5-Ways You Can Use Language to Be an Effective Ally to the LGBT Community

Tuesday, February 8, 2011 § 7

I believe that everyone should be respectful and supportive of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community. But, at the same time, it’s not practical or reasonable to expect that everyone march in parades, start protests, etc.

But something that everyone can do with minimal effort is modify their day-to-day language in order to be respectful and supportive of the LGBT community. Below are five ways on how to be an effective ally community just through the use of language; I hope you’ll keep them in mind.

1. When referring to peoples partners, use gender neutral language.

Many people assume that when talking to a man, that they have a female partner (and vice-versa). This reinforces that LGBT individuals are seen as "outside" of society and can alienate someone you just met. So, instead of using, "do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?", with someone you don’t know, try, "are you seeing anyone?", or, "do you have a partner?".

2. Respect people's gender identities when using pronouns and names.

When talking to someone (or about them), respect their gender identity. If an individual was born biologically a woman, but identifies as a man (regardless of their transition status or genitalia), use masculine pronouns when talking about them, and if they've chosen a new male name, use it. Avoid scare quotes around "male" or "female" when writing about transgender individuals, and if an individual prefers gender neutral pronouns like, "ze", use them. If you're not sure about an individuals preferred pronouns after looking at their gender expression, ask them. Transgender individuals go through a ton of crap, so please give them the most basic modicum of human dignity by respecting their identity.

3. Try and learn correct terminology when discussing LGBT issues.

The LGBT community is very confusing, even for those in it, and there’s loads of terminology that’s pretty removed from the general population. That said, if you’d like to be an effective ally, it’s important to try and understand much of the language used . Here’s a list (pdf) of LGBT terminology and their definitions  that should cover most of your bases. Of course there’s no obligation to read it, but you might find it interesting and eye-opening.

Here’s a little taste:

Ally – Someone who confronts heterosexism, homophobia, biphobia,
transphobia, heterosexual and genderstraight privilege in themselves and others;
a concern for the well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and intersex people;
and a belief that heterosexism, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are social
justice issues.

Oh hey, that’s you!

4. Avoid using derogatory slurs, and try and get your friends to stop too.

Like terminology, slurs are tricky things in the LGBT community as well. Some LGBT community members are reclaiming them, others still hold strongly negative feelings Here’s some advice: just because a LGBT friend is reappropriating a former slur, that does not make it okay to use. Pejoratives used against the LGBT community are not yours to reclaim.

You should generally avoid these: faggot, tranny, gay (as pejorative, i.e. that’s so gay), she-male, he-she, and dyke.

There're some other words that are more borderline. Queer (which I discussed at length in an earlier post) is one of them. I’d recommend that queer is used only as an adjective to reference the LGBT [etcetera] community, i.e “queer studies”.

In closing,  if you’re unsure about a word, as an ally, you should probably just avoid it, or ask a member of the sub-community affected by it. Even then, it’s important to remember that even if it doesn’t offend one person, doesn’t mean that it won’t offend others.

5. If you write about the LGBT community, check out GLAAD’s media guide first.

I know most of my readers aren’t journalists, but some of you are, or write in some other capacity. If you’re writing for mass audience, you have a lot of power in shaping how the world sees the LGBT community. If your article, novel, blog post or whatever touches on LGBT issues, I’d recommend that you look at GLAAD’s (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) media guide first. It’ll ensure that you’re respectful when writing about LGBT issues, and that you don’t marginalize members of the LGBT community, even inadvertently.


I really hope these were informative, and that you’ll keep them in mind. Your language can and will affect LGBT individual’s lives, hopefully in a positive way. Please let me know if you have an questions or comments on what I’ve stated above; I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Note: I obviously can't speak for the whole of the LGBT community, the above points are how I believe an effective ally should use language. As I said above, if you disagree, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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§ 7 Response to “5-Ways You Can Use Language to Be an Effective Ally to the LGBT Community”

  • Kate says:

    Kyle, fantastic post. Language plays such a key role in how we perceive things, and unfortunately the English language can be very biased against the LGBT community. I know I get frustrated with people who characterize those seeking to use gender neutral and politically correct language as uptight, and it can be very annoying to see someone claim s/he/ze supports the LGBT community one minute then embrace a stereotype or drop the expression, "That's so gay" the next. The guides you provided were very helpful for me in making sure I don't make these same mistakes. Thanks!-- Kate H

  • Awesome post! I didn't know about GLAAD's media guide . . . I'll have to check that out.

  • Kate: I'm so glad you found this helpful! Thank-you again for reading and commenting on my posts, I always look forward to hearing what you have to say.

    Brent: Thanks! Glad I touched at least one writer =]

  • The list is sort of gay but still useful

  • Jessica says:

    What about queer as an identity? More and more people are identifying as queer, as it is a convenient umbrella identity.

  • Jessica: Though I didn't talk about in this post, I also agree that queer is a convenient umbrella identity. A few months ago I actually wrote a post about that, which you can see here: http://lgbtetcetera.blogspot.com/2010/10/queer-its-roots-and-modern-significance.html

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