Terms to Avoid…

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We all know the obvious ones, they don’t really warrant repeating, but I’ll give you two examples: Faggot. Dyke.

 

These two terms are never thrown accidentally, or by the arm of good intent, they are malicious, sharp slurs that, while many in the gay community have reclaimed as their own, are almost always deeply offensive. Obviously.

 

HOWEVER, the arm of good intent sometimes tosses out other terms that hit harder than they were ever meant to. When I hear the person that spoke it, typed it, tweeted it, I try to gently correct them, but then, I watch a deluge of heartfelt apologies come crashing in. Mistakes happen, but this seems to have gone too far! I imagine in these moments, somewhere out there, behind some screen, there is a lot of cringing and sighing and hands knocking heads. A lot of unnecessary guilt.

 

But listen, I get how tricky these conversations can be. Often, a word might just be the easier one to use in questions about the LGBTQ community as it quickly cuts to the chase of your ask. In a lot of ways, some words make more sense.

 

(Good example, Rachel Held Evans got some pushback on one post in which she used the term “homosexual relationships” opposed to same-sex romantic relationships. Rachel pointed out that she was primarily discussing orientation, where she uses both heterosexual and homosexual descriptors, and she didn’t use the term LGBTQ [rightly so] because this conversation wasn’t about Transgender people. Rachel went in and carefully edited the piece, so as not to distract from the conversation.)

 

Some might call mine and others’ offense to these terms (better said, the context in which they’re used) as overly-sensitive or censoring every conversation with Political Correctness, but the truth is, the terms make the conversation difficult. See, when you drop one (often, without knowing), my mind takes a detour from whatever conversation we’re having toward the pungent odor that that term brings in. It places you in a position of distrust, suggests a lack of concern on your part, be it fair or not.

 

But most of you, I know are trusting and considerate, and you just don’t know the harm of these small, but volatile social tacts. So I want to invite you to explore a few common ones. I hope you appreciate this!

 

Let’s start with…

 

 “Lifestyle”

 

Peggy Campolo, wife of Tony Campolo and gay rights advocate, once said,

 

“Madonna and I are both heterosexual women, but we live drastically different lifestyles.”

 

Her point? Gay people aren’t living into a lifestyle anymore than straight people are. We’re intricate and varied, human beings with jobs and families and, for a lot of us, a faith in Christ our hearts have been dyed in.

 

Typically, “lifestyle” has been used to suggest that being gay is a picked out identity, similar to choosing to become a Vegan or a Republican or a Chair Maker. It has been used for political reasons, arguing that gay people are not a class of individuals, but a bunch of straight folks suddenly choosing to be gay.

 

It seems so absurd now, but the word still has really sharp edges, an awful smell and would be best to be barred from this conversation.

 

(Also offensive, Sexual Preference)

 

“Homosexual”

 

I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with this descriptor, not because it’s not true of my sexual orientation, but because it feels as if I am being labeled in some lab somewhere, like an exotic frog.

 

For many, this word drums up the long dark history of clinical diagnoses of homosexuality as a mental disorder, which have been refuted now by the entire medical community. Even deeper, due to it’s clinical connection, this word was used by anti-gay people to stir fear into communities about the diseased homosexuals. It played into crude images of animalistic, depraved people that didn’t have any moral code or boundaries. It was used to stoke hatred.

 

Again, totally true in describing exclusive same-sex attraction, but inappropriate, offensive to use in reference to gay people.

 

“Admitted Homosexual”

 

As I explained above, homosexual isn’t a good word to refer to someone as, not because it isn’t true about their orientation, but because it drags a long history of abuse and detracts from the conversation.

 

Speaking of someone as an admitted homosexual is a double whammy. It perpetuates shame, that being gay should somehow be kept secret, or, on the flip side, something you should admit to others about, as if everyone is entitled to this part of your life. BAD TERM!

 

(Also offensive, Avowed Homosexual)

 

“Homosexual Relationship”

 

Very much the same as the above term, but slightly different. It boils the entire love, relationship, family of gay couples to what goes on in the bedroom. This has a history of use by anti-gay people to subtract love and meaning to intimate relationships, and instead play into the deviant, sex-crazy narrative.

