Where Logic Meets Love

Discussing LGBTQ People: 8 Mistakes You Might Be Making

Friday, August 17, 2012

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Discussing LGBTQ People: 8 Mistakes You Might Be Making | Faith Permeating Life

In recent years, I've noticed more organizations and individuals attempting to become more "aware" of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) community. This might include things like asking a group of women about their "significant others" instead of their "husbands" or "boyfriends," or offering options other than "male" and "female" on a form. And don't get me wrong: This is awesome. More inclusiveness and more awareness of diversity is fantastic.

But someone who hasn't really familiarized themselves with the "lingo" of the gay community, or who doesn't actually understand what it means to be transgender, can end up making some awkward mistakes. I see this happen a lot with straight Christians who want to be affirming but don't really know what they're talking about. They might still be using the language they hear other Christians using, which can be incorrect or hurtful.

So I felt like, for the sake of conversations on this blog, a post to clarify some things would be helpful.

Huge Disclaimer: I do not personally identify as any of the letters in LGBTQ or related initialisms*; I am a straight ally who writes and reads a lot about issues affecting those who do identify as LGBTQ. Some of what I'm about to say is a generalization, as people's personal sexual and gender identities are unique and don't always fit labels. So please
  • correct me if something I say here seems way off base
  • and don't assume that every individual who identifies as LGBTQ would agree with everything I say here.

With that out of the way, here are some of the most common mistakes I've seen, and how to address them:

Using the Word "Homosexual"
Justin Lee, director of the Gay Christian Network, talks about this in this great presentation on how churches can be more welcoming. If you look at LGBTQ-friendly writings, you'll find that almost everyone uses the term "gay" (or "gay and lesbian") to describe someone attracted primarily or solely to people of the same sex. If you look at Christian writings that paint this kind of attraction as a sin, you'll find that a large majority use the term "homosexual." So be aware that many people have a knee-jerk negative reaction to the word "homosexual." If you want your message to get across, use the same terms that the people you're writing about most often use: "gay" to describe attraction to the same sex, or "LGBTQ" to be refer to all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning individuals.*

The same stigma does not apply to the word "homosexuality" (which I myself use in my Resource Guide to Christianity and Homosexuality) since there's not a clear substitute noun, but if you are using the word "homosexuality" a lot, you're probably going to come across similarly to those who say "homosexual" all the time.


Talking about "Transgender" as a Third Gender
There is no universal definition of "transgender," but probably the most accurate I can be is to say that it means identifying as something other than the gender you were assigned at birth. This could mean being assigned the gender "male" at birth, but identifying as female. So having gender options on a form that say "Male," "Female," and "Transgender" is confusing. A person could be a trans woman, thus being both transgender and female. I think when people include this kind of option, they are trying to be sensitive to the fact that not everyone identifies as male or female. The term I've seen used most often by people who do not identify strongly as only male or only female is "genderqueer," but not everyone uses that term.

A more accurate, though certainly not perfect, form might have the options "Male," "Female," "Genderqueer," "None of the above," and "I prefer not to respond." I've also seen forms with "Transgender FTM (Female to Male)" and "Transgender MTF (Male to Female)" as options, but realize that adding these options could make someone feel they need to either "out" themselves as trans or lie.

It might also be helpful to ask yourself whether it's necessary to find out someone's gender at all; sometimes people collect demographic information by default and not because it's needed for anything.


Referring to a "Gay Lifestyle"
Not even because it's offensive so much as because it's meaningless. There is no "gay lifestyle." Again, I only hear this term used by those trying to shame or judge, since those connected with the LGBTQ community seem to understand that there is no single way to be gay, bi, trans, or queer. And as Justin Lee explains, when people refer to being LGBTQ as a "lifestyle," they generally mean something like "a lifestyle of sexual addiction and escapism." Some people do have this kind of lifestyle, but they come in all orientations and genders. Most people who identify as LGBTQ have a life that looks identical to the average straight person, except for whom they date or are married to (if they are not celibate).


Using "Gay" as a Noun
This is another common pro-gay vs. anti-gay writer difference. I have pretty much never seen anyone in the LGBTQ community use the phrase "the gays" except in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way. "Gay" should be used only as an adjective. "Bisexual," "transgender," and "LGBTQ" should also be used only as adjectives, while "lesbian," for whatever reason, can be an adjective or noun.

It should go without saying, but if you're talking about an individual, you should only include their sexual orientation if it's relevant to the story you're telling or point you're making. If it would sound ridiculous or out of place to say that someone is "a straight man" in place of where you've said "a gay man," then do you really need to include that?


