Friday, August 7, 2009

Eight Words and Phrases to Avoid in LGBT Communications

Language is key to our battle for equality and acceptance. Below is a list of eights words and phrases to avoid when discussing LGBT topics.

Lifestyle or “the gay lifestyle” – Referring to someone’s inherent characteristics as a “lifestyle” demeans that person by referring to who they are as a person as something that is only a “way” of living that they “choose” to follow rather than an immutable characteristic of their being (such as having blue eyes). Anti-gay people and organizations refer to “the gay lifestyle” in their comments about the community and use the term in outreach efforts designed to raise money for their anti-gay attacks by raising public fears about “those people.” Unfortunately, media sometimes fall into the trap of using this word or phrase and marketers have been known to use it as well, even in materials designed to attract LGBT consumers to buy a certain product or service.

Sexual preference or preference – this term brings up all kinds of conversations about whether or not LGBT people “choose” to be LGBT. By inferring that we do "choose" to be gay, anti-gay people and organizations can (often subtly) imply that we’re not deserving of equality because it’s just our “preference” that we’re LGBT and not an immutable characteristic of our being. It’s a really offensive term when used in this manner, but media and marketers still make the mistake of using the term in coverage and outreach.

Choice, choose or “choose to be gay” – this is often the word or phrase that follows usage of the term “lifestyle” or “preference.” As with the latter, using this word is a signal that we “choose” to be who we are and are therefore able to “choose” to be someone else. This kind of thinking is more than just obnoxious, it’s dangerous. By telling someone that it is not okay to be who they are, you tell them that they are less than human. Words do have consequences.

Homosexual – the term “homosexual” is often used by anti-gay people and organizations to refer to our community with an “accepted” term. In fact, the term has been so abused that its usage now seems more clinical than contemporary and it is, to most people, a way to slyly denigrate our community. By referring to “the homosexual community” or the “homosexual agenda,” anti-gay people and organizations attempt to make LGBT people sound like some odd/strange/uncomfortable “other” that is neither good nor acceptable.

Alternative – this term is one of the most overused in the marketers’ toolkit. Used to describe things as varied as music, energy or people, it generally means “not like the other” or “not normal.” While generally viewed as less offensive than other anti-gay code words such as “preference,” the term “alternative” as used in LGBT communications contexts is negative and unnecessary.

Tolerance - this term is increasingly seen as antiquated as social mores change and the general population becomes more engaged and involved with LGBT people. In the past, talking or writing about “tolerance” was fine because there was so much intolerance towards LGBT people in the world (it was an improvement at least). Now, with changes in society, the idea of “tolerating” LGBT people is becoming anachronistic. LGBT people don’t want to be “tolerated” (like a headache or other nuisance), we want to be accepted for who we are. And as equal members of society, we ought to be.

Special rights – this term is frequently used by anti-gay people and organizations to position LGBT advocacy for equal rights under the law as a negative, selfish attempt to secure “special rights” that LGBT people clearly do not deserve. The right to have access to a partner during medical procedures or the right to be recognized as a married couple is not “special,” it’s just human. Unfortunately, this term is often included in media coverage of LGBT issues, often without any challenge to its patently false nature and anti-gay connotation.

Friend – this term is often used to refer to the partner or spouse of an LGBT person in place of the term partner or spouse. In that context, it carries the unfortunate stigma of discomfort and/or lack of respect for an LGBT person’s relationship. A significant part of engaging us as individuals is based on acknowledging the people in our lives, including our partners or spouses. Far from being polite, half-acknowledging someone’s relationship by referring to their significant other as a “friend,” is rude and disrespectful (not to mention socially awkward).

Crossposted via Out Front Blog.


Anonymous said...

I have never liked the tolerance term. In schools, there was a whole "Teach Tolerance" campaign for years. I felt that was teaching inherent superiority feelings, i.e. you must tolerate others.

From a Buddhist foundation, I believe we should be teaching and living equanimity. Equal beings, equal rights.

Marilyn Freeman

Anonymous said...

Could You come back with the list of "good things to say" ?
Knowing what not to do is 1/2 way there.

Not Important said...

The one that gets me still is referring to someone as "a gay." Using gay as a noun puts so much emphasis on the person's orientation that we lose the identity as a person.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

"friend" is an overreaction. It's a common term whether you're gay, straight, or martian. In my family (and most of the families I know) if I were to bring home a girl the first question would always be, "Who's your friend?" If a girl called me, the statement would be, "Your friend called." This is because while it's somewhat awkward to call a girlfriend a friend, it is significantly more awkward to call a friend a girlfriend. (You can reverse genders for males if you happen to enjoy having sex with the buggers, I for one do not.)

I understand that maybe you didn't realize that this is just a fairly common method of avoiding awkwardness when you really just don't quite know what the relationship between two people is and considered it a derogatory term against you and your partner, but it's really not.

I don't expect you to change your mind, however. I suspect I'll get raccuously flamed for having an alternate point of view, but then again I suppose that's why the term "tolerance" is now out of favor. Cheers!

CrackerLilo said...

Thank you for this--it's a reference item!

I love that the term "friend" was included. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it so damn much!

To "anonymous" above me, I understand it in a social setting among strangers as you describe. I do not understand it when it is in, say, a newspaper profile, where one would hope that the interviewer got to know her/his subject a little bit.

It is derogatory when you know damn good and well what the person in question is to another. Imagine, please, having your beloved wife or girlfriend--the one you would kill or die for--referred to as your "um, friend" by someone who you've just told about her. If you'd appreciate that kind of treatment, I pity you and your, um, friend....I mean, your wife or girlfriend.

T. R Xands said...

I'll never get why people post comments then run off claiming they'll be flamed *rolls eyes* I really don't care...

But thank you for this. I admit I use "friend" myself occasionally if I'm not sure about someone's relationship, but it is weird to refer to someone's partner as just their "friend". Now that I think about it it's downright condescending. Still using "alternative lifestyle" just fails though, wow.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this. I personally can't stand the words "friend" or "tolerance" in that context.

But for the life of me, "homosexual?" That's not offensive. You're right, its clinical. It means "gay". It's counterparts are "heterosexual" and "bisexual", neither of which are offensive in the least.

I agree though, its annoying when people use it as a stand in for LGBT.

Amy K. said...

In regards to "anon" above: Not knowing whether two people are more than friends or not is not the issue here. My fiancee's father has referred to me more than once, as her "friend." He KNOWS we're together, and he KNOWS we're more than friends. But she still tends to hear, "How's your friend doing?" That is when it's disrespectful and a no-no.

MAJ said...

I hate the word homosexual because it defines who we are entirely by genital sex. Being gay involves so much more than that! If sex didn;t exist, I'd still be gay. It especially allows anti-gay people to discount our lives as valid. It may be "clinically correct", but being gay is not a clinical condition.

Anonymous said...

As John Corvino says, it's not a lifestyle, it's a life.

I always counter the choice people with the fact that I no more chose to be gay than they did to be 'straight'.

Anonymous said...

Her fashion is so bizarre she was probably wearing a strap-on underneath her panties.

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