The phrase “When I call her my husband” startles readers. Their eyes, which previously glanced flippantly over the sentence, now reread it carefully, staring suspiciously at each word to ensure that what they read was correct. “Her” and “husband?” Together? That must be an error! Yet, this provocation is the exact intention of Barrie Jean Borich, award-winning American author, whose essay detailing the intricacies of her lesbian relationship is titled just so. The power asserted by language over identity is similarly discussed in “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” in which renowned Chicana author and scholar Gloria Anzaldúa illuminates the plight of Chicano communities in forming distinct individualities. Both texts are centered around the concept of otherness: the generalization of a person based upon a sole characteristic or group which they represent. Within two differing contexts, Borich and Anzaldúa criticize the problematic nature of binaries for how they deny a person’s humanity and force them to reside in psychological “borderlands” of alienation from themselves and others. In response, both authors illustrate the complexity of the “Others” so that they might be seen for the people who they are and transcend the labels which have been placed upon them.
In the first line of “When I Call Her My Husband,” Borich introduces readers to her relational dilemma: “Linnea [Borich’s partner] and I [Borich] have been lovers for all these years, and I wonder--are we married?” (1). The piece was authored prior to the national legalization of homosexual marriage, when the question of whether or not a committed homosexual couple should be considered a married one was hotly contested. Linnea endearingly replies, “‘I think you’re my wife,’” to which Borich responds, “‘You are my wife, too’” (2). Yet at this, Linnea stiffens. She pulls away from Borich. In detailing these gradations in Linnea's physicality, Borich expresses the distress Linnea’s newfound title causes her. “Wife,” a title which diminishes more than it celebrates, denies Linnea’s “masculine” attributes and compromises her character. Borich and Linnea’s interaction demonstrates the issues that heteronormative terminology poses to lesbian couples. Should one be called “Wife” if she is more masculine than feminine? Can one be called “husband” if she is a woman? Borich and Linnea are pressed to answer to these unsettling questions and are forced to question their personal identities and the status of their relationship. Here, Borich elucidates the immense power that language holds over identity -- an ill-fitting label can estrange us from ourselves and others, distorting our perception of self and making us “unknowable” to even those closest to us (Borich 2). Borich summarizes this struggle in describing the dual nature of relationship diction: “[it is a] language which we are at once completely a part of and completely excluded from” (2). While the title “Married Couple” reflects Borich and Linnea’s intimacy and commitment to one another, it simultaneously represents their exclusion from a binary society.
This alienating property of binary language is also interpreted in “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” but within the context of the Chicano community. Anzaldúa explains how Chicanos struggle to find their place among Spanish purists, who chastise them for “[mutilating]” Spanish with the “oppressor’s” (English) influence and English purists, who disdain them for tainting English with the Latin tongue (467). Neither Spanish enough nor English enough, Chicanos “have internalized the belief that…[Chicano Spanish] is illegitimate, a bastard language” (475). Furthermore, Anzaldúa asserts, this belief causes Chicanos to feel “Pena,” or shame for their language, which consequently undermines their linguistic and ethnic identities (475). As Anzaldúa declares, “I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself. Until I can accept as legitimate […the] languages I speak, I cannot accept the legitimacy of myself” (476). Anzaldúa demonstrates her linguistic pride and legitimizes her language by sprinkling un-translated Spanish throughout her writing. Ultimately, Anzaldúa reminds readers that exclusive binaries and hierarchical language lead to the deterioration of cultures and loss of entire communities. This, Anzaldúa labels “the borderland conflict” (479). And when internalized, this conflict is dangerously demeaning and repressive.
So, how are we to reverse the damaging effects of the binary infrastructure which we have created? Both Borich and Anzaldúa point to acknowledging the incapacity of binaries to describe entire populations as the first step. In “When I Call Her My Husband,” Borich disputes whether “Wife” or “Husband” best fits Linnea. After surveying the two titles, Borich eventually discerns that neither is wholly accurate. She refuses to accept the limitations imposed by binary terminology. Borich further displays the terms’ insufficiencies with four vignettes --one set on the dance floor, one on Linnea’s motorcycle, a third at a nightclub, and the last at Home-- that illustrate Linnea’s complexities and her consequent affinities for both “Wife” and “Husband.” By painting Linnea as at once authentically female and undeniably masculine, Borich reveals the injustice of simplifying a person into a single term. She forces readers to empathize with Linnea and prevents them from othering her.
Anzaldúa also observes the normalization of binaries: “Yet the struggle of identities continues, the struggle of borders is our reality still” (479). A member of the Chicano community herself, Anzaldúa is proof that categories like “English” and “Spanish” are not all-encompassing. Anzaldúa explores this theme linguistically by naming eight different languages spoken by Chicanos --“1. Standard English / 2. Working class and slang English / 3. Standard Spanish / 4. Standard Mexican Spanish / 5. North Mexican Spanish dialect / 6. Chicano Spanish [...] / 7. Tex-Mex / 8. Pachuco”-- in order to demonstrate how such diversity cannot be accurately described by a single term like “Hispanic.” (473). This dramatic contrast between the reality of multiplicity and terminology of singularity causes readers empathize with Chicanos and question the acceptance of such pervasive generalization.
Both Borich and Anzaldúa challenge existing binaries. Borich insists that Linnea is both woman and husband through repeating “when I call her my husband I mean that she’s a woman[...]” incessantly throughout her essay and Anzaldúa echoes this cry in her resounding refusal to assimilate: “Stubborn, persevering, impenetrable as stone, yet possessing a malleability that renders us unbreakable, we the mestizas and mestizos, will remain” (Borich 2, Anzaldúa 480). Both Borich and Anzaldúa challenge Others to boldly own the borderlands in which they reside, claim their distinct identities, and share their stories. And together, in the sweet Spanish of Gloria Anzaldúa, we are all challenged to “[tratar] de cerrar la fisura” between the binaries and strive for an integrated future in which every existence is recognized as legitimate (42).
Anzaldúa, Gloria. “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.” The Norton Reader: An Anthology of
Nonfiction. 14th ed., edited by Melissa A. Goldthwaite et al. W. W. Norton & Company,
Borich, Barrie Jean. “When I Call Her My Husband.” Student Reader, compiled by Frank
Koroshec, 2018. 1-3.