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Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender & Questioning Terms
Using the term homosexual to describe a lesbian or gay individual is offensive and is like using the "n-word" to describe African-Americans. The negative connotation of the word homosexual came initially from both religions who are against homosexuality and also from early psychoanalysis. Before the 1970's it was widely believed that one could change from gay to straight. While there is a minority of groups and individuals who still believe this today, they are just that--a minority.
In fact, those who are anti-gay and believe that homosexuality is always a sign of pathology never use the word "gay". They always use the term homosexual because they say there is "nothing gay about being a homosexual" and that it is a choice-which today we know is not true. To read more about choice versus non-choice I suggest you read Jesse Bering's excellent blog.
Homosexual orientation is okay to say but to say homosexual community or "He is homosexual" is offensive. If you read an article or listen to something in the media where the word homosexual is used you are most likely reading something anti-gay or homo-ignorant-meaning that the author, journalist, speaker or reporter does not understand the negative connotations of the word.
Although the term homosexuality is still used, describing gays and lesbians as "homosexuals" is as offensive today as the words Negro, colored, or crippled. The correct words are gays and lesbians or GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender) community.
Terms like sexual preference and alternative lifestyle are no longer considered appropriate. Preference implies that sexuality is a choice-which it's not-and for gays and lesbians, heterosexuality is the "alternative" lifestyle. The correct term is sexual and romantic orientation.
The gay male and lesbian communities use different terminology's and jargon in each community. Of course, some overlap exists between gays and lesbians, but each group has its own unique slang, "code" words, and euphemisms, and in cases of overlap, the terms may have different connotations for each community.
Over the years, other minority groups have changed how they want to be referred to in an attempt to change how they're treated. For example, African-Americans went from being called "Negro" and "colored" to "black" and "people of color" and finally to the current politically correct term African-American. Today, the word queer, once a pejorative term, is often used in a positive way. Dozens of books and articles are published with queer in their titles, and the term has come into common, affirmative usage by lesbians and gays as well.
It is always best to ask how you're a person with same-sex orientation self-identifies and use the same terms he or she uses, even if you feel uncomfortable with them on a personal level. For example, I don't personally like to use the term homosexual. But when my clients identify themselves as "homosexual" and dislike the terms gay or lesbian, then that's the word I use. To me, the word gay is affirmative and refers to a life of being out and open about one's sexual/romantic orientation. However, many people in the beginning stages of coming out feel uncomfortable with the term. Similarly, some lesbians prefer to be called "gay" rather than "lesbian," whereas others find the term offensive when used to describe women.
It is also important to understand that some "reclaimed" terms used by gays and lesbians to refer to themselves are considered offensive when used by straight people. For example, some lesbians call themselves "dykes" and some gay men call themselves "fags," but these same lesbians and gay men would take offense if a straight person called them that. (In fact, there is some disagreement in the gay and lesbian community itself about these terms, with some gays and lesbians finding them offensive regardless of whether it's another gay person using them.) In these cases, straight individuals should not use the same terminology the client uses, just as a Caucasian person should never use the "n-word" to refer to African-Americans, even if some African-Americans use the word themselves.
If you are unsure about whether your using a term might be considered offensive, it is best to not use it until you have established a rapport and can ask the lesbian or gay person how he or she feels about your using it.
For further information go to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation