shteynshleyger. A self-portrait by an American Orthodox woman. She is wearing both of her “sheitels” [“wig” in Yiddish–many religious Jewish women wear them as their head covering instead of various fabrics] on her head, and covering her face. [Bottom photo] A large collection of meticulously labelled and differentiated head/face coverings, mostly of the Abrahamic faiths. I had heard of most of them, but I learned a lot of new ones as well!

2 thoughts on “Léah Miller: Queer Identity Within Gendered German

  1. I am so excited to see where this project takes you, and am glad to see that you are incorporating Foucault into your work! It might be helpful to take a step back after doing some interviews and consider broader ideas of tradition and social stigma in relation to this specific cultural context. Perhaps labels take on completely different meanings or do not exist in the way one might expect them to, which could either hint at or reflect some of the themes from your conversations. I think your relationship to the project (specifically your personal experience with the subject matter) will really make a difference and allow you to provide an interesting perspective.

    1. Hey Lindsay! Thanks for reading this and giving feedback! I will definitely think about that, but I think at this point, I am most interested in the space for gender within language and pronouns and less so on the labels used to describe queer identity. However, I still have a lot of wading through my interviews to do.

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