What you always wanted to know about LGBTQ language (but were afraid to ask)

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I love language. I love its power, beauty, and flaws. I adore etymology, linguistic anthropology, linguistic semantics, and collecting interesting quotations. Some of my most-prized possessions are books, including a signed, first-edition/first-pressing of Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird.” Language can do more than any other force on Earth, for good or otherwise.

You may not be familiar with this word, but it’s a fun one: argot. An argot is a special vocabulary of a particular group. They can be very useful as a tool for group cohesion and identity. For example, asking “When does the narwhal bacon?” is used by Redditors to identify themselves in public to other Redditors. (I don’t feel bad about spilling the beans because only Redditors even know what a Redditor is, anyway).

Lots of groups do this in lots of different ways. In cases where there is some kind of motivation to keep the information secret unless you know how the other person will take it, you can use argot and see what happens. An old-fashioned term for this among gay people is “dropping bobbies” or “dropping hairpins.” For example, you can mention Brokeback Mountain and see if your conversation partner reacts negatively or not. Argots work in much the same way: Among other things, they help LGBT people & allies identify each other in conversation without asking directly.

If you don’t have a background in LGBTQ issues, you may be inadvertently causing offense. I presume that, if you are causing harm unintentionally, you would like to know about it. So, that’s why I’m writing this.

I sometimes see even otherwise well-educated people make errors in this realm. I do it myself! I understand that it’s not out of malice and I hope no one blames people for honest mistakes. But in the interest of correcting these things, I want to point out a couple of misused terms I’ve noticed floating around the interwebz and in conversation… No one is upset here, but I think that by educating people about this, we can all live a little more peacefully.

Not all people, even among LGBTQ activists, agree about the correct or incorrect use of all these terms, or as I like to say, “Homosexual does not mean homogeneous.” If you’re unsure, ask! Even the “stupidest” question will be well-received if you make an effort to come across as sincere and genuinely curious in your inquiry. Most of us – if not all of us – are very understanding people who desire to get along and help everyone become more educated about this. It’s just a matter of consciousness-raising, and patience is a big part of that. We’re not out to get you if you say the wrong word or something!

It seems to me that a lot of people are either 1) unaware that they are causing offense or 2) aware that they may be causing offense but don’t know what words to use instead, and are afraid to ask, for fear of offending someone. I can’t speak for all LGBTQ activists when I say this, but I would much prefer you ask and show me that you are at least trying to have empathy, than to say nothing.

It’s perfectly okay to talk about this stuff and we don’t mind if you bring it up (if we have the time and are in the mood to discuss it). In fact, a lot of us appreciate your interest, if you’re respectful and sincere about it.

A lot of us activists enjoy talking about these things, especially people like me, who are interested in linguistics. In linguistics, this is called “lavender language” and it has its own jargon flush with highly-charged semantic underpinnings. No one expects you to know all of this as if by magic. But if you’re trying to forge a friendship or conversation with a foundation of respect, it really goes a LONG WAY to get the details right, and I hope to help with that in my post today.

Let’s start with “LGBTQ” itself. This stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (or Transsexual), and Queer (or Questioning). Some people leave it at LGBT (or sometimes GLBT); others append one or more Qs, and -I or -IA for intersex & ally. I have seen LGBTTQQIA in print (for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual,Transgender, Transsexual, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, & Ally), although personally I think that’s too unwieldy to be useful. I prefer “LGBTQ,” or when referring to allies like me, “LGBTQ ally,” but you are unlikely to offend anyone if you stick with “LGBT.”

This is a huge topic and obviously I’m not going to be able to cover everything in one post. A lot of LGBTQ activists will probably disagree with me about this or that aspect of lavender language, and that’s okay. I encourage further reading if this topic interests you. For now, without further ado, here are some pointers for those interested, but afraid to ask:

