On finding accessible, de-codified, LGBT language

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Genderfabulous necklace by Etsy Seller RowdyBaubles. Get it here.
Genderfabulous necklace by Etsy Seller RowdyBaubles. Get it here.
Offbeat Bride featured an article about power, privilege, gender, and oppression when it comes to weddings — which I totally love!

…But I worry that there’s a lot of language in the post that many would not understand.

My sister-in-law is a lesbian and sadly receives a lot of flak for it from her family. Another family member, in her first year of university, is doing her best to put her women’s studies courses to good use by talking a lot about “heteronormativity,” “cisgender privilege,” “gender-queer nuance,” etc, etc.

While I think it is good to talk about these issues using scholarly language, with my family it usually seems to end up doing more harm than good.

Does anyone have any advice or ideas on how to discuss these complex issues using simpler language? Does changing the language cheapen the subject?


We love this question, Jennay! While terms like cisgender, heteronormativity, trans-identified, and gender-neutral pronouns like xe/xyr/xem aren’t necessarily “scholarly” terms (those are everyday terms for some people in the LGBTQ community) they are definitely not terms that everyone’s familiar with.

In fact, Some of us Empire editors have had conversations with gay friends and family members who are like “cis-wtf?! I do not get it.”

And there’s also the issue of using accessible language to build community bridges. As Ariel said in her post about parenting acronyms:

I totally recognize the ways in which we all use language to establish connection and commiseration, but [some language can] result in alienation and distancing.

Could codified speech in the LGBT community alienate potential allies? How can we talk about gender and LGBT issues using simpler words? Or should we work on educating others to learn the most current terms?

Comments on On finding accessible, de-codified, LGBT language

  1. I think the best way to START is like anything else: the basics.
    Homosexuality vs heterosexuality vs bisexuality
    Gender vs sex
    After your friends/family have a good grasp on those, then you can slowly use more complicated terms.

    Sexuality and gender can be difficult enough for some people, especially older people who have spent their whole lives in a boys vs girls mentality (ignoring for the moment the added complication of religion). Unless you’re trying to get people to refer to YOU a certain way, I don’t see any reason to try to force someone to use terms they don’t want to use or aren’t ready to use.
    Even if you know the correct terms for something, that doesn’t mean you HAVE to use those terms around people who are unfamiliar with them. Look at doctors. They know the different between the femur and fibula, but they’ll probably just say leg when they’re around laypeople. The important thing is focusing on communicating the concept, not the lingo.

    • It always surprises me how many people don’t understand the gender vs. sex distinction–I’m talking about people who are very open to the whole spectrum of gender identity! That being said, I think it’s important to maybe avoid terms that are unfamiliar to people at first so they don’t feel even more threatened than they might already by a new idea but also to eventually introduce words that allow them to communicate their new understanding.

      • To be perfectly honest, I think to some degree the confusion around gender vs sexuality is that the words to describe them are somewhat similar, and there are a lot of people within that community that identify as non-cis in both categories, which (while great) can create further confusion in the mainstream.

        I would also like to add to this conversation that in my opinion, part of the problem is the highly nuanced language that the LGBTQetc community uses — there is a lot of sensitivity around using the “right” terms, yet those terms can vary based on personal preference. This comes across as exclusionary, both to hetero-normative people and to others within the community. For example, a female bisexual marrying a women might introduce herself as bi, lesbian or gay depending on her preference and circumstances. I’m not saying this is an issue, but it certainly creates barriers for having open, constructive discussions.

        Plus, as you mentioned, the terms are complicated sounding and not widely known, yet there aren’t a lot of good alternative terms.

        • There’s also the fact that until pretty recently, “gender” and “sex” were used pretty much interchangeably, often in contexts where someone didn’t want to say “sex” in front of children (*gasp* The scandal!) I’m sure it still is in a lot of cases.

