What’s in a Name: For the LGBT Community, Outdated Labeling Can Be Offensive

PSOW Staff - Thursday, June 21, 2018

It was the early 1970s, Helen Reddy was proudly singing “I am Woman” and the term “Ms.” first gained prominence among feminists as the chosen honorific for the burgeoning women’s rights movement, even spawning the title of Gloria Steinem’s eponymous and groundbreaking magazine.

And although “Ms.” seemed to have been born of a civil rights movement, its origin actually hails back as far as 1901 where it was noted as a “comprehensive term which does homage to sex without expressing any views as to (a woman’s) domestic situation.” (Source: The Sunday Republican of Springfield, MA, November 10, 1901.) Regardless of when it was first adopted, the term actually did not gain total acceptance in journalistic circles until the esteemed New York Times announced in 1986 that Ms. was a suitable honorific to be used alongside Miss and Mrs.

But the story and eventual acceptance of Ms. reminds us that we are in another era where titles, naming and traditional honorifics continue to change—especially in light of advances and acceptance of the LGBT community in mainstream society. Even the acronym itself continues to evolve as what was first referred to as the LGB community (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual) was adapted in the 1990s to LGBT (with the addition of Transgender, which refers to a person whose gender identity is different than the sex on the birth certificate). These days, you may see the LGBT acronym also expanding with the following letters and classifications: Q (for Queer, a formerly offensive term that has been reclaimed by LGBT young people who don’t identify with traditional categories around gender identity and sexual orientation); I (Intersex or a person born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit the typical definitions of female or male); A (asexual); or P (pansexual which refers to a person whose romantic, emotional or sexual attraction is not based on gender, biological sex or gender identity).

Given the expanding glossary of terms, we also wanted to look at other acceptable reference terminology for members of the LGBT community, especially for their heterosexual, or straight, community of family members, friends, allies and coworkers. So, we went to GLAAD, the media monitoring organization founded by LGBT people in the media, for a list of preferred terminology that we can all use to promote inclusiveness and respect across all sexual divides.

Use this
Gay (adj.); “gay man” or “lesbian (n.); gay person/people

Not that

GLAAD reasons that, “Because of the clinical history of the word ‘homosexual,’ it is aggressively used by anti-LGBTQ extremists to suggest that people attracted to the same sex are somehow diseased or psychologically/emotionally disordered – notions discredited by the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association in the 1970s.” GLAAD advises to avoid using “homosexual” except in direct quotes.

Use this
"relationship," "couple" (or, if necessary, "gay/lesbian/same-sex couple"), "sex," etc.

Not that
"homosexual relations/relationship," "homosexual couple," "homosexual sex," etc.

GLAAD explains that, “Identifying a same-sex couple as ‘a homosexual couple,’ characterizing their relationship as ‘a homosexual relationship,’ or identifying their intimacy as ‘homosexual sex’ is extremely offensive and should be avoided.”

Use this
"sexual orientation" or "orientation"

Not that
"sexual preference"

GLAAD states, “The term ‘sexual preference’ is typically used to suggest that being attracted to the same sex is a choice and therefore can and should be ‘cured.’”

Use this
"LGBTQ people and their lives"

Not that
"gay lifestyle," "homosexual lifestyle," or "transgender lifestyle"

As GLAAD says, “There is no single LGBTQ lifestyle. LGBTQ people are diverse in the ways they lead their lives.”

Use this
"out gay man," "out lesbian," or "out queer person"

Not that
"admitted homosexual" or "avowed homosexual" which GLAAD refers to as “dated terms.”

And on the subject of transgender terminology, GLAAD gives the following suggestions on names, pronoun usage and descriptions.

Always use a transgender person's chosen name. Many transgender people are able to obtain a legal name change from a court. However, some transgender people cannot afford a legal name change or are not yet old enough to legally change their name. They should be afforded the same respect for their chosen name as anyone else who uses a name other than their birth name (e.g., celebrities).

Use the pronoun that matches the person's authentic gender. A person who identifies as a certain gender, whether or not that person has taken hormones or undergone surgery, should be referred to using the pronouns appropriate for that gender. If you are not certain which pronoun to use, ask the person, "What pronouns do you use?"

If it is not possible to ask a transgender person which pronoun they use, use the pronoun that is consistent with the person's appearance and gender expression or use the singular they. For example, if a person wears a dress and uses the name Susan, feminine pronouns are usually appropriate. Or it is also acceptable to use the singular they to describe someone when you don't wish to assign a gender.

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