Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Question about terminology/labels

Becky Groves of PFLAG Central Oregon posted a question on a PFLAG listserv, and I think it is interesting - and that Safe Schools Coalition folks could offer some good insight to her and each other.

Becky wrote:
I have a question from a Human Sexuality instructor in my chapter. I thought I would put it out there for some input. Here it is:
"I have become increasingly aware of an awkward feeling whenever I use the term homosexual, heterosexual, gay, Lesbian, transgender, straight, etc.
It is unavoidable in my class because these are the terms that we have to use and it seems that they have been so institutionalized as to have become acceptable by all who use them.

Are you aware, or can you ask someone who would be aware if there is some movement afoot to change our vocabulary to excise these sexually based terms?
It seems to describe someone's personhood by what is done in private is so crazy and is frankly repugnant to me. I hate labels but it seems we are stuck with them unless or until we demand change. We don't call women who have had abortions, "aborters", or people who eat meat, carnivores (except in a nutritional definition perhaps) as their primary description, then why should we define individuals by what they do sexually?"
I know a lot of young people are refusing to label themselves. What do you think about this? What kind of terminology is being used by those that don't want "labels"? Are there any thoughts from National about a change in these labels that we all use?

Thank you in advance for your thoughts on this.
Please post your replies here on the Safe Schools Coalition blog.

If you are unable to post responses here for some reason, please send them to me by using this contact form and let me know what is okay to post (i.e. your message? name? contact information?).

Thank you,


  1. I really appreciate responses to this question. Please participate and share your ideas. Thanks!

  2. I'm Graham Brinklow, the Youth Outreach Coordinator for Indiana Youth Group in Indianapolis. I agree completely about the negative inferrance made when using the terms homosexual, heterosexual, and bisexual. When I lead discussion groups with youth, I explain to them why I prefer to use the "Romantic-orientation"

  3. Terminology is ever-changing. it is also surprisingly controversial. Obviously each individual has feelings about being labeled and we are stuck with trying to agree on common language just for convenience and logistics sake.
    I rarely use "homosexual" except to give people the historical context and scientific term for reference. As for the terms defining behavior, I have a mixed response. First, I would say that "gay, lesbian, and transgender" say nothing of behavior. I always point out to adults in my trainings that when discussing sexual orientation or gender identity, we are NOT talking about SEX (behavior). We are talking about identity. Many people who identify as LGBT have never had any sexual experiences. Second, I would say that yes, our labels/terms are laden with sexual behavior associations. This is unfortunate. I do not know of a movement toward changing terms, but I know our young people are the first to go there. We often follow their lead.
    As for talking with kids in schools, I like to open up conversations with students by telling them that "we have lots of labels for different groups of people. Some are slang terms, some derrogatory, some scientific, some are used more by youth and others by different generations. We are going to use some common and some scientific terms for people who love and are attracted to others of the same gender."
    I then go on to use terms from Safe Schools Coalition handouts and from Advocates for Youth. They both have good, youth-friendly terms...but do know these are constantly changing and your students will likely be the ones to inform you when they feel terms are a bit outdated.

    This is an interesting conversation and an fascinating thing to ponder. I am interested in hearing what others have to say too!

  4. I don't have any inherent problem with the terms homosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, etc. As problematic as it is when identities are oversimplified (or when individuals are not allowed to define our own identities in whatever terms we choose), I think it is equally problematic to write off these terms. As a teacher, I often use the terms gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, as well as the term "queer" with my sixth grade students.

    Personally, I don't have a problem identifying as heterosexual, or as a transsexual. I think there can be a very strong, alienating "more radical than thou" edge to pushes to eradicate terms like homosexual, heterosexual, transsexual, or gay. Efforts to permanently replace those terms with others like "queer" or "genderqueer" are not fair to those of us who fight for the right to identify in one of these more defined (and therefore more "limiting") categories.

  5. I agree with you all, Graham, Lisa, Loren.

    The reason the issue is so sensitive is that people should get to choose their own identity labels or none at all ... but that makes it hard to have a conversation. Especially if the person speaking is out and listener, or one of the listeners, is not. Because the very nature of the closet is that you can't SAY, "Actually, I'm __ and I find the term __ demeaning (archaic, too sexual, whatever)." I think that often happens in classrooms and so, as a teacher, I try to acknowledge that folks have various ways of describing themselves.

    At this moment in time, gay/lesbian/bi/transgender seem to me the most common identities of choice, but queer is a common enough self-identity among the youth I talk with that I no longer say it shouldn't be allowed in schools. It shouldn't be allowed as a slur (neither should "gay") but it really isn't the equivalent of the n-word. The latter is used affectionately, but not in the names of organizations, or their mission statements or publications.

    I pretty much only ever use "homosexual" to explain that it is pejorative.

    As for the original writer's concern: "It seems to describe someone's personhood by what is done in private is so crazy and is frankly repugnant to me." and the analogy that we don't call people aborters or carnivores ... Sexual orientation is not something you do. In private OR in public. It's something you feel. And whether I describe someone else's personhood isn't the point. The point is to honor the names they choose to describe themSELVES. We may not call people "carnivores," but plenty of people call themselves "vegetarians." Who am I to tell them they can't be described that way.