Tuesday, September 27, 2016

That's Offensive Now? Why LGBTQI+ Terminology Changes!

This morning I corrected someone who used the term "a transgender." "That's not a noun", I said patiently. "The correct term is transgender person." The response I get from people when correcting language is anywhere from incredulous to frustrated to confused. Gender and affectional orientation are complex issues. Add on top of that that these terms change and once-accepted terms can now be considered offensive, people can be fearful of using the terminology and frustrated that it changes so often. I understand; the sheer number of terms and how quickly they change can be overwhelming. But, I'm going to explain in this blog post, why these terms are so complex and why they change so much.

Why Do These Terms Change??

First, we live in a world that is heteronormative (seeing heterosexuality as the norm) and cisnormative (having a singular gender identity that matches your designated sex at birth as the norm). Since researchers and clinicians live in this society, they use that lens to view differences. Terms that were initially chosen to describe LGBTQI+ people have been found to be lacking or incorrect. For example, it used to be a convention to refer to a transgender person's "biological or genetic sex," referencing their designated sex at birth (the phrase we use now). "Biological or genetic sex" is not actually accurate and reflects a bias against transgender people. Some transgender people may have "Differences of Sex Development" or Intersex conditions, where there sex chromosomes, internal sex organs, external sex organs, and secondary sex characteristics (face shape, facial hair, etc.) do not match in a binary male or female manner. For example, they may have XX chromosomes, have internal female sex organs, and external male sex organs, with blended secondary sex characteristics. "Biological or genetic sex" also assumes that only observable sex characteristics are "biological or genetic"; when, gender identity and brain physiology is absolutely biological and genetically influenced. Therefore, the first reason is that the way we see the world impacts our terminology. When research findings and other viewpoints enter our collective consciousness, we understand how previously used terminology can be incorrect. 

How We See The World Affects Our Terminology

The second reason that these terms change is because of the stigma associated with the LGBTQI+ communities. When a term is associated with a culturally devalued label, it can carry so much stigma that it needs to be changed, as it is commonly used in an abusive way. For example, individuals with intellectual and cognitive disabilities were once called fools, simpletons, cretins, idiots, and imbeciles, as clinical terms. Because of the negative stigma, these terms began to be used abusively, and eventually become outdated and need to be changed. The word carries so much stigma on its own, it becomes unsalvageable. The same thing has happened to the terms "homosexual" and "transexual," which are outdated terms that carry much stigma. This stigma can also show up in how people use a word; using an adjective as a noun is a common mistake. Saying "a transgender" is no more appropriate or correct than saying "a gay". Therefore, the second reason that these terms change so much is that they begin to carry stigma and begin to be used as derogatory terms. 

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Terms Can Become Stigmatized

The third reason that LGBTQI+ terminology is always shifting and complex is because it is based upon one's identity and subjective sense of self. The terms are just labels that will not fit everyone perfectly. Gender identity is on a continuum, therefore, someone could have a very specific term for being at a specific location on that continuum (e.g., femme, boi, agender, etc.). Also, because of intersectional identities (ethnicity, spirituality, etc.), gender identity and affectional orientation labels can be very specific to the person's other identities, such as BlaQ (someone who identifies as African American and queer) or Latinx (a person who identifies as Latin American and genderqueer). There are literally thousands (or more) of potential identity terms that encompass affectional orientation and gender. 

Terms Reflect Varying Identities

While there is no way that someone could know all possible LGBTQI+ identity terms, I suggest that when you are working with someone, as a counselor or otherwise, that you simply ask what term a persons uses and what it means to them. Do not expect that person to be a walking encyclopedia for you, however, especially when you have google. 


Our new American Counseling Association book coming out next year has a complete glossary in it, but there are also some useful ones online through the Human Rights Commission, It's Pronounced Metrosexual website, and within the ALGBTIC Competencies for counselors. We'll be addressing more terms in this blog as well, so stay connected!



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