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Words as Bridges, Words as Barriers:
A primer on talking about sexual orientation

 
When I was in grade 7, one of the other boys regularly called me a fag. It was without a doubt an insult, even though at the time I did not know what it really meant nor why he chose me as a target of his insults. As it was the late 1970's, before homosexuality was openly discussed everywhere, I doubt whether many of my peers could have defined its meaning correctly.

Now, twenty years later, I hear Christian people talk about homosexuality and those who experience same-sex attraction. I hear how others understand the words and phrases that we use. Sometimes, our choice of words leads them to believe that we have no idea what we're talking about. Other times, they are offended.

The words we use are critical, and if we want to build bridges of understanding to others, we must choose them carefully. There are enough barriers in the gospel message itself without us adding more with the careless or ignorant (in the sense of "not knowing any different") use of words. This primer is a first step to helping us speak in ways that can be heard.


Homosexual, gay, lesbian

The gay community accepts the use of of the nouns "gay" and lesbian. However, we prefer to focus on the person rather than the sexual orientation, so we recommend that these terms be used as adjectives or that other descriptive phrases be substituted.

Acceptable usage: Preferred usage:
A lot of gays were at the meeting.
 
A lot of gay men were at the meeting.
One lesbian said that... One lesbian woman said that...

General exceptions to this and all recommendations in this article would include quotes, titles of books, articles, etc.


Admitted homosexual

Sometimes individuals who are open about experiencing same-sex attraction are referred to as admitted homosexual, avowed homosexual, or confirmed homosexual. For example:

Jack, an avowed homosexual, said ...
There were three confirmed lesbians at the meeting.

Such phrases can give the impression that experiencing same-sex attraction is something to be ashamed of, something that one would not normally admit. Note that Jesus, when the woman caught in adultery was brought before him, did not shame her even though she had clearly been involved in sinful behaviour. If that how Jesus responded to individuals who have sinned, then certainly we are not to shame men and women for attractions which in and of themselves are not sin and which they did not choose. Therefore, we recommend that these phrases not be used.


Derogatory terms referring to gay and lesbian people

We recommend that derogatory terms like fag, queer, dyke, les, lesbo, faggot, homo, etc., not be used. Exceptions to this recommendation would be references to groups such as Queer Nation, who have chosen to include one of these terms in their name, or terms such as queer politics.


Homosexuality

The term "homosexuality" is often inappropriately used when a more precise term should be substituted. The result can be inaccurate and quite offensive. For example, consider the sentence, "The Bible says homosexuality is a sin". This sentence is inaccurate. The Bible says homosexual behaviour is a sin. The Bible does not say that homosexual attraction is a sin (it is not a sin to be tempted).   We recommend that the broader term "homosexuality" not be used when the intent is to refer specifically to one specific aspect of homosexuality such as orientation, behaviour, attraction, identity, etc.

Therefore, instead of saying "The Bible says homosexuality is a sin," one would say "The Bible says homosexual behaviour is a sin"; instead of saying "Homosexuality is the leading cause of AIDS," one would say "In North America, homosexual behaviour is the leading high risk factor for AIDS."


Same-Sex Attraction

We recommend the use of the terms same-sex attraction, same-sex behaviour, and same-sex fantasy whenever possible. We recognize that the use of these terms can be confusing when the listener/reader is not familiar with them, or cumbersome when speaking informally. Where appropriate, and particularly in writing, they can be abbreviated after the first use (ssb, ssa, ssf, etc.). These are preferable to the terms "homosexual" and "gay/lesbian", for the following reasons:

The word "homosexual" has clinical or psychiatric connotations and may not be received well by those who identify themselves as gay or lesbian.
The word "gay", on the other hand, implies that a person is sexually active to some degree, that he or she is out of the closet, and that he or she is content with his or her sexuality. Note that this is not necessarily the case with youth, who may simply equate the word "gay" with "experiencing same-sex attraction".

