What to Say and What Not to Say

Learning Objectives–At the end of this module, you will:

  1. understand why we can’t use homophobia as a shorthand for the violence and microaggressions directed at the LGBTQ2S community
  2. have an understand of appropriate and inappropriate terms when talking about the LGBTQ2S community;
  3. be able to share with others (youth, coworkers, friends, family, etc) why some terms should not be used;
  4. have an awareness of what are appropriate questions to ask LGBTQ2S folks and what questions you need to rethink and reword.
  5. understand the importance and need to address homophobia, biphobia and transphobia

In the Language module, we will discuss the importance of language and being aware of the words we use.

At this stage you have had a lot of terms thrown at you. Please take a moment, take a breath and reflect on what you have learned so far.

You have learned about the need to create welcoming and safe-enough spaces for youth who identify as LGBTQ2S. You have read about the current context of how LGBTQ2S youth are experiencing our spaces and their solutions. You have spent some time unpacking our invisible knapsack of sexual orientation and gender identity privilege. And in the last module you read a number of terms and definitions.

Are you still breathing? Good.

This module is going to highlight some terms we should be using and some we should not use to create safe-enough spaces for LGBTQ2S youth.

benedict shall we begin
Photo Credit: ninaloverdj.tumblr.com


Things to Say

There are many things you can and should say when talking about LGBTQ2S issues and with LGBTQ2S folks. These are a few suggestions based on what we have already discussed and to highlight some of the conversations we will have in the modules that follow.

Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia

It is important to acknowledge that homophobia should not be used as a form of shorthand to include biphobia and transphobia. When discussing violence and microaggressions directed at LGBTQ2S folks, we sometimes say homophobia, and leave off biphobia and transphobia. Best case scenario, we assume the people we are talking with understand that we also mean biphobia and transphobia. Worse case scenario we are perpetuating biphobia and transphobia.

But we can’t take a shortcut here. The violence and microaggressions endured by our bisexual and transgender friends and family are very different from homophobia.

Bisexuals endure biphobia from both heterosexuals and lesbians and gay men. It is important that we talk about biphobia to not only be allies to bisexual folks, but also to make the issue visible and a part of the discourse.
Transphobia is different from homophobia, although they share some similarities. Transphobia needs to be addressed and discussed. Discrimination and violence against trans* communities is extensive and deep. Although as a culture we have an understanding of transgender issues and realities, this has not translated into acceptance.

Especially vulnerable to transphobia are trans women of colour. “The website for Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoF) … featuring some 700 trans people—mostly women of color, again—brutally murdered in recent years. TDoF’s list goes back all the way to 1970, but the bulk of the homicides took place between 2000 and 2012” (O’Hare, 2014).

Courtesy of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness
Courtesy of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness

Ask Youth How They Identify

In our youth focus groups youth made it clear that they need to have their identities respected. We need to stop assuming the identities of the youth we work with. Instead we need to ask them what their gender identity is as part of the intake process. Also ask what their preferred pronoun and name is. More often than not the legal identification of trans* youth does not match their gender identity and presentation, because of the cost and bureaucracy involved in legally changing names.

Our paperwork needs to have space to capture the sexual orientation and gender identity of the young people who access our programs. Without this we are making LGBTQ2S youth invisible in our official documents. Including these questions in intake and case management forms, we are able to count how many LGBTQ2S youth access our services. We will also be able to track any increases or decreases in the number of LGBTQ2S youth. Increases could indicate that we are doing good work to support LGBTQ2S young people and that LGBTQ2S feel comfortable, supported and respected in our spaces. Decreases could indicate that either we may have more work to do to improve our programs and services so we can better support LGBTQ2S youth, or we are doing better and they are able to transition to the next phase of their housing/programming needs.

Share Your Ally Status

Once you feel comfortable to call yourself a LGBTQ2S ally, you will want to get the word out. Consider signage that include wording like “LGBTQ2S Positive Space”. Follow the suggestions listed in the Being an Ally module.

Be Respectful

Know when to draw the line when asking questions. LGBTQ2S youth should not have to educate us as staff. Also, there are some questions that are too personal. If the answer is not connected to the case management process of the young person, you don’t need to ask the question or know the answer. By asking questions outside of the needs of our case management system we are fetishizing LGBTQ2S youth, and that is not right and it is not being an ally.

Terms to Avoid

The following are unacceptable terms  to use. Please try to avoid using them. If you hear someone use a term from this list, take a moment to share with them why the term should not be used.


Often used in an insulting way towards trans people, specifically trans women.


Insinuates that the trans woman is not a woman, but something between male and female.


Insinuates that the trans woman is not a woman, but something between male and female.


This is an outdated term that has been replaced with Intersex.


Often used to refer to trans women in an insulting manner, despite having a true definition which is a person who dresses as the binary opposite gender expression (“cross-dresses”) for sexual gratification; often confused with “transsexual”.


Denotes the individual is an object, removing their humanity.


A derogatory slang term used for lesbian women; reclaimed by many lesbian women as a symbol of pride and used as an in-group term.


A derogatory slang term used for gay men; reclaimed by many gay men as a symbol of pride and used as an in-group term.


A medical definition for a person who is attracted to someone with the same gender (or, literally, biological sex) they have, this is considered an offensive/stigmatizing term by many members of the queer community; often used incorrectly in place of “lesbian” or “gay”.

Sexual Preference

Generally when this term is used, it is being mistakenly interchanged with “sexual orientation,” creating an illusion that one has a choice (or “preference”) in who they are attracted to; (2) the types of sexual intercourse, stimulation, and gratification one likes to receive and participate in.

 More things not to say…

lavern1 2 preoccupation
Photo Credit: katiecouric.com


“So you’re really a man right?” (when talking to a trans woman) or “So you’re really a woman right?” (When talking to a trans man)

“Have you had THE surgery yet?”

“I could tell you were really a (Man/woman)”

“The surgeon did an excellent job! I would have never known”

“How do you have intimate relationships?”

You’ll never be a REAL (Man/Woman)”

“What is your real name?”

“Can I see an old picture of you, from before your sex change?”



Boylan, J. (2014, July 21). 5 Things Not to Say to a Transgender Person (and 3 Things You Should). Retrieved February 6, 2015, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jenny-boylan/5-things-not-to-say-to-a-transgender-person_b_5591433.html

O’Hara, M. (2014, November 21). Trans Women of Color Face an Epidemic of Violence and Murder | VICE | Canada. Retrieved February 8, 2015, from http://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/trans-women-of-color-face-an-epidemic-of-violence-and-murder-673

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