LGBTQ+ Harmful Language: Examples and Adjustments
NOTE: As someone who identifies as queer and nonbinary, I often use the term “queer” to describe the whole LGBTQ+ community, as do many people I know. This is because it is better fitting than “gay”, as gay most accurately refers to homosexual males. I recognize that this is a debated choice, and I apologize if it offends anyone.
Well, the end of Pride Month is approaching. But that doesn’t mean pride ends! You should always be proud of yourself and your identity, no matter what month it is. Even when it seems difficult, remember that there are people who care about you: you are loved, and you matter.
But it isn’t over quite yet, so we’ve got one more Pride-related post for you.
We all know some of the common slurs that can be harmful to queer people. But there are other facets of language, and harmful cultural practices, that can be just as damaging for LGBTQ+ individuals.
Many of these aspects of language and culture are so ingrained that we might not even realize they’re harmful, but they still are. And yes, sadly, it’s not just cishet (cisgender and heterosexual) people that do this. Members of the queer people can be just as guilty.
It’s also worth mentioning that this issue can sometimes affect trans and GNC people even more, because the way we talk about gender is often supporting harmful stereotypes or ideals— but again, it’s so ingrained that we don’t even think about it.
So today, let’s talk about identifying some of those practices, how we can cut them out, and what alternatives might be, so we can work toward creating more LGBTQ+ inclusive language.
Today’s post is dedicated to the memory of Audre Lord. Lord was a self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” She made many great contributions in both her work and her teachings. She often used her art to explore and confront issues of homophobia, racism, and other societal issues. She was a powerful member of the community, and I encourage you to check out some of her poems!
LGBTQ+ inclusive language
Language is how we communicate with the world, and with each other. Thus, if our language is harmful— even unintentionally— it could negatively impact how we interact with others.
Here are some examples of harmful words, phrases, and language customs, as well as suggestions for alternatives.
It pretty much goes without saying that slurs are harmful, but I have to say it anyway: don’t use slurs.
Obviously, I’m not going to say them here. If you’re not sure if a word is a slur, Google it. And avoid using LGBTQ+ slurs altogether.
This one can depend on context and personal opinion, but if you’re a straight person, it might be good to steer away from it anyway.
The reason behind this is that, after decades of “mental illness” classification, the word homosexual can carry negative and clinical connotations. Some people are ok with it, others aren’t. But there are plenty of other words that can get the job done.
Alternatives: gay, lesbian
“But wait a second, Ash, don’t you use the word queer?”
Yes, I do. But if you’re a straight person, it’s a word best avoided except in one circumstance. As a member of the queer community, I use it as a reclaimed term. However, due to imbalances of power and historical connotation, it’s different when a straight person uses it, just like a white person shouldn’t use the N-word. I encourage you to research more about this subject if you’re confused.
So if you’re a straight person, you generally shouldn’t use this word. However, if you are talking about someone who self-describes as queer, you can likely use it— just make sure you say they self-describe.
Alternatives: gay, LGBTQ+
Although this phrase is commonly used, it could definitely be replaced with more LGBTQ+ inclusive language. It implies that sexuality is a preference (a choice) rather than something inherent.
Alternatives: sexual orientation, sexuality
“The X agenda/lifestyle”
Hint: there’s no such thing. Every LGBTQ+ person lives differently, and there is no one “gay agenda”. Again, some queer people may make jokes about this, but as a cishet person, it’s best to avoid it altogether.
Jokes about pronouns and gender
“My pronouns are helicopter and assault rifle”? “My gender identity is a taco”? Not funny, just rude. They minimize and discount the actual experiences of trans/GNC people, and make it harder to be taken seriously. Avoid them like the plague.
Humans are such a lazy species. So why would we choose an unnecessarily verbose phrase— one which also excludes many identities— instead of the much easier “they”?
If you’re still not convinced, do just 5 minutes of digging into the history of “they” as a singular pronoun. We’ve always done it, just in a slightly different way, so there’s no reason we can’t keep doing it.
“Boys and girls”, “ladies and gents”, etc.
Again, they’re verbose and not inclusive. They can easily be replaced with other words that refer to an entire group of people, whether you want to be professional, casual, or somewhere in between.
Of course, the lovely Thomas Sanders’s “guys, gals, and nonbinary pals” is a pretty good one, but it’s still not as inclusive and simple as it could be.
Alternatives: pals, folks, students, y’all, loved ones, audience, etc.
This is something so ingrained, that even those of us harmed by it feel like we shouldn’t change it. But recently I’ve been trying to avoid using it, and I think it makes a real difference.
