How To Love Our LGBT Neighbors With Words
Language is a tricky thing. Sometimes the simple act of talking can feel like walking a tightrope made of all the things you’ve ever learned about how not to offend someone. But, since we humans do like to talk so much, it’s important that we consider how our words affect others, even when it seems exhausting. Step 1 of loving our LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) neighbors is simply this: we must be aware of the words we use. To help us all in this journey, we’ve compiled a few guidelines to follow, along with examples of old and new ways of speaking. Don’t feel bad if you’ve done these things before. Most of us have.
1. Avoid using the words “homosexual” and “homosexuality.”
We’re not saying you’ll never, ever use these words again, or that if you do say them, you’ve committed a major faux pas. But, the truth is that in the past, the word “homosexual” has been used to alienate an entire group of people, treating them as abnormal or even sick. Your LGBT brothers and sisters will notice and be thankful that you’re not using a word that makes them wince inwardly.
Old: “I just found out that Jerry’s homosexual!”
New (assuming that Jerry has given you permission to talk about this): “Jerry’s gay.”
2. Stop mentioning the gay lifestyle.
It’s not a real thing. There’s no such thing as a gay lifestyle. This phrase is all too often used by straight Christians as a way to excuse marginalization, whether or not they’re consciously doing so.
Old: “I don’t want to be judgmental or anything, but I just don’t understand that lifestyle.”
More old: “Yes, but how can she be following Jesus? She’s living a gay lifestyle.”
New: “What do you like to do for fun?”
Another new: “Sheila and her wife had us over for dinner, then we watched House of Cards.”
The unsubtle point we are making is that gay people are just like straight people. They live all sorts of lives, most of them quite ordinary and mundane. The hypersexualized stereotype evoked by “the gay lifestyle” simply doesn’t reflect the lives of the vast majority of gay and lesbian people.
3. Be gracious and kind. Also listen.
There’s a big difference between sexual orientation and gender identity. Orientation addresses our sexual attraction: Are you attracted to men? Women? Both? Identity addresses our own person: Does an individual identify as male? Female? Both? Neither?
Understand that “LGBT” is a catchall term that’s not really catching all (and which is why you sometimes see lots of extra other letters at the end, including Q, I, and A). Also, each letter describes a very different group of people: L and G for lesbian and gay, B for bisexual, and T for transgender. Q can mean queer or questioning, I means intersex, and A means asexual.
Old: “I just don’t understand. How can you want to do that with another guy??”
New: “I really want to understand. Can you help me?”
Old: “Oh, she’s too young to know what she wants. She’s just experimenting.”
(The reason this isn’t helpful is that many LGBT people know what their orientation is at a very young age. Remember what you felt like in middle and high school? LGBT people feel the same way.)
New: “I love you. How can I support you?”
Old: “I just found out (insert name of famous actor) is gay! That’s so disappointing!
(If we say something like this, it’s important to self-examine and ask why we said it.)
New: “I just found out (insert name of famous athlete) is gay! Maybe this can really open up a discussion about sexuality and athletics in our culture.”
A good rule of thumb is to listen and use the words people are using to describe themselves. If you don’t know what words to use, and you’re focused on being kind, it’s ok to ask. The fact that you’re conscious of your language is already a really welcoming thing. If you’re gracious and loving, people will see that and will respond in kind.
4. Listen. Listen, listen, listen. Don’t talk. Listen.
This actually pretty much applies to most situations in life, certainly not just welcoming LGBT people. But in a world where everyone is desperate to be heard, very few people listen well. And we, as Christians, need to be listening to the stories of our LGBT brothers and sisters, not telling them whether they’re right or wrong or making suggestions about their lives. We can love through listening, just like we want for ourselves.
Old: “Have you read 1 Corinthians 6:9?”
New: “Would you tell me about your experience with the church?”
More new: “We’d love to have you over for dinner sometime so we can get to know each other better.”
This is a small thing, right? Listen and think about your word selection. Have you ever noticed how we start to mirror language back at the people we spend time with? We start to sound like our friends because we pick up on their idiosyncrasies and they pick up on ours. The same thing can happen here, by spending time with people, developing relationships, learning the language, and becoming friends. May it be so in the church.
Extremely Brief Glossary
Gay (adj.): Describes someone attracted to members of the same sex. This word has nothing to do
with behavior. Can be used both to describe men specifically as well as the larger community.
Lesbian (noun): A woman attracted to women.
Bisexual (adj.): Describes someone attracted to men and women.
Transgender (adj.): Describes someone whose physical sex does not match their gender identity. For instance, someone with a male body who identifies as female. Gender identity is separate from orientation, as mentioned above. It’s appropriate to use pronouns that go with the person’s identity, i.e. if someone identifies as male, use he/him when talking about that person. If you’re not sure, it’s best to use the person’s name.
© 2015 Sanctuary.