          • I work with DNA science on a daily basis at my current job. I also work with students. So every term I try to work with them to say “sex marker” instead of “gender marker” when talking about DNA results/lab reports.
            No. Sex and gender are not interchangeable when talking about science, in my opinion.

          • Really? I remember being taught the difference at school, and I’m 36! How recent are we talking?

        • Quickly picking up a point Cass made in reply to this post about sex and gender not being interchangable in science. That’s definitely a valid position in most cases, but I think it depends on the science. I mentioned AIS in a previous comment, which effectively result in a genetic male with female gender. As a trans woman, I regularly have blood tests for sex hormones which are compared against female norms rather than that implied by my genetic sex. Psychiatry is usually recognised as a science as well and does distinguish between gender and sex.

          • Good clarification 🙂 I think the words “sex” and “gender” both play a part in science. As I see it, in cases where the distinction is necessary, interchanging the words can not only give bad results, but could be offensive where it really matters.

    • I believe the biggest influence on most people being unable to distinguish between gender and sex is that in the US, gender and sex are generally referred to utilizing the same terms as though they are interchangeable: male/female, man/woman. To most they are exactly the same thing. Our culture trains us to see them as interlinked to the point that even within the alphabet soup community we find it hard to separate and distinguish the two.

      As for distinguishing between gender and sexuality, the problem is to an extent, rather similar. Some terms are often mistakenly used as interchangeable between sexuality and gender, even within the alphabet soup community. I think there are times when the terms become so complex and individualized that the meanings get mixed up. The best example I can think of is in The Third Gender by Kit Yan. She starts off as stating that there are differences between gender and sexuality then turns around and blurs the line until she is listing off ‘Genders’ though at least half of the list is comprised of different variations of sexual identity not gender.
      The video can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iWt_ng-0wR4
      WARNING: There is multiple cases of swearing and her middle finger. Watch at your own discretion.

      Metaphorically dumping all of this onto someone who’s culturally integrated way of thinking is that of ‘She’s a woman and straight/gay’ and ‘He’s a man and straight/gay’ end of story is going to result in culture shock. I believe that easing them into the terms, accompanied by clear explanations is probably the best way to go. Of course, there are those times when it’s best to just leave people’s beliefs well enough alone as long as you and no one else is being hurt by them. For example, I am a cisgendered female, that identifies as les-bi (bisexual with heavy lesbian leanings). To my best friend, who, while open minded towards alternative sexualities, only understands me as being a lesbian, period. Bisexual and cisgender doesn’t even register in her understanding, with transgender barely being understood, but I’ve grown tired of explaining it so I just let it go (after 2 years).

  2. Part of the discussion I think is important to address is the “but I don’t UNDERSTAND why people would want to do that” part. To which you reply, “Well, then AWESOME, you’re straight! (or cis, etc.) They don’t understand why YOU do what you do between the sheets.”

    And I can’t remember where I saw this, but I believe it was an Upworthy video where a young person was trying to explain that if you had a body part where it obviously didn’t belong, then you would want to change it. “If you had a dick on your ELBOW, it wouldn’t belong there, you wouldn’t want it, and you would remove it.” Hopefully I quoted that from memory close enough to get my point across, and if anyone has the link to that video I would appreciate you posting it!

      • Yes, thank you!

        I forgot to mention this above, but when I’m not sure about what pronouns people refer, I use their name or refer to them as a PERSON instead of a man or woman. I am still in the habit of using “their …” instead of “his or her….” because it always pissed me off that his always came first. Sometimes grammar’s gotta give.

    • The point is definitely well taken, but gender isn’t a between the sheets kind of thing. Someone is zir lived gender — regardless of if the dr says “vagina, girl” or “penis, boy” in the ultrasound/moments after birth.

      I have a very close friend whose “between the sheets” actions with his wife would be the same, even though he is trans.

      Generalizing to “I don’t understand why someone would do that/be that way” feels more inclusive to me.

