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Homophobic Language

August 2012


"That's so gay" has been part of the adolescent lexicon for some time, but a new University of Michigan study has revealed the phrase could have deep consequences for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students. Published in the Journal of American College Health, and reported by CBS Detroit, the study reportedly examined the impact of hearing "that's so gay" among 114 LGBT students between the ages of 18 and 25.



The resulting data found that LGBT students who heard the phrase frequently were more likely to feel isolated and experience headaches, poor appetite or eating problems than those who didn't. Still, the study also revealed another troubling statistic: a mere 14 respondents (13 percent) hadn't heard "that's so gay" at all throughout the duration of the survey.


"Given the nature of gay-lesbian-bisexual stigma, sexual minority students could already perceive themselves to be excluded on campus and hearing 'that's so gay' may elevate such perceptions," Michael Woodford, an assistant professor of social work and co-author of the new study, said in a statement. "'That's so gay' conveys that there is something wrong with being gay."   Woodford went on to suggest, "Policies and educational programs are needed to help students, staff and faculty to understand that such language can be harmful to gay students. Hopefully, these initiatives will help to eliminate the phrase from campuses."


In 2007, the phrase was at the epicenter of a controversial lawsuit, after a California teen's parents claimed their daughter's First Amendment rights had been violated after she was disciplined by her high school for uttering the phrase, which "enjoys widespread currency in youth culture," to classmates who were allegedly taunting her for her Mormon upbringing, according to court documents cited by the Associated Press.




What’s So Bad About That’s So Gay

That’s So Gay: Lasting Impact on Youth

Think Before You Say That’s So Gay

That’s So Gay: Not So Funny

That’s So Gay Causes Lasting Harm

That’s So Gay Prompts Lawsuit


Avoiding Offensive Language

"That's so gay!  I hate that phrase so much. Especially when the word "gay" in that context is synonymous with stupid or dumb. Those who say that phrase are nothing but ignorant numbskulls with no sense of vocabulary and true understanding of its actual definition. I know several homosexual people who are by no means truly stupid and what-not. Though those several are not completely representative of the entire homosexual population, you cannot suddenly misuse a word and twist its definition to mean something entirely different. It is simply wrong and proves what kind of uneducated idiot you are."

-Gayle Quan/San Francisco, California


OFFENSIVE: "homosexual" (as a n. or adj.)

PREFERRED: "gay" (adj.); "gay man" or "lesbian" (n.)

Please use "lesbian" or "gay man" to describe people attracted to members of the same sex. Because of the clinical history of the word "homosexual," it has been adopted by anti-gay extremists to suggest that lesbians and gay men are somehow diseased or psychologically/emotionally disordered - notions discredited by both the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association in the 1970s. Please avoid using "homosexual" except in direct quotes. Please also avoid using "homosexual" as a style variation simply to avoid repeated use of the word "gay."


OFFENSIVE: "homosexual relations/relationship," "homosexual couple," "homosexual sex," etc.

PREFERRED: "relationship" (or "sexual relationship"), "couple" (or, if necessary, "gay couple"), "sex," etc.

Identifying a same-sex couple as "a homosexual couple," characterizing their relationship as "a homosexual relationship," or identifying their intimacy as "homosexual sex" is offensive and should be avoided. These constructions are frequently used by anti-gay extremists to denigrate gay and lesbian people, couples and relationships. As a rule, try to avoid labeling an activity, emotion or relationship "gay" or "lesbian" unless you would call the same activity, emotion or relationship "straight" if engaged in by someone of another sexual orientation. In most cases, your readers, viewers or listeners will be able to discern people's genders and/or sexual orientations through the names of the parties involved your depictions of their relationships, and your use of pronouns.


OFFENSIVE: "sexual preference"

PREFERRED: "sexual orientation"

The phrase "sexual preference" is generally used to suggest that being lesbian or gay is a choice and therefore "curable." The term "sexual orientation" is the accurate description of an individual's enduring physical, romantic, emotional and/or spiritual attraction to members of the same and/or opposite sex and is inclusive of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and heterosexual men and women.



OFFENSIVE: "gay lifestyle" or "homosexual lifestyle"

PREFERRED: "lesbian" or "gay"

There is no single lesbian or gay lifestyle. Lesbians and gay men are diverse in the ways they lead their lives. The phrase "gay lifestyle" is used to denigrate lesbians and gay men, suggesting that their sexual orientation is a choice and therefore "curable."


OFFENSIVE: "admitted homosexual" or "avowed homosexual”

PREFERRED: "openly lesbian" or "openly gay"

Dated term used to describe those who are openly lesbian or gay or who have recently come out of the closet. The words "admitted" or "avowed" suggest that being a lesbian or gay man is somehow shameful or inherently secretive. Avoid the use of the word "homosexual" in either case.


OFFENSIVE: "gay agenda" or "homosexual agenda"

PREFERRED: "lesbian and gay civil rights movement" or "lesbian and gay movement" Lesbians and gay men are as diverse in our political beliefs as other communities. Our commitment to equal rights is one we