Choose Your Words With Cuidado

~ for the full essay, pick up your copy of 50 Ways to Support Lesbian and Gay Equality


I was a bad kid, an American brat, the first generation born to a Colombian mom and Cuban dad. Coca-cola tasted better than my mother’s café con leche and I wasn’t shy about saying just that to my mami and my aunties. On my way out of the kitchen, I could feel my auntie’s words slap me at the back of my head: “Qué india.”

Qué india. Translated literary it means, “What an indigenous woman.” But when my aunties said it they weren’t thinking of beautiful, brown women. In Colombia and throughout Latin American countries, being called “una india” is a verbal insult meaning that you’re uncivilized and inferior to white Europeans. So when my aunties called me “una india”, they meant that I was misbehaving, that I wasn’t acting right, that I wasn’t following the rules. They were, I believe, a little frightened that my behavior was so different from what they had expected.

It didn’t help my “india status” when I started dating women.

My aunties stopped talking to me for a year. They were hurt and scared, I imagine, and speaking would have meant acknowledging those feelings. I was actually relieved that we weren’t speaking because I didn’t know what I would have said. Dating women was exhilarating and frightening, and finding the words to match the experience felt akin to shopping for the perfect pair of jeans: Nothing fit.

Having grown up moving between two languages, I knew that words failed me as much as they saved me. The words I knew in Spanish for being gay weren’t positive ones. The common one I heard was “del otro lado” which literally means you’re from “the other side.” But I didn’t think of myself as being from one side or the other. I wanted a word that described my romantic relationships regardless of whether I was dating a woman, man, or someone who is transgender.

By the time my aunties and I did start talking again, I wasn’t sure what to call myself. My family didn’t speak in English and so while I had settled on the word “queer,” that didn’t have a good Spanish translation. I found that other women had struggled with this and made words bend to their intentions. I have met women who call themselves dykes, locas, boi-crazy lesbians, butches, mariconas, machas, and perhaps my favorite, “I’m just that way, you know?”

Words are something that everyone struggles with, straight and queer alike. We hear someone say “that’s so gay” and maybe we stay silent because we think, “Well, they didn’t mean it THAT way.” When this happens for me and I don’t speak, it is usually because I’m afraid to have a confrontation. But words matter and we have to choose them with cuidado, with care. Just think back to the first time you heard the words “cooties” or “you’re such a nerd” in grammar school (or in my case “qué india”). Words that put gay people down are not just about someone else. They are about all of us.

The word “queer” translates in Spanish to being “rare.” But I don’t like feeling as if I am an animal on the verge of extinction, so I have settled on “lesbiana” in Spanish because I want to honor in my native language my relationships with women. In English, I use the word “queer.” It was a compromise. Words often are.

Steps for Equality

  • Speak up when you hear someone making a slur against queer people. Think twice the next time someone says, “That’s so gay.” Without a self-righteous tone in your voice, let the other person know you’re not comfortable with how the word is being used as an insult.
  • Avoid using insults yourself. Sometimes, without thinking about it, we repeat what we hear around us to express our own anger or fear. Next time, take a deep breath and then speak about what the person did that bothered you. That will keep you focused on what happened rather than attacking the other person or trying to make them feel bad.
  • Write to newspapers and television stations when they print or air derogatory stories about the LGBT community. The media is made up of everyday people, many of whom do read the letters and emails they receive. When you write to them, you have a chance to influence how they will talk in the future about the lives of gay people.