Talking about "Sexual Preference" Instead of "Sexual Orientation"
I find it hard to believe this is still necessary to discuss, but just about everybody who's ever studied this in-depth (scientifically or qualitatively) agrees that almost nobody actively chooses to be gay, bisexual, or transgender. Even most "conversion therapy" programs don't claim to change who people are fundamentally attracted to; their "success" (if you can call it that) comes when gay people stop pursuing same-sex relationships and start pursuing opposite-sex ones. Using the term "sexual preference" implies that a person prefers to be attracted to the same gender or multiple genders, not that they simply are attracted to that specific group of people.

The other problem with this phrase, in my opinion, is that it reinforces the notion that LGBTQ individuals are obsessed with sex. (See also: Talking about a "Gay Lifestyle.") If my husband and I were to discuss with each other our "sexual preferences," I would take that to mean "what we like to do in bed." Using the term "sexual preference" to talk about the gender(s) to which someone is attracted makes it sounds more like a sexual kink: This person likes having sex with women just like this other person has a foot fetish. And that's not at all the case. That's like someone saying I married a man simply because I'm turned on by the thought of having sex with a man. I married a man because I'm attracted to men. (Or, more accurately, because I'm attracted to my husband!)

Also in this category: If you want to talk about someone being very public about their sexual orientation, use the phrase "openly gay" or "openly bisexual." Phrases like "avowed homosexual" make it seem like someone has staunchly committed themselves to being gay no matter the cost, whereas the reality is that many people facing severe discrimination have gone through periods where they've wished they could stop being gay, no matter the cost. And using the term "admitted" makes it sound like being LGBTQ is something to be ashamed of -- which it's not.


Conflating Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Maybe having everyone grouped together as "LGBTQ" makes it confusing, but I see this mistake a lot. A trans man attracted only to women likely identifies as straight, as does a trans women attracted only to men. If you're using the term "LGBTQ," it's important to talk about "sexual orientation and/or gender identity." Also, it's extremely inappropriate to try to define someone else's sexual orientation for them; if someone was designated as female at birth but identifies as male and is dating a woman, it would be wrong to say they are "really a lesbian." If mentioning someone's gender is important, use the gender they identify with. Ditto to sexual orientation.


Using Words like "Normal" and "Alternative"
Those designated as female at birth and who identify as female are not "normal women"; when discussed in contrast to trans women, they're "non-trans" or "cisgender." A man in a relationship with another man is not living an "alternative lifestyle"; he's living a life that makes perfect sense to a man who is attracted to men. There's no reason to use value-laden words to contrast people by gender identity or sexual orientation. The fact that one group constitutes a majority (heterosexual) doesn't mean that group constitutes a "norm" from which others vary. The majority of Americans are white, but you wouldn't ever say someone was of an "alternative race" or "deviating from the ethnic norm." It sounds just as ridiculous to use these kinds of phrases when talking about an LGBTQ individual.


Misunderstanding "Transition"
Someone who is designated as one gender at birth but who does not identify as that gender may choose to begin expressing the gender(s) with which they identify. This can take many forms: Asking others to refer to them with different pronouns and/or use a different name, dressing in clothes more typical of a particular gender, taking hormones such as estrogen or testosterone to change one's voice and/or develop bodily characteristics (hair growth, breasts) associated with males or females, having surgery to remove one's breasts, or having surgery to change the shape of one's genitals. Not all trans people take all of these steps. If someone identifies as male and asks you to use male pronouns to refer to him, then you should do so, even if this person does not wear what you consider to be male clothes and even if this person has not made any hormonal or surgical changes to his body. Some people need surgery to feel comfortable in their body, but others do not; you should never assume someone has had or wants to have sexual reassignment surgery, and it's rude to ask someone if they've had "the surgery" or are planning to.

On a similar note, some people prefer dressing in a manner more typical of another gender but do not identify as that gender. A man may be straight and identify as male but like wearing clothes that are more stereotypically female. Again, it's best not to make assumptions about people's sexual orientation or gender identity based on superficial things such as how they dress or talk.

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Those are the primary things I would look out for. As I said above, this is far from being all-encompassing, either of the potentially offensive or incorrect terms or of every person's experience or identity. The most important message here is simply to educate yourself; if you're going to write or talk about or to any group of people, it makes sense to learn about their experiences as much as possible and get to know what terms are acceptable and which are offensive.

Understand that this is not just some abstract notion of being "politically correct." This is about respect: respecting people's identity and personal experiences, just as you would want your own identity and experiences respected. For many in the LGBTQ community, it's also about not aligning yourself, through the language that you choose, with those who have insulted, discriminated against, denied rights to, or physically assaulted them.

This might be difficult to understand if you've never experienced it yourself. An analogy (albeit a weak one) that comes to mind for me is that my name is an important part of my identity, and I dislike the nickname "Jessie." If someone continued calling me Jessie after I'd asked them not to, that would be incredibly rude, though not unforgivable. But if that nickname was something I'd been called by someone who verbally and physically abused me, and another person knew that and still insisted on calling me Jessie, it would not be unreasonable to say they were intentionally inflicting pain on me. This is why I say that, regardless of your personal views, if you care about LGBTQ individuals, you will be as accurate and respectful as possible with your language.

