Understanding the language and terminology of the LGBTQ+ community

Our Inclusion and Diversity Consultant, Steven Taylor, explains why ‘getting it right’ when it comes to LGBTQ+ language and terminology is as much about our approach as the words we use. Steven shares his advice on how to navigate this topic with confidence and understanding and introduces our LGBTQ+ glossary of terms.

I’ve always been fascinated by the English Language, ever since I was a child. How two spoken words can sound the same but are spelt differently (and of course, the constant confusion between there, their and they’re). How the same word can have different meanings. How the meaning of words can differ between different areas of the UK (“proper boss that lah!”). Even how words can evolve and change over time to have a different meaning or should no longer be used.

We only have to look at the word ‘queer’ and how the LGBTQ+ community has reclaimed this to be an umbrella term to describe sexual orientation and/or gender identity that is not straight or cisgender. However, I am sure most people are fully aware that ‘queer’ has been used previously as a derogatory term when referring to the gay community. Ask the different generations of the LGBTQ+ community about this term, and it still divides opinion.

As a society and from an inclusion perspective, I think we can get a bit too hung up on saying the right or wrong thing. 

From my experience, there are three important things to note:

  1. Particular words or terminology can have different meanings to different people, and we should respect that.
  2. We will not get it right all the time, so try to remain open-minded.
  3. When somebody does get it wrong (from your perspective), make this an opportunity to invite them in rather than call them out. Use this as an education piece for the both of you. 

How can we become more confident in using LGBTQ+ terminology?

1. Particular words or terminology can have different meanings to different people, and we should respect that.

If somebody uses a term to describe their identity, it is often fine for you to use it to describe them too. If, however, you think there is any chance that an individual may be offended by the use of a certain term or if you are unsure of a particular term, avoid using it until they tell you personally how they identify. This can relate to orientation and/or gender identity. Often those within the LGBTQ+ community will be happy to share how they identify and their pronouns. However, we also have to be respectful of those who may not wish to share.

2. We will not get it right all the time, so try to remain open-minded.

Terminology and language is personal to the individual, which means there may be a chance we’ll get it wrong, perhaps even wrongly assume and make a genuine mistake based on previous knowledge or conversations with others. It is important to remain open-minded and listen to the individual who may politely challenge you because they do not like or associate with that terminology. Apologise, and do your utmost to not make the same mistake again (for that individual) in future.

3. When somebody does get it wrong (from your perspective), make this an opportunity to invite them in rather than call them out.

This is for those who may want to challenge the use of incorrect terminology. Respect that most individuals are trying their best to learn. It can be hugely disengaging when an individual corrects and criticises somebody for using the wrong terminology, especially when the term may be used by some within the community and not by others. I know some terminology can be emotive and triggering to some (especially a marginalised community), but we must recognise that this may not be the case for others. I have even been subject to this, being a part of the LGBTQ+ community myself, and this does not create a psychologically safe space to learn and educate. I can only imagine how challenging this may be for those outside of the community who are trying their best to learn and be allies. Of course, we need to be explicit in what we deem unacceptable, but we also need to recognise that this is personal to us. Our opinion may not necessarily be the voice of the whole community.

For me personally, I like to hear how and why the other person thought it was acceptable to say what they said, and I then ask open questions. Where have they heard this term before? Has somebody else used this term? Who else have they had conversations with about this? Then I offer my perspective and how it makes me feel, as this tends to create that open dialogue in which I can respectfully make challenges. This discussion allows more questions and can even reshape their thinking, while recognising and respecting that this is my perspective only.

Allowing an open dialogue and creating a safe space enables us to share all of our unique and individual personal experiences and learn from them. This not only helps us move forward as a community but also keeps our allies engaged and moving forward with us too.  

To further support you and your people, we have created a glossary of LGBTQ+ terminology which we hope you may find useful.

If you’d like to know more about how to build inclusive workplaces from our expert team, you can get in touch or Members can speak to their Inclusive Employers Account Manager.

We offer further advice and tips on how to support LGTBQ+ colleagues in our podcast, where you can also get an insight into experiences of LGBTQ+ stereotypes in the workplace, LGBTQ+ networks and the use of pronouns.