  • There is no such thing as “the gay lifestyle” and this term is considered very offensive by most every gay person I know.
  • “Gay” is appropriately used with a copula syntactically, not as a substantive adjective with an indefinite article. That is, “Tom is gay” is a totally acceptable and appropriate use of the term. “Tom is a gay” is often considered quite offensive. If you use “gay” as an adjective agreeing with an appropriate noun (e.g. “Tom is a gay man”), it’s debatable but certainly less offensive than “a gay.” The word “gay” usually applies to men but it’s totally acceptable to refer to a woman who is oriented toward other women as “gay” as well. Again, if you’re unsure, just ask. It’s generally considered offensive to say “Tom is homosexual,” as this makes use of distancing language (see below).
  • This should go without saying, but in the spirit of being clear, the terms “homo,” “faggot” or “fag,” “flamer,” “queer,” “fruit,” “queen,” “dyke,” “lesbo”/”lezzie,” “fairy,” “trannie,” “sissy,” “poof,” “twink,” etc are off-limits unless you know EXACTLY what you’re doing. Several of these words (dyke, queer, among others) have been reclaimed from the realm of pejorative slang and are a point of pride and identity among some LGBTQ people, but these words have very specific meanings and misusing them is easy to do and can cause extreme offense. Think of these words the way you think of the word “nigger”: Under very specific circumstances they can be inoffensive or even affectionate, but unless you really know what you’re doing, it’s best to avoid these terms altogether. Of course, if you are talking to someone and that person indicates that they prefer a certain term, then go for it!
  • “Homosexual” and “homosexuality” are considered offensive by most LGBTQ people. “Gay” is fine regardless of someone’s sex (“Tom is gay” or “Danielle is gay”); “lesbian” (with a copula and an indefinite article) is also okay if you’re talking about a woman (e.g. “Danielle is a lesbian”). The reason for this stems from what is called “distancing language” in linguistics, which is different from but similar to the use of euphemisms. You often see distancing language in the military and among doctors and scientists, who use more-formal language so as to distance themselves from what they are studying or working with. (It’s pretty difficult to operate on someone when you’re thinking about “sewing Tom’s chest closed”; it’s easier if you think of it as “suturing the patient’s thoracic wall”). The terms “homosexual” and “homosexuality” have strong historical associations to criminal behavior and pathology from the days when being gay was illegal and considered a psychiatric condition; the term “gay” is preferred now.
  • “Sex” is biological and based on sex organs and secondary sexual characteristics; “gender” is a social construct based on social roles, cultural norms, and expressed identity. Just as “male” versus “masculine” and “female” versus “feminine” are not synonymous nor interchangeable, neither are “sex” and “gender.” At birth, everyone is either assigned male, female, or intersex. These are sexes. Regardless of their sex, infants and young children are de facto genderless; they develop or are assigned/nudged toward various genders based on cultural norms and expressed gender identity. Independent from sex (male/female/intersex), the terms masculine/feminine and the range in between and beyond refer to genders. A recent publication from the Australian Human Rights Commission identifies at least 23 different human genders. Gender can also be thought of as a continuum or a spectrum. Another way to think of gender is as an internal sense of one type of cultural and interpersonal/romantic or cultural role; it takes into account all sorts of things independent from genitalia and secondary sexual characteristics (hip/waist ratio, body hair, size of larynx, stature, muscle mass, etc).
  • “Sexual preference” is inaccurate and considered offensive by many LGBTQ activists, because it implies volition and a hierarchy of attraction (the term “prefer” literally means “to put or place before” and comes from the Latin prae- [before] and ferre [to carry, from ferro]). “Sexual orientation” is the appropriate term.
  • “Opposite sex” can be considered offensive; “male-female” is preferred.
  • “Sex” or “sexual activity” is preferred to “sexual intercourse,” since the latter implies that sex necessarily includes both male & female sex organs.
  • Transsexual and transgender are not interchangeable, although to be admittedly confusing, “trans” can refer to either. Someone who is transsexual (note the lack of indefinite article) is someone who identifies as a different sex than their sex as assigned at birth. For example, if someone was assigned female at birth but now identifies as male, he is a transsexual man. If someone was assigned male at birth but now identifies as female, she is a transsexual woman. Some transsexual people prefer to drop the “transsexual” adjective once they have transitioned – a transitioning female-to-male transsexual is a trans man; someone who is fully transitioned (assigned female at birth but is now male) is simply a man.
  • Transgender means identifying as a different gender than the gender “traditionally aligned” with one’s birth sex. There are many, many definitions of “transgender” and its use varies depending on whom you ask and what the context is, but it’s generally considered to be independent from sexual orientation. That is, being a transgender man (assigned female at birth, but with an internal sense on the end of the spectrum closer to masculinity rather than femininity) does not imply being sexually attracted to women (being a lesbian). Similarly, being a transgender woman does not imply that someone is sexually attracted to men (gay), although this may also be true. Some people think of transgender as meaning transcending gender roles altogether, rather than crossing from one end of the spectrum to the other.

Why is this important for skeptics?

Lots of reasons. First of all, much of what Western society has historically considered “normal” romantic relationships is based on Christian dogmatic pronouncements on the topic that are not in line with real life. Humans are not, and never have been, monogamous, two-gendered, two-sexed animals. The trumped-up idealization of a male/masculine paired with a female/feminine in a lifelong relationship with no premarital sex and no masturbation, no exceptions, is more-or-less unique to Judeo-Christian cultures. It’s archaic, harmful, and it denies our heritage and sexual expression as intelligent animals. It’s also not even true within Judeo-Christian cultures, even though a lot of Christians pretend that it is, the same way many of them lie through their teeth about, for example, masturbation.