The use of the "same-sex _________________" terms does not carry these additional meanings. They are purely descriptive and focused on what one wants to communicate. We realize that there are some limitations to these terms (for example, same-sex behaviour could mean non-sexual friendship with those of the same sex)...

Preferred usage:
Those who experience unwanted same-sex attraction can be referred to New Direction for Life.
From our Biblical perspective, same-sex behaviour is wrong.
A recent study found that n% of the population has same-sex fantasies...

Homosexual Lifestyle, Alternative Lifestyle

A number of years ago, same-sex-attracted people would commonly refer to the "homosexual lifestyle" or "being in the lifestyle." Today, such phrases are seldom used in the gay and lesbian community, and are often seen as offensive. Religious groups that continue to use these terms seldom define what they mean by them. As well, these terms do not differentiate between sexual attraction, fantasy, behaviour and identity, and thus it is often assumed that someone who is "in the lifestyle" is sexually active, which may or may not be the case. Accordingly, we recommend that they not be used.

Examples of some possible alternatives include: He is gay. She is openly lesbian. He is very involved in the gay community.


The Question of Choice

The word "choice" is often used inappropriately by Christians. The vast majority of same-sex-attracted people did not choose this attraction. The word "choice" should only be used if a person has stated a conscious decision to be gay (for example, some lesbian women will clearly state that they chose to be lesbian because of their feminist beliefs). We recommend that the word and its variations be used with the utmost care and in keeping with the following examples:

Unacceptable usage:
She chose to be lesbian...
He said that he chose to be gay. (this is unacceptable unless it's a direct quotation, or if one expands on what is meant by this statement. If by this he really means that he chose to accept himself as gay, this should be said clearly.)
Acceptable usage:
In reference to behaviour:
She chose to act on her feelings of same-sex attraction.
He chose to have sex with other men.
In reference to identity; individuals who experience same-sex attraction still choose how they identify themselves:
She chose to identify herself as lesbian.
He said that he chose to accept himself as gay.
When someone expressly states that they chose to be gay or lesbian:
She said that she chose to be lesbian as a result of her feminist beliefs.

Exgay, Ex-Gay

This word is used widely within the ex-gay community and also in the media. The difficulty with it is that it means quite different things to different people. For example, some assume it means someone who was completely gay and who is now completely straight. To others, it means someone who experiences same-sex attraction but who instead has decided to not act on those attractions and to not identify themselves based on them. To yet others, it means a gay person who is in denial about their feelings. We recommend that the word and its variations be used with care and with careful consideration of the context and of the background of the hearer. It should also be used as an adjective, not as a noun.

Within the context of exgay ministries, conferences, seminars, groups, etc.:
the term ex-gay may be used freely.
In other public contexts:
Use descriptive language to ensure that the hearers know what you mean.
For example, say "Men and women who have chosen not to act on their same-sex attractions are often rejected by straight Christians."

The use of quotation marks around words

Quotation marks are sometimes put around words to cast doubt on their accuracy or reality. For example, consider the sentence: Since the early first century, "Christians" have been persecuting others. The quotation marks give the sense that real Christians -- those who really know what following Jesus is all about -- would not be persecuting others; therefore, the people referred to here must be pseudo-Christians. In a similar way, putting quotation marks around the word "gay" implies that someone is not really gay; putting quotation marks around the word "partner" implies that the person in question is not really a partner, or is somehow pretending to be a partner. This is offensive and does not show respect for others. We need to ask ourselves what we are communicating with our use of quotation marks. Therefore, we recommend that quotation marks be used carefully.

Unacceptable usage: Acceptable usage:
Is it possible for someone to be "ex-gay"? Is it possible for someone to be ex-gay?
She said she is an "ex-lesbian." "I'm an ex-lesbian," she said.
He lives with his "boyfriend". He lives with his boyfriend.
I work with a "gay" man. I work with a gay man.

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