 

~

 

I want you all to know that here, I am a very gracious person. We hold a small LGBTQ group at my church, one where people come and share their stories, and often, a straight newcomer will use a term that I will later explain to them was probably the wrong choice. They usually do something like this:

 

And I’ll lean in, throw a hand on their shoulder, simply say: “Grace.” They came because they wanted to learn. I showed up because I wanted to share. Out there on social media, people are trying to interact, trying to keep up, trying to educate themselves and humble themselves and take the necessary steps to loving their neighbor. These words detract from that, even if it is unintentional, they sort of ruin conversations. But there is always grace to go around, you can certainly expect that from me.

 

To check out other terms to watch out for, along with suggested words to substitute, check out the GLAAD Media Guide. It’s a great resource that helped me put together this post!

 

  • Michael E. Anderson

    I disagree with “homosexual” being a bad word (not with admitted or avowed, of course). The word “homosexual” should be an accessible on the grounds that is all you have access to if you’re wanting to communicate someone’s orientation to another who doesn’t have the same relational views as you. If feel like pressing someone to use “same-sex romantic” in the place of “homosexual” is being too demanding (I admit it). The phrase is accurate–don’t get me wrong, but if I’m in a relationship with a man, we are still in a “homosexual relationship;” that’s just what it is by way of the prefix “homo-” and root “sexual.”

    Clinical words should not sting. This one does because privileged folks abused it, true. I feel (my opinion) homosexual folks should be trying to take this word ‘back’ if they do have aversion towards it, otherwise you have an imbalance between the words heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, pansexual, etc.

    I am not saying the hurt folks should “suck it up” (they shouldn’t be expected to be held accountable for the abuse they went through anyways) but we (if we are in a position of strength–which we all have our arenas) should be careful about making language be a tiptoe game for other people if some see it as good (includes myself).

    I also swear a lot and like to push through and utilize uncomfortable things to change how people think. I am not a good role model for some folk, I’m sure. 😉

    • the autism community talks a lot about using “people first language,” and i think one of the biggest problems with the homosexual signifier is that it is sex-first language, unevenly applied in a way that is meant to marginalize, playing up “deviant” sexuality over personhood. (i remember during the olympics it came out that a baptist news org had an algorithm intentionally changing instances of “gay” to “homosexual” ended up reporting on Tyson Homosexual’s relay!)

      clinical words are for clinical settings. people deserve to self-label how they like, and we ought to honor that.

      • Krista Dalton

        This is a great comparison Suzannah!

      • People-first language, I love that. And I completely remember that news org!!! I think there was a funny play on words as one of his competitors had a suggestive last name, the two were mentioned in the same headline and looked like a porn title or something.

  • Nita Holiday

    Thank you. This is so helpful, especially for numb-skulls like me who want to learn, want to help where possible, want to be a part of the conversation but fear offending someone inadvertently. By use of certain terms and language it is quickly apparent how much knowledge one has. Sometimes it feels safer to just listen from the sidelines. There are times when that’s a cop out. However, listening is a great first step to learning, and people in privilege (like me) would be wise to listen more than we speak. I appreciate your attempt to educate, and the insights from you and your commenters.

  • PurpleAardvaark

    This evokes the line that runs from colored to negro to black to African American to …. Every time I learn what I thought was acceptable it becomes unacceptable. Reminds me of the old Abbott & Costello episode where Bud is teaching Lou to drive and want him to reverse so he tells him to “back up” and then immediately says “go ahead” so Lou goes ahead and this continues through multiple iterations of “Go ahead and back up” until Lou finally gets exasperated and says “Why don’t you make up your mind!”

  • Erin

    Great post! I think careful language is especially important for allies in traditionally conservative settings. As I’ve been coming out, I’ve found myself listening much more closely to conversations, trying to figure out who was safe to talk to. The language they used was usually an important clue.

    Also, how do you feel about “openly gay?” It makes me feel uncomfortable the same way that “admitted homosexual” does (in that it seems loaded with the idea that being open about your orientation is bad), but I’ve also heard some people I thought of as fairly gay-friendly use it. Thoughts?

    • I share the same reservations, even as I was writing this post, but the way I came to see it is, ‘Openly’ gay seems to imply a pride, a choice to live authentically… Admitted seems to imply guilt or shame.

      • Erin

        Interesting nuance. It makes sense, though. I think part of my discomfort is probably just context, which I hadn’t really considered before. The times I’ve been uncomfortable with the phrase, the speaker was implying something negative about the “openly gay” person and sort of blaming it on his/her orientation.

  • Thanks, Ben. This is helpful. A few weeks ago we wrapped up a discussion group on “Torn” at my church where we spent some time talking about vocabulary. I think I’ll share this with the participants.