Throughout history and throughout world cultures, other genders have been recognized, and sexual relationships are not really expected to be 1) monogamous or 2) life-long. Not that we can’t have cissexual lifelong relationships with no premarital sex and no masturbation if that makes us happy and feel comfortable in our bodies doing so, but putting pressure toward these characteristics as a cultural norm for everyone is not only harmful to our nature for many people, but it makes a lot of people very unhappy, trying to live up to expectations that may not be realistic or even healthy.

It’s like blaming someone for not being able to fly. Some animals can do that, like falcons or hummingbirds or pterodactyls, but it’s just not in our biology, much as we might fantasize about it in our dreams and in comic books. Lots of people would be very happy to try out flying, and consider it a success as far as their lives are concerned, but it’s just not a realistic expectation given our biology.

But we can do lots of things that falcons and hummingbirds and pterodactyls can’t do. We can write books, we can use computers, we can fly to the Moon! It takes all kinds to make the world go ’round. THERE IS NOTHING INFERIOR OR UNDESIRABLE about not identifying with the two-gender/two-sex “model,” nor with the lifelong-monogamy model, nor with the no-premarital-sex/no-masturbation model. These things are just not part of what makes us human. I say we embrace it!

There is another, very important reason that these issues matter to skeptics, and this will be the subject of Saturday’s post.

Until next time,

- Dave

Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, he posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.

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4 thoughts on “What you always wanted to know about LGBTQ language (but were afraid to ask)

  1. Have you heard of Polari? This is a now dead slang vocabulary used in the days when gay people in Britain had to secretive about their sexuality and their activities. Polari has it’s origins in London’s fishmarkets, the theatre, and fairgrounds and circuses. Its use declined when gay people became more open and accepted in society. The only word Polari word that has entered in standard English is ‘naff’ (nasty, cheap) which is widely used in Britain today.Just thought I’d mention it!

  2. On the other side of it, I’ve seen people flip out when they hear the term “fag” used, not realizing that in the UK, this is a harmless word that is synonymous with “cigarette”. This is another useful bit to know… chastising others for innocuous usage often diminishes the intended respect of proper language.

    Regarding “gay lifestyle,” this was once indicative of a particular trend in the lifestyles of homosexuals, particularly those in San Fransisco and NYC when homosexuality was finally asserting itself in the U.S.. At that point it was identified by the gay community as the sort of free-love lifestyle that was common among self-identified homosexuals in that cluster that emerged following the sexual revolution among the general population. Of course, that has largely become obscure as a concept as the homosexual community has grown to recognize the diversity of preferences and lifestyles within their group.

    The More You Know

    I’ve never encountered any resistance to “homosexual/homosexuality” as they’re common terms in the medical and psychological fields. Of course, there are contexts in which it could be construed as offensive, but usually offense seems to be tied directly to the context rather than the word. i.e., if replacing “homosexual” with “gay” still sounds offensive, it likely is… if not, it likely isn’t. I can’t speak for everyone, of course.

    And not that I condone using offensive language, but I likewise don’t condone being offended by language. Acquiring a thick skin for these sorts of inevitable cultural faux-pas is important to personal resilience and adjustment, and encouragement to do so shouldn’t be interpreted as tacit acceptance of intentionally derogatory language. Not that I always follow my own advice, either.

    • I’ve become a bit won over by the principle that it is more reasonable to expect allies to condition their language than to expect LGBTQ people to condition their reactions. Reasonable people tend to acquiesce to language prudence with respect to various racial categorizations, and the difference here seems to be that one demographic has been burdened with a greater pool of such slurs, so that asking allies to refrain from all of them at once can more easily generate resentment. (This, too, is only my impression.)

      I do, however, also want to ask for some specifics and, if possible, citations regarding “homosexual(ity)”. I recognize the error in referring to “homosexuals” (rather than “homosexual people”) but i can’t recall anyone objecting to the adjective use (or to “homosexuality”). I’ve even had some very label-conscious transgender and transsexual friends check my language from time to time and i don’t think this has ever come up (though i’ll be asking them again now!).

      Also, thanks for the heads-up over “opposite-sex” versus “male–female” or “female–male”. I’d been using the former and almost unconsciously feeling uneasy about it.

  3. Thanks for explaining those myriad terms and concepts, and general circumstantial appropriateness of them. Not nuances and definitions I’m real familiar with, so it’s good information for me. I’ll put in my ‘files.’

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