I am lucky to have many friends who are LGBT allies. Over the years, they have asked me questions about which LGBT-related words are okay or not okay to use, and in what contexts. So I thought I’d provide a little tip sheet for allies on what words not to use and why.
Homosexual. This word is like nails on a chalkboard. There is pretty much never any reason anyone needs to use this word, unless maybe if you are using “heterosexual” in the same sentence. The word is problematic for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s the word that has been used to pathologize lesbians and gays for the last century and a half. Secondly, it has the word “sex” in it. While sex is part of most LGB peoples’ lives, it is not our defining characteristic. Thirdly, “homo” is almost always used in a derogatory manner. Instead, you can say LGB or LGBT or spell them out…you even save syllables if you use the acryonyms! So please please please do not say this word.
Lifestyle. When I came out, I figured someone would explain to me what the heck this “gay lifestyle” was, since ostensibly, I would be living one. To my dismay, I did not receive a new lesbian orientation packet in the mail to detail what my new lesbian lifestyle would be like. Instead, I carried on living as I had been living prior to coming out. As it turns out, the only people who know what a “gay lifestyle” is are radical conservatives who are trying to deter families from accepting their LGB children by making non-heterosexuality seem frighteningly different. Don’t let their scare tactics seep into your language.
Traditional values/traditional marriage. Similar to “lifestyle,” these are empty yet hate-mongering terms. If “traditional” means that we should do things like were done in our recent past, then should we also be upholding the “tradition” of women being considered their husbands’ property? And the “tradition” of women not being able to divorce their husbands or own any property? And the “tradition” of women being defined by their husband’s name and marital status only (i.e. Mrs. Arnold Winters, Miss, Mrs.—we only got “Ms” in the 1970s)?
Passing. This is a fraught word for many communities. Here I will focus on the use of this word about trans people. People use this word in an evaluative manner, “He passes really well as female” or “is she trying to pass as male?” We should not be in the business of judging other people’s gender identity or expression. We should give people the benefit of the doubt that they look how they want to look, and that our standards of how “well” someone looks stereotypically female or stereotypically male are irrelevant.
Faggot or fag. This is a word heard all too often in schools. I would guess few of the people saying it know that faggots were the kindling used to start the fires that would burn alive people who were accused of same-gender sexual behavior. Let’s leave this word in the 16th century.
I welcome any other additions to the list!