***One final important note:*** As much as I want to hammer home the importance of using accurate and respectful language, I also don't want to scare you. Keep in mind that because so many LGBTQ individuals have faced discrimination and hatred, saying something in love, even imperfectly, is often better than saying nothing at all. As long as there are still people experiencing hatred and crying out for "positive, affirming Christians" in their life, speaking up out of true love and support can never be wrong.

Here's some suggested additional reading:

*Not everyone uses the same initialism, but LGBTQ is the one I currently see most often. You might also see LGBTQIA, which includes intersex and asexual individuals (or allies). The longest one I've seen is probably QUILTBAG, which adds a U for undecided/unidentified, although I'm sure there are some out there that squeeze in Pansexual and Omnisexual as well.

8 comments:

  1. This is a useful guide to some of the complexities of terminology and politeness that can be hard to get your head around, especially if you have no experience interacting with GLBTQ people or being in an environment where they're treated inclusively.

    The gendered pronoun issue is a tricky one in situations where either you really can't decide which gender is being most clearly expressed, or you can tell the original biological sex of the person but can't figure out if the clothing etc. indicate transition or just personal preference. The best thing I've found to do is avoid pronouns (or other gendered words, as in, "Let that man reach the shopping carts.") and if I have used one and the person corrects me, apologize and do my very best to use the right words going forward. Interestingly, I've found that the manners here are exactly the same with transgendered adults as with little children whose gender isn't immediately obvious--except that when you meet a four-year-old named Ariel with longish curly hair and a red shirt, it is okay to ask, "Are you a boy or girl?" whereas genderqueer adults, no matter how ambiguous their appearance and voice, usually are offended by such a direct question.

    The majority of Americans are white, but you wouldn't ever say someone was of an "alternative race" or "deviating from the ethnic norm."
    Those particular phrases have never been in use, but "person of color" and "racial minority" are still around. I agree with your points about not using "normal" or "alternative" and not mentioning sexual orientation in contexts where it doesn't matter...but I think this is an oversimplification:
    If it would sound ridiculous or out of place to say that someone is "a straight man" in place of where you've said "a gay man," then do you really need to include that?
    If it would sound ridiculous or out of place to say that someone is "a cisgendered biological mother whose pregnancy resulted from heterosexual intercourse" in place of where you've said "a transwoman becoming a mother by adoption," then do you really need to include that? If you're discussing why she's not going to breastfeed, then it's relevant, yet you wouldn't have to spell it out like that if she were the most common type of "expectant mother."

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    1. It can be tricky to determine the appropriate word to use when you're not sure if someone is dressing to express a particular gender or not. Sometimes you have to take a guess and risk being corrected, as you said. I think the main things to be aware of are (1) you could be wrong about someone's preferred pronouns, no matter how much you think you can "tell" what their gender is and (2) you should use someone's preferred pronouns no matter how they present themselves.

      "person of color" and "racial minority" are still around
      Yes, and "sexual minority" is also used, and is basically an accurate term. Pointing out that some groups are not as prevalent demographically is not the issue here; it's the framing -- talking about minority groups as being a deviation from some "norm."

      "then do you really need to include that?" was not intended to be a rhetorical question. As you said, in some cases (a story about breastfeeding) it could be perfectly reasonable to discuss someone's gender identity. But where I want to challenge people is to think about why they're including the modifier "gay" or "transgender" -- is it actually relevant to the story, or central enough to the person's identity that they want that information included? Or do you just have the notion that people's sexual orientation needs to be mentioned anytime it's something other than straight?

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  2. This is a more than necessary guide, and I thank you for it, even if only for a resource I can send to others. I have to say that I identify more with radfem views concerning trans* individuals, which I know can potentially become problematic, as many in that community can become quite confrontational or disrespectful, but I believe that even if I fundamentally disagree with the person I'm discussing these issues with, I can still use their preferred language out of respect and love.

    Once again, thank you and God bless! :)

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    1. Thanks for your comment! This is a message that comes up on this blog frequently -- we will never all agree with each other, but we can seek to understand one another's point of view and be respectful in our language choices.

      I would definitely love for you to pass this on to others!

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  3. Thank you for writing this. It's so refreshing to see dialogue rather than condemnation. I just came across this randomly. As a mid-life non-Christian lesbian, I appreciate you!

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    1. Thank you! :) There are a lot of Christians, straight and gay, who write in support of the LGBTQ community -- you can find links to many of them here.

      Dialogue is what we do here at FPL, so I encourage you to click around and share your thoughts on any post!

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  4. This is a good list! I think it's really important to use the terminology that LGBTQ people are using if we want to show acceptance rather than judging.

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    1. Definitely. I think sometimes people think they're showing acceptance by the message they're trying to get across, but they don't realize they're using words that are problematic.

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