Queer 101: LGBT Terminology & Saying What You Mean

In recent weeks, I’ve noticed quite a few faux pas in headlines describing some segment of the queer population. My guess is that the writers didn’t really think their terminology through, so I’d like to offer a little guide that might be helpful, especially to those who are not part of the queer community, in deciding what language to use when describing us.

  1. Don’t use the whole alphabet soup to refer to a specific population.  The term “LGBT” means “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.”  It’s appropriate when referring to those four groups en masse, and at no other time.  Often, the “T” is simply thrown in, as in “today, LGBT New Yorkers gained the right to marry.”  While the marriage law did affect many transgender people, I don’t think that’s what the writer means there.  It’s okay to say “gay, lesbian, and bisexual” or “gay and lesbian” if that’s what you mean.  Even better with marriage is to simply say “same-sex couples,” which describes the exact population.  Throwing in transgender people just to be politically correct is actually harmful, because you’re not referencing that population.  If you do include the T, then include it: don’t be the group that holds an “LGBT” event and then excludes transgender people at the door.
  2. If you want to refer to the whole population, then use an appropriate term.  I like “queer” because it can be used to refer to a range of gender and sexuality minorities.  It works well when you’re not referring to specific populations, but to everyone who’s marginalized in this way.  Of course, keep in mind that the goals of each population under this umbrella are not the same (see #1).  Some like LGBT, LGBTQ, QUILTBAG, etc., but I tend to find that the alphabet usually leaves someone out.  Others use trans/queer or queer/trans.  When I say “queer,” I’m including trans, but that’s a matter of personal choice.
  3. Don’t use one term as a proxy for another.  Lately there has been a lot of discussion about websites requiring people to identify as male or female.  This gets characterized again and again as a transgender issue.  Certainly, some trans people would like to identify as something other than male or female, but many of those affected by this issue identify as genderqueer or some variation.  Instead of using the term transgender, it might make sense to describe it as an issue affecting non-binary genders, gender minorities, or non-conforming genders (I don’t love that one, but that’s for another time).  I’ve also seen many “genderqueer” communities that are all about trans issues.  It’s important to understand that genderqueer is a specific term with a specific meaning, not a proxy for transgender.
  4. Describe subsets of a queer population accurately.  This is a problem in pretty much every area of activism, not just the queer bubble.  Don’t say, for example, that “gay people have more money.”  The ones with the money are mostly white, cis-gender gay men.  If you’re doing academic research and the population you’re studying is white, young, middle-class, students, or some other subgroup, say so.  The queer population as a whole has been done a tremendous disservice because those of us in a position of privilege tend to ignore huge subsets of the population–particularly trans people, youth of color, homeless kids, etc. It’s important to be clear and take note when you are making a statement that does not including one of these or another group.  Define the subset clearly, then make your point.

About Avory

Avory Faucette is a queer feminist activist, writer, and public speaker. Zie graduated from the University of Iowa with a JD in 2009, focusing on international human rights and gender/sexuality issues in the law. Hir current work focuses on queer identity, policy, and marginalized identities under the queer umbrella. As a genderqueer person, zie comments frequently on non-binary identity, transgender and genderqueer issues, and media coverage of these populations. Zie also speaks at colleges, universities, and events on transgender and queer issues and conducts trainings on related topics.

Posted on July 26, 2011, in media, queer and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Thanks so much for taking the time to remind us that language matters. I look forward to following you on Twitter and on your blog, too.

  2. Hi Avory, what does QUILTBAG stand for?

    And as an ally, I’ve been told that the word “queer” is only for in-community use, but this could vary from person to person. I know to use genderqueer when it affirms a friend’s gender, but do you have any sense on whether its acceptable for allies to use it in the all-encompassing way you describe?
    -Ryan

    • QUILTBAG = Queer (or Questioning), Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Trans, Bisexual, Asexual (or Ally), Gay (or Genderqueer)

      My sense is that we’ve gotten to a point where queer can generally be used by allies to describe a community, or someone who is queer-identified. It might still be considered offensive to some people to refer to an individual as queer if they don’t use that term themselves or you don’t know.

  1. Pingback: The Femisphere: Trans Feminist Bloggers (Part 1) : Ms. Magazine Blog

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