Sep 192012

I’ve had several conversations lately with folks about language, and on the importance of recognizing when we might be unintentionally saying something that offends someone. This is especially true with language around sexual orientation and gender identity. I frequently find myself in conversations with people where they seem to be navigating a list of terms in an effort to avoid offending me.  This has particularly true with friends in seminary, who are interested in going into the parish, and recognize that they will have parishioners who identify somewhere along the gender spectrum, but want to avoid unintentionally alienating someone (even now, as I write, I am aware that some people may be wondering what the heck I mean by “gender spectrum.”).

So, in an effort to address some of the concerns about language, I thought it might be a good idea to go ahead and start defining some of the terms (both preferred, and ones to avoid) and answering some of the questions that I’ve been asked, to begin a sort of running vocabulary list of definitions.  I would also invite you to contact me with questions you have about terminology: maybe a word you hear tossed around, but don’t understand, or a concern about how to avoid offending someone in conversation.  There is a “contact” page on the main navigation bar (just up and to the right, below the “living somewhere between the now and the not yet” ). I can assure you that no question is too elementary or basic.  I hesitate to speak for all LGBT people when I say this, but I know that I would far prefer you ask a question, especially if your question is in the spirit of inclusion and understanding.  Please – send me questions!!  Also, If you have questions or are frustrated with the particular definition of a word, please let me know.

To begin, we’ll start with some of the basics:

LGBTQ (or GLBTQ): Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (Note: There is no difference between “LGBT” and “GLBT”):

  • Gay: a term used in some settings to describe a male-identified who is attracted to men.  It is a self-identifying term that describes feelings and emotions, not behavior (not all men who engage in sexual acts with other men identify as “gay,” and not all men who identify as “gay” engage in sexual acts with other men); “gay” is also used as an umbrella term to include all LGBTQ people.
  • Lesbian: a term used to describe a female-identified person who is attracted to women.  Again, like “gay,” “lesbian” is a self-identifying term that describes feelings and emotions, not behavior
  • Bisexual: a person who is attracted to both men and women, whether on an emotional, physical, and/or sexual level
  • Transgender: a self-identifying term that describes a person whose gender identity is different than what is expected based on assigned sex. “Transgender” does not imply anything about one’s sexual orientation.
  • Queer – a self-identifying term which can be controversial.  I’ll write more about this in a later post; but, again it’s important that it is a self-identifying term – that it is not put upon someone by another
  • Same-gender-loving (SGL): a term primarily used by people in the African-American community for whom the terms “gay” and “lesbian” were too predominately descriptive of the experiences of white people, and failed to encompass the uniqueness of their experiences.

Words to avoid:

  • Homosexual: refers to a person who is primarily attracted to people of the same sex.  WHY IT SHOULD BE AVOIDED: Well, for a number of reasons (in no particular order).  First, it is not a self-identifying term. I know of no LGBT people who identify themselves as “homosexual.”  Second, though it is often used as a sort of umbrella term, it only refers to the sexual orientation of a person, and excludes bisexual and transgender people.  Third, using “homosexual” as a noun erases a person’s personhood, and highlights only their sexual attraction.
  • Lifestyle: yeah – just avoid this one all together.  It implies a whole lot of negative things; it is particularly offensive when used in combination with “homosexual.”  It is often used by people who are actively working against the health welfare of LGBTQ people.

Okay, that’s it for today.  Next time: the transgender umbrella, and other fun terms! Again, please send in your questions, words you’d like to define (or definitions of words you’d like me to share)!

  2 Responses to “Queer Terminology 101”

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this. With your permission, I hope to share this post with others seeking to be inclusive and, with the best of intentions, misusing terms that can be hurtful. I speak only for myself in apologizing for any terms that I have used that have brought pain, insult, exclusion or oppression in their use. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn and be inclusive. Thank you!

    • Thanks, Jill. You are welcome to share this post with whomever you’d like! My plan is to keep adding to the list, with the hope that folks won’t feel like they should avoid asking questions, or wonder if they may have unintentionally hurt someone. Your attention and intention are both very much appreciated.

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