Avoiding LGBTQ Stereotypes in YA Fiction, Part 3: Words to watch out for - UPDATED

After yesterday's think-heavy post about gender, today I'm going practical with a post about words to watch out for when writing about LGBTQ characters. Here are the other posts in this series: Part 1: Major LGBTQ stereotypes Part 2: Gender Part 3: Words to watch out for Part 4: Secondary characters and gay jokes Part 5: Resources

You should check out the introduction to the first post if you haven't read it yet. On to part 3!

Words to Watch Out For

The most important thing you can do as a writer is pay attention to your word choices. Certain words and phrases have connotations beyond their dictionary meanings, and they can inadvertently contribute to stereotypes or read as offensive.

I'm not saying that these words should not be used. I'm saying that writers need to be aware of these meanings, so that they can use the words appropriately. As a writer, I don't think any words are inherently evil, and sometimes inflammatory words are not only useful, they're necessary. Just make sure that when you use a word, it's the right one for the situation.

I also want to note that a word that is derogatory when used by someone who is not a member of the LGBTQ community can also be a note of pride when used by someone who is queer. (Similarly, jokes about Asian American identity, when delivered by an Asian American comedian, can be funny to Asian Americans. When a non-Asian American comedian makes jokes about Asian Americans, I'm betting that most Asian Americans don't think it's funny.)

Here are some words ((Predominantly used in American English.)) I think you should be aware of when writing about LGBTQ characters:

Updated 6/10/10: General terms about LGBTQ people

Here are some very widely used terms about LGBTQ people, for reference:

  • homo - generally offensive, though is sometimes jokingly used by in-group members
  • homosexual - These days, this word has distinct homophobic connotations due to the word's medical history and usage by the anti-gay right. See this article for more info.
  • lesbian - a woman who is attracted to other women
  • gay - a person who is attracted to someone of the same sex; more often refers to men than women
  • bisexual - a person who is attracted to both men and women
  • transgender - a person who is transitioning from one gender to another
  • queer - a person who is not heterosexual and chooses to identify as queer
  • LGBTQ, GLBTQ - the acronym typically used to describe Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer people; or, Gay, Lesbian Bisexual, Transgender, Queer people

Words that tend to describe gay men

Many of the words used to describe gay men indicate "unnatural" femininity in a man, thereby supporting stereotypical portrayals of gay men. In some cases, these words are offensive (generally when used by non-LGBTQ people), but they can also be used by gay men to describe themselves in campy ways.

  • butch - a masculine gay man
  • fag, faggot - offensive term for a gay man; occasionally used by gay men among themselves
  • flaming - extremely flamboyant
  • limp-wristed - weak, excessively feminine; can be offensive
  • nancy, pansy, sissy - an effeminate gay man; generally offensive
  • queen - an effeminate gay man; sometimes sounds old-fashioned
  • swishy - indicates an excessive femininity; can be offensive

Words that tend to describe lesbians

Similarly, many of the words used to describe lesbians indicate "unnatural" masculinity in a woman and support stereotypes. Some of these words are used by lesbians themselves as proud identities, but they can also be derogatory if used by someone who is homophobic.

  • bull dagger, bull dyke, diesel dyke - an extremely masculine woman; rarely used by younger lesbians today but in the past was a lesbian identity
  • butch - a masculine woman; can be a positive identity or a negative judgement
  • dyke - a lesbian; can be offensive, but many lesbians use it today as an ordinary word or to indicate pride
  • femme - a feminine lesbian identity
  • lez, lezzie - a lesbian; can be derogatory, but some lesbians use it as campy slang
  • lipstick lesbian - a lesbian who is more feminine than masculine; this term tends to be used by heterosexuals to describe extremely feminine lesbians, but is usually not used by lesbians
  • mannish - old-fashioned adjective for an unnaturally masculine woman; usually derogatory

Words about bisexuals

There are few words used to describe bisexuals. No doubt this is because bisexuality can be so easily erased; people choose to not see it, even if it exists ((For example, a bisexual woman might be identified mistakenly as a lesbian if her partner is female, or as straight if her partner is male.)).

  • pansexual, omnisexual - someone who is attracted to more than one gender
  • bicurious - a straight person (usually female) who is interested in someone of the same sex; implies a lack of seriousness and, as far as I know, is often used by queer people to joke about straight girls kissing other straight girls for the benefit of their boyfriends
  • heteroflexible - a straight person who could be attracted to a queer person in the right situation; I believe this word has kind of a humorous feel to it

Words about transgender identities

Trans folk are, by definition, undergoing a transition, so their identities are changing. The words they use to describe themselves are also changing; it's important to ask them how they wish to be described. Following are some basic terms to keep in mind:

  • female to male, or FTM - a person who was born female and is transitioning to male
  • genderqueer - someone who does not identify as traditionally male or female
  • male to female, or MTF - a person who was born male and is transitioning to female
  • she-male, he-she - offensive slang for a trans person
  • tranny - offensive slang for transsexual
  • trans - short for transgender; no offensive connotations as far as I know
  • trans folk - transgender people

It's impossible to list every word that may arise relating to LGBTQ people ((Check out this page for a really long list of queer slang!)). What I hope these lists do is get you thinking about your word choices, especially as they relate to LGBTQ characters and their gender expression. None of these words are wrong, but they do have histories. It's your job as a writer to take that history into account.

Are there any words relating to LGBTQ people you're confused about? Do you have any to contribute? Please leave them in the comments! Don't forget: Comments will be moderated, and homophobia is not tolerated on my website.