      • I’ve had more experience discussing homosexuality with unfamiliar people, so I think that’s why I referred to sex as an attempt at humor. But you are totally right that that would not apply at all if discussing gender!

        (I like the back and forth over how to better explain things, and I hope it continues in this thread!)

  3. The HUUUGGGEEEEELLLYYYY important thing to me, as a member of the LGBT community to understand is that we’re not actually one coherent unit. We all, theoretically, stand together but the terms, issues and movement of the LGBT community really is based in the L, G, B and T individually right now.

    For example, the G folks and the L folks are pushing right now for marriage rights in the States. The L folks are also more involved in rape prevention and street harassment, which intersects with the T folks. The T folks are seeking more visibility which intersects with the B folks. And everyone has issues with race and class.

    The needs of each community intersect, which is why we stand together, but are unique, which is why putting us under a single banner can be incredibly confusing to an outsider.

    The terminology of LGBTQ folks varies by group, location, education, race and class. What I call myself as a middle-class, white man can be vastly different than a working class, black woman, or an upper class, Asian trans* person. I don’t think the terminology will ever be “uniform”.

    As an example, my gay male elders would hesitate, at the very least, to call themselves “queer” but, my generation of gay men is more apt to use the term, though not universally. I use Queer as my self-identifier. My husband does not use that term to identify himself and he’s only 2 years older than I am.

    I think that the easiest way to go about unpacking the terminology is to use the term and give a “quick hit” style definition.

    For example, if an author was to use the term “cis-gender” putting in a quick, whether m-dash or parenthesized, “typically gendered” definition would help lessen confusion.

    Another example would be “queer” being “not straight”.

    The language around the Queer Community is changing so quickly and the tensions on terms is so virulent, I think it’s the easiest way to do it without getting into the politics and critical theory involved in the terms.

  4. In my experience–admittedly often in talking with really close-minded people–giving flak because you’re using “big, fancy words” is an attempt to derail the conversation (provided that you’re offering some explanation of what the terms mean instead of just barrelling on ahead as if they already know.)

    Now, they may be derailing the conversation because you’re just creating a barrage of terms and concepts they don’t understand–obviously, if that’s the case, SLOWWW DOWNNNNN. Focus on communicating one concept simply and clearly and then if they have questions, dive into the details.

    But they may also be derailing the conversation because they want to be right, end of discussion. In which case, you can try to educate them, but I think the most helpful thing is just to state that you disagree and offer a case for why compassion is the right choice.

    Honestly, for a lot of people, they kind of look at sexual/gender identity issues as “I’m a snowflake” performance art. Trying to convey the finer points of heteronormative culture and the gender identity spectrum is pretty lost on someone who thinks that it’s all senseless “sin” or attention-seeking. Just getting those people to understand that–hey, no one would choose to struggle with this problem–can be a revolution.

    • What I don’t get is… even if you think its “attention seeking performance art”… who cares? It’s not you. Letting other people be whatever the hell they want does not affect you. You may have to suck it up and learn a pronoun now and again. You’ll live. Who cares? While personally I can’t understand what it’s like to be trans* (or honestly, even what it means to “feel like I’m a woman/not a woman” – I just feel like me and I’m cool with having a vagina for most of the month so whatever, that works for me,) it doesn’t matter what I can or cannot understand. What matter is that someone else is having a particular experience that doesn’t really impact me and there’s no reason for me to be shitty about it. I can’t understand a lot of things that people do/are/want, but I’m not going to be shitty about their decisions if they’re not hurting anyone. It sucks that this most basic concept of human decency is so hard for people to grasp.

      (Though honestly I find almost everything easier to understand than actual performance art ;-P )

    • “But they may also be derailing the conversation because they want to be right, end of discussion.”

