Joshua Jennifer Espinoza Teaches Us The Power Of The Words We Use To Identify Ourselves

I want to normalize change and growth, and I want to live in a world where people have room to become themselves without fear of violence from those whose imaginations are too small to grasp what it means to consciously and intentionally create oneself.

According to most historical accounts, the first record of the word queer being used was in fact as a derogatory term. It happened during the Oscar Wilde trial by a man who intended to slander the writer’s reputation. From then on, it took hold as “the term” to speak offensively about someone. Mind you, this was not just to gays and lesbians, it encompassed anyone who did not fit the social order of gender binaries, including male identifying people who were not deemed “manly” and viceversa for female identifying people. It would not be until the late seventies and early eighties, throughout the AIDS crisis, that the word was reclaimed in protest to the prejudice and apathy towards the community that was blamed, targeted, and marginalized. As Biju Belinky puts it, “As a word that has caused trauma to our community, it is only ours to reclaim and use as something empowering.”

Queer currently stands as a blanket inclusive term. However, it’s understandable why some members of the LGBTQ community would prefer if it just went away. It’s still a trigger word that can take people back to a horrible moment of intolerance and hate. Yet, perhaps the worst part of it is that we’re still far from being an open and loving society. There is some level of inclusion and openness, but it continues to be on the terms of others who are higher on the privilege ladder. As Hugh Ryan explains, there is a level of acceptance for some in the community within mainstream culture, while others continue to be marginalized. “As both an insult and a reclaimed political label, it has always referenced marginalized sexualities and gender identities—the key word here being marginalized.”

Poet Joshua Jennifer Espinoza believes language can be both a medium for transformation as well as a way for us to find our own identity. In an interview with Cultura Colectiva she told us about the importance of words in self-discovery and understanding. As we attempt to move towards a more inclusive society, there will always be detractors who don’t understand why the way we speak needs to change. But perhaps to be unaware of how language affects the lives of others is proof of privilege. If we’re to be compassionate and empathetic to the realities of all people, then we need to understand the role language plays.

“Language can and does shape not just our view of the world, but the world itself. Language is everything, and yet the language we have to speak about gender is inadequate, corrupted, and it exists in the interest of maintaining a harmful binary whose purpose is to subjugate and extract labor from women, as well as erase the history of non-western genders as part of the colonial project. Many people assume this is normal, that this current concept of gender has always been and will always be—but it hasn’t, and it won’t. I am happy if I can play any small part to disrupt this process and, through my use of language, cause readers to question their preconceived ideas about gender.”

Espinoza also spoke to us about how the art of using language to create new perceptions of reality becomes an environment to discover and experiment with boundaries and possibilities.

“Poetry is a space for me to push through my anxieties and imagine a self who doesn’t take any shit, who stands up for her rights, who refuses to be ruled by the language, restrictions, and boundaries of this world. Some people are offended at the idea of poetry-as-therapy—they see it as a corruption of the purity of art or whatever—but poetry literally is therapeutic for me, and I don’t see that changing. Because of the room poetry has offered me to push myself, to play with the idea of the self, and to actualize emotional growth, I have become a stronger, better person.”

One of the things that is great about Espinoza’s work is that each poem feels like a confession. As readers we can’t help but be enveloped into this rollercoaster of emotions as if they were our own. Each line is real and raw, because it’s been crafted as a sensation. By choosing poetry, the author chooses a medium that conveys stories through feelings, rather than prose that conveys feelings through plot.

“I write poetry because certain feelings come to me and I am compelled to express them. In my expression of these feelings, I am always thinking about my position as a queer person in this world, as well the history of queerness and queer struggle. When I write, even when I am addressing things that are very personal, I am always trying to honor this history that I am a part of, because who I am and what I experience is inextricable from it. So, I write poetry in order to better understand myself and my position, but I also write for other queer people. When someone tells me my work makes them feel less alone, that makes me feel less alone too. It’s a beautiful, self-sustaining process, and as someone who is not great at engaging socially with others, poetry is one way I know how to connect to my community and show the love I have for them.”

Espinoza’s poems usually delve into the topic of her life as a trans woman. The poem “Makeup Ritual” weaves the violence and prejudice that affect the everyday of living while trans . It’s about the world’s desire to control and dictate the lives of others, as well as society’s ignorance leading to the marginilizations of particular communities.

“Everyone transitions from one thing to another in their lives, but what would it mean to blur the distinction between “natural” and “artificial” transformations? How is my transition from one gender to another meaningfully different from a birth or a death or a cloud becoming rain or a patch of dirt becoming a garden, or any other kind of transition? I want to normalize change and growth, and I want to live in a world where people have room to become themselves without fear of violence from those whose imaginations are too small to grasp what it means to consciously and intentionally create oneself.”

Yet, there’s an incredible amount of hope in all of Espinoza’s works. It’s through her words that we’re able to believe that perhaps we can yearn for a better reality. Through the language of love and understanding we might be able to transform our current landscape into one that is compassionate and caring for everyone, rather than for only a few.

“Those of us marginalized because of our gender identities and sexualities will not go away. We will not back down. We have a rich and beautiful history of resisting, of community building, of reinventing ourselves and the world around us in order to survive and thrive. We won’t stop until we’ve turned the world upside down and created something new and unimaginable in its place. We have been here forever and we will always be here.”

You can check out more about Jennifer Espinoza and her work on her website and Twitter.