The terms we use for minority groups are not just about political correctness.
I believe they are of spiritual consequence.
If we use words that dignify people’s (often painful) journey toward self-understanding and authenticity, we can actually bestow honor on them, affirm them as image-bearers of God, and show them hospitality. When we impose our own labels, using words that distort or erase our minority friends’ experiences and self-determination, we inhibit deeper conversation and relationship.
We can be gracious with ourselves in the realm of LGBTQ+ language … the language of sexuality and gender is constantly changing and becoming more nuanced, and it can be hard to keep up! Sometimes we make honest mistakes, and often our LGBTQ+ friends and fellow advocates will gently and graciously correct us. But if we take time to educate ourselves in advance, we can better prepare ourselves to love people with our words.
So let’s say you’re already aware of some of the basics. You know that most gay people don’t like to be called “homosexuals,” and that “the gay lifestyle” is an unhelpful generalizing (and sexualizing!) term. For those of you who want to go to the next level with your language, I’ve gathered a few of the most common misunderstood, misused, or underutilized terms I often hear questions about from Christians.
1. Transgender or trans/trans* for short (not “transgendered” or “transsexual”). I’ve encountered Christians who believe the “T” in the LGBTQ+ acronym stands for different things. “Transsexual” and “transgendered” were both in use at different points over the past 30-40 years, but since the 90s, “transgender” has become the most accepted term. Transgender is a broad category; it includes people who transition from one gender to another, people who identifyas a different gender but choose not to physically transition, as well as people who don’t feel like they fully fit in either the “male” or “female” box, who may describe themselves as non-binary, genderqueer, gender-fluid, agender, etc. Some people use an asterisk (trans*) to indicate they’re being explicitly broad and inclusive of all gender minorities. Language for gender is shifting and new words are coined all the time, so be prepared to learn from your transgender friends, and don’t be shy to ask them what pronouns they prefer, or what they mean by their own self-identifying terms. You can click here for more trans-related terminology.
2. Cisgender or cis for short. It’s always exciting to discover a new word that describes you, and this might be the case with “cisgender” for many of our readers! If your current gender identity matches the one that was assigned to you at birth (e.g. the doctor said “It’s a girl!” and you agree), you’re a cisgender person (as opposed to a transgender person). The prefix “cis-” means “on the same side of,” while the prefix “trans-” which means “on the other side of.”
3. Queer. This is quickly becoming the most common self-identifying term among younger LGBTQ+ people. Older generations may feel uncomfortable with this word, because it was once used as a slur to insult LGBTQ+ people. Today it is being reclaimed, and many people love how it communicates that someone is outside the sexual and gender majority without requiring that person to nail down the intricacies of their attractions and gender identity. It’s also a wonderful umbrella term to encompass the many, many letters of the LGBTQQIAP2S acronym (!). Because of the word’s checkered past, I’d recommend waiting to use it in reference to a particular person until after the person has claimed it for themselves, but you’re generally safe using it to refer to a larger group (e.g. “queer Christians”)… though you may need to explain the term if you use it in some church contexts.
4. Mixed-orientation marriage. This refers to a marriage in which the spouses have different orientations (usually one is straight, and the other is lesbian, gay or bisexual). In some cases, partners with different orientations enter into marriage fully aware of their differences, but in many cases, one partner comes out of the closet after they’re already married. As you can imagine, these couples face significant challenges, and for some, divorce is the mutually-agreed upon option, but there are also couples in our community whose marriages survive and sometimes thrive in the wake of this new-found and risky authenticity.
5. Same-sex marriage (not “gay marriage”). Before this year, I had considered “same-sex marriage” and “gay marriage” to be synonymous, but then a bisexual friend pointed out that “gay marriage” doesn’t sound like it includes bisexual and trans people. These groups are so often left out of our conversations, even though legal decisions about marriage affect them, too. I’ve been trying to make a conscious shift toward “same-sex marriage” to be more inclusive of all people who might seek marriage with a partner of the same sex, not only those who identify as gay. “Marriage equality” might be another good option if you’re trying to communicate a belief that marriage doesn’t (or shouldn’t) have special categories for people of different sexual orientations.
6. Using the acronym responsibly. This ties in with point #5. The acronym “LGBTQ+” is meant to be inclusive, but for the minorities within the minority, it can be very frustrating to be included in name but not included in practice. For example, some congregations call themselves LGBTQ+ inclusive, but they’ve had no education about trans people, and in fact there are no trans people among them. In some cases, it may be more appropriate to use “LGB” for clarity. (In fact, “LG” might be even more accurate considering the scarce attention and many misconceptions applied to bisexual folks.) Rule of thumb: if you want to use “LGBTQ+,” ensure that you’re actively seeking to include and focus on all of the distinct groups that acronym contains.
Feel free to comment below with other terms you have questions about, or terms that you think are important to define and help one another use language well!