      My mother is one of those people. She is a conservative hippie, and it’s unfortunate for our interactions that one of the issues that falls under “conservative” is people who are not straight and monogamous. The problem is that she feels absolutely justified in her beliefs and she’s trying to change mine. Definitely the best option is to say “I disagree” and move on. A couple weeks ago, we were on a long car trip, and she told me “I forgot, you’re SO LIBERAL.” Oof, I wasn’t getting away easy that time. “Mom, in this I guess I am liberal. In other things, I’m not. I’m entitled to my own opinion, as you are to yours. But I’m also entitled to not engage in a conversation that makes me uncomfortable, and this one with you makes me uncomfortable because I know that neither of us are willing to step down from our opinions and it will never end well. Can we please talk about the buzzards I just almost hit? I’ve never seen a buzzard in nature before…”

      Unfortunately, some people you just can’t reach. I love my mother, please don’t misunderstand that aspect. But she’s extremely opinionated and almost always right. But, like my tattoos, she’ll come to accept that these issues are powerful and not going away (much like people opposed to integration decades ago).

  5. Certain terms like “heteronormativity” absolutely came out of scholarship on gender and sexuality from the 1980s and early 1990s (or thereabouts).

    The way that those in LGBTQ communities have taken on these terms and made use of them in their own lives is a good example of scholarship having real-world use. Maligning “fancy” words without knowing what they are about is one thing, but I think we can still be proud of the great academic work that scholars of queer and feminist theory have done, which eventually resulted in some of these words having meaning beyond the classroom. Many of the terms used by LGBTQ communities are scholarly in origin, and so much the better for it!

  6. I really feel that language is important, that the way we talk about things and the words we use to discuss concepts shapes the way we perceive and experience the world. In my experience trying to use “simpler” language when discussing complex socio-political issues ends up being counterproductive.

    I am (almost) always willing to engage in public education and patiently explain the words I use and what they mean, but I am not willing to oversimplify my language. I’ll teach, I’ll be compassionate in presenting uncomfortable new concepts, I’ll be patient when people don’t understand, and I won’t get angry when they make mistakes—but I won’t stop asking my cis-het friends and family to push themselves to learn the nuances of the language that they need to fully understand my life and my identity. The people that don’t know this language are approaching LGBT issues from a position of privilege. Letting them remain in their linguistic comfort zone by oversimplifying the way I speak for their benefit is giving them tacit consent to retain a little bit of that privilege, rather than challenging them to be a better ally to me.

    In other (big fancy) words, avoiding scholarly language or in-group jargon when talking about LGBT issues only serves to reify the heteronormative and cis-sexist structures that we are attempting to dismantle.

    • “In other (big fancy) words, avoiding scholarly language or in-group jargon when talking about LGBT issues only serves to reify the heteronormative and cis-sexist structures that we are attempting to dismantle.”

      So much this! perfect.

  7. For a large number of cis people, this is not only a complicated and nuanced subject, but a completely unfamiliar one. It’s like trying to learn Chinese characters when you’ve never dealt with any language other than English – you’ll start to recognize the simple ones that come up a lot (lesbian! I know what that is!), but it will be a very long time before you’re comfortable with the intricate ones. And some people are practically starting at square one – my friend’s mom doesn’t believe a person can actually be bisexual, not out of fear or hate, but just because she has no experience with it and can’t get her head around it. I feel like asking her to get on board right away with the concept of genderqueer and gender-neutral pronouns is asking a little much.

    I consider myself to be an open-minded, fairly intelligent person, but sometimes things can escalate past my level of comprehension. My friend’s born-male cousin and his born-male partner and currently both undergoing sex change operations. So they were a cis gay couple, but now they’re transgender, but… are they cis again once the operations are complete? Are they currently lesbians since they’re going by “she”, or is that post-op, or is that never? Or does this make them bisexual? As much as I want to be sensitive and don’t want to offend, this can be so, so, so confusing, and I feel like I’m prying when I’m asking these questions. Beyond getting the pronouns right, is it really any of my business? Probably not, but since this is such an on-display sociopolitical issue, boundaries can be difficult to determine.