The phrase suggests that “guy” is the default, because that’s what we default to when addressing a group of people. It discounts any identity that is not masculine, and excludes them from the group.
Alternatives: pals, folks, friends, y’all, etc.
“Do you have a girl/boyfriend yet?”
I won’t get into the pressure to be in a relationship— that’s a different issue. But this phrase is usually used in a heteronormative way, asking girls if they have boyfriends and vice-versa. It removes the possibility of being something other than straight.
Alternatives: partner or similar
Harmful cultural practices
Culture is often a lot more nuanced and harder to pin down than language. This also means it can be harder to change. But the first step to creating a more LGBTQ+ friendly culture is recognizing these practices.
Sexualization of queer identities
Do I really have to explain why this one is bad? Ok. If we always paint queer identities as inherently sexual, then we suggest that queerness revolves around sex, that it isn’t appropriate for children, and that you can’t be queer without being sexually active.
This can be harmful to queer people of all ages and all identities. So we should stop sexualizing queer identities, and acknowledge that queerness doesn’t revolve entirely around sex.
Suggesting that it’s gay OR straight
Obviously, this erases the possibility of any identities outside or in between these bounds, such as bi-, pan-, and asexuality. So try to avoid statements or things that suggest this.
Associating queerness with harmful behavior
Some individuals like to associate queer identities with pedophilia, incest, bestiality, abuse, and other forms of harmful sexual deviancy. This association is not based on any fact, and obviously creates harmful stereotypes for queer people. It should be avoided at all costs.
“The A stands for Ally!”
No, no it doesn’t. Allies are an important part of society, and they do a lot of good work for queer people. But they are not queer themselves, and thus, are not included in the acronym. The A stands for Asexual, forever and always. Creating LGBTQ+ inclusive language means not erasing queer identities.
“Well, I have a friend who is X…”
This sentiment is used in two scenarios: either to excuse harmful cultural practices, or as a reaction to coming out. In neither case are they normally helpful.
Obviously, having a queer friend doesn’t mean you can’t accidentally be queerphobic. I mean, queer people can accidentally be queerphobic. So don’t try to use it as a pass.
And when someone comes out, they usually don’t need to hear that you have another gay friend. It usually comes off as “oh, they’re gay too, do you know each other?” Which is stereotyping and annoying.
The idea that labels have to be permanent
Gender and sexuality are fluid, transient, just like humans themselves. As such, your identity may change or expand over time. This is completely natural.
So the suggestion that labels have to be permanent, or that phases are bad, isn’t helpful. Phases aren’t bad— we all go through them— and labels don’t have to be permanent. Identify in whatever way makes you comfortable, and if that changes, it’s ok.
This also ties into the “it’s just a phase” statement. This invalidates queer people’s experiences, suggesting that they aren’t serious. And it also paints phases as something negative, which they aren’t. It’s a bit contradictory, sure, but that’s the nature of human identity.
“They’re too young to know if they’re…”
No, they’re not. People can start to experience attraction and gender identity at a very young age. And usually, when explained properly, it’s actually very easy for children to understand these things. In fact, the earlier they are exposed to it, the easier it seems to be for them to understand.
Would you say that supposedly cishet kids are too young to know they’re straight? If yes, you might want to reevaluate how you view children. And if no, why would you then apply that logic to queer people?
“It’s just how they were raised”
This is one of the most harmful and most common cultural practices we see. But here’s the thing: it’s not true. Truly mature people aren’t defined by how they were raised: they can adjust their viewpoints and practices when necessary.
I was raised believing that violence and conflict were a natural, even healthy, part of relationships. That it’s ok to be violent. That parents were allowed to hit their children.
Do I still believe in any of this? Absolutely not. And I know many other, older, people who have been able to adjust their viewpoints— like my 76-year-old 10th grade English teacher, who immediately had a mature conversation with me about my identity and how he could adjust his behavior to be more supportive.
So yes, they may have been raised that way. But that’s no excuse for their behavior, because they are capable of change. And chances are, they know their behavior is wrong.
Creating more inclusion
This conversation isn’t easy. Parts of it probably made you uncomfortable, and that’s ok. Confronting harmful behavior can be difficult, and we naturally want to get defensive. But if we want to change these harmful cultural practices, we need to confront our own behavior.
Creating more LGBTQ+ inclusive language, and leaving behind harmful language, will take time and work. This is just a starting point to recognizing these behaviors, and start brainstorming suggestions for how to better them.
Do you have questions about any of this? Suggestions for new alternatives? We’d love to hear from you! Let us know by leaving a comment below or tagging us on social media (@llctherapeutic on Twitter or @therapeutichealingjourney on Instagram).