    Also, as a commenter before mentioned, terms are constantly changing, and terms may vary from one part of the world to the next. As someone who travels and has lived abroad, this makes things even more challenging.

    I completely understand the LBGTQ community wanting to use this language, but I wish there would be a little more give on both sides. There *definitely* should be more effort from everyone to respect and appropriately refer to a person’s gender and sexual orientation, but it helps if there’s a lot of patience and understanding from LGBTQs that your allies do not mean disrespect… me included, because I’m sure I’ve screwed a lot up in this comment alone…

    • Beyond pronouns the rest just isn’t *that* important to most folks. I would strongly encourage you to ask questions, but there is a huge difference between “what are you” and “what pronoun/label are you comfortable with me using.” The second one is generally much nicer.

      You don’t magically become cis if you transition. Also, not everyone has the same surgeries. There are LOTS of reasons folks might not have particular procedures done and lack of surgery/hormones doesn’t make you any more or less trans.

      Also remember, you can’t actually know someones sexual orientation by who they are currently involved with. I’m no less bisexual because I’m married to a dude. I’ve known plenty of queer folks who have had partners of a different sex. That part can get a little confusing when you’re talking about folks you don’t know, but it’s also not really anyone else’s business.

  8. I have very mixed feelings about the topic. On one hand I see the importance of having unique terms to define how individuals have their own unique experiences with the world, but sometimes it feels like we are dividing ourselves into smaller and smaller boxes rather than finding common ground. To let you know where I’m coming from I can identify myself as a bisexual switch female who is married to a heteroflexable submissive male. But when my husband and I are out together we just pass as an average straight couple. That gives me privilege, but also carries with it the awareness that many of the people who react positively towards me would despise me if they knew what actually went on in my head or bedroom. Personally I like the term queer because I feel like it encompases a lot of different identities and that it basically says I’m not what is the commonly held standard for a gender/sexual identity, but that applies to a lot of other people too. Plus it is shorter than saying lgbtqia (and I’ve seen even longer variants). I have slight concerns also that even making things not black or white when we allow for terms like bisexual or gender queer that those terms don’t allow for the degree that one can have preference towards different things within them. I identify with being female but I also have a lot of androgynous elements. But would coming up with even more terms be helpful to clarify or just more divisive.

    I think the best thing for language would be to move to gender neutral pronouns for all (though ones that are more easily pronounced than use x’ s). I also think putting less emphasis on gender would be helpful. This is something I think about a lot as the mother of a two year old boy. I get tired of justifying why it is ok to buy my child toys like a kitchen set and a washing machine. People act like they have just called your child ugly if they misgender them. Recently I had a coworker misgender someone. The individual corrected him saying that he should have been identified as he not she. My coworker spent the rest of the day feeling awful about it. While I was out recently I had a woman at a table next to me use a female pronoun for my son. She acted mortified when corrected. There is nothing wrong with being male, female, or identifying with something else entirely. I think people who refuse to address people with the gender they have asked to be identified by are self centered jerks, but I also think the world might benefit from less emphasis on gender and allowing people the freedom to express and behave in a way which feel is the most authentic to them without having to worry about the category they fit in.

  9. Yes, unfamiliar language definitely alienates people. Even some trans people! But that’s not to say we shouldn’t try to change things.

    I’m trans, having regenerated into a woman after our Doctor Who themed wedding that was featured on Offbeat Bride recently. My wife is cis-female, i.e. her gender identity matches the gender she was assigned at birth, but she absolutely detests the prefix “cis-“. I’m a trans-woman, which means I identify as female although I was assigned male at birth. I’m pretty sure I have male chromosomes, but it’s not guaranteed. Some cis-women are genetically male but with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. They’re not trans, but their gender doesn’t match their biological sex. They are also typically considered extremely attractive as a result of this quirk of nature. Then there are other intersex, formerly called “hermaphrodite”, variants. Sex and gender are more complex than you’d first imagine.

    Sexuality is how you describe your own preference for a sex partner’s gender relative to your own gender identity. My wife is straight and certainly doesn’t identify as lesbian or bisexual, but I am attracted to women so I identify as lesbian now. It’s really confusing even in its simplest form, and there are so many variations on gender non-conformity. I have androgynous friends who prefer neutral pronouns, but tend to stick with they/them rather than any of the alternatives. Even though I’m trans I still have difficulty with other people’s pronouns. What’s important is acknowledging and apologising when you know you’ve used the wrong one.

    It’s worth pointing out that some people use the wrong pronoun to deliberately hurt trans people. People who are anti-trans will misgender trans people to make a point, so it is really important that you’re aware of the offence you might cause by inadvertently using the wrong terms. Usually trans people will recognise an accidental misgendering. My children often still refer to me as “he”, but they’re getting the hang of using female pronouns now. It’s a real effort to reprogram the brain to use unfamiliar or culturally atypical pronouns. I don’t like xe/xir/xem, but I will use them with people who state a preference, because it’s respectful and it’s not my right to determine someone else’s gender identity for them. Having said that, it’s the norm to address people according to their gender expression using the traditional gender pronouns. Gender non-conforming people don’t often take offence if you misconstrue their presentation and will usually politely correct you.

  10. Since we’re talking about how all this is so complicated, I love the webcomic http://whatsnormalanyway.net/ . The comic is now complete, but it follows the story of a trans male through gender reassignment surgery.
    Following some above comments about people not understanding, I love the quote from the comic’s “About” page, “How would you define normal? Is it when you wear shoes on your feet at the mall or eat toast for breakfast? Is it when you’re female and feel like a woman? What happens when you go somewhere else and they don’t even have shoes or toast, or when you’re in a group of people who are female and don’t feel at all like women?”

  11. This is something I deal with pretty much daily, both professionally and personally. Professionally, I work for an LGBTQ youth mentoring program and also do educational trainings for other youth service providers and school faculty and staff. With a lot of them, it’s making sure that they know the basics (what L, G, B, T, the various Qs, sometimes I and the As all stand for, as well as sex v. gender), but at the same time, a lot of these words and concepts are linked very closely with the “scholarly words.”

    It’s also about building up to the more complex or confusing things. Personally, I am a queer cis-lady dating a bisexual trans-lady and our families love us both and want us to be happy but have lots of questions. Also, because we’re both super liberal queer feminists, we post a lot of stuff about heteronormativity, cisgender privilege, white privilege, classism, racism, etc., on Facebook, which often leads to awesome questions from family members via Facebook message who want to know more about the community and be better allies. This has also resulted in super awesome stories. For example, we have family friends who are expecting their first child and one day the awesome mama-to-be messaged me asking “I’m not totally crazy in thinking sex and gender are different right?!” because so many people had been asking about the baby’s gender. For a lot of our family, if we had uttered the words “heteronormativity” two years ago, they would’ve been CRAZY confused, but two years later, it just rolls through the conversation and all is well.

  12. Like most things about alienation, it’s about tone and context.
    A different situation is when someone I know talks about their vacation to western Europe, and it can feel like a fun discussion about places I want to go, or make me feel shitty for not having the budget for it and not prioritizing it. The second one is condedcending and makes me feel defective for not going

    Related to this post, if we’re talking to someone who we genuinely like, and they’re unfamiliar with a word or concept, I think we should assume they’ve just never encountered it before. We shouldn’t scoff “Psh cis just means gender and sex match. Duh. You’ve never heard of this?” Even if the other person doesn’t immediately incorporate cis into their every day language, they should at least feel like it’s a concept that was introduced in a nice conversation, and that we weren’t patronizing.

    My goal is to try to make the conversation feel like an every day thing. Like “Gingko? That’s the type of tree there.” (You’re not a moron for not knowing this. I still like you). I think that’s key in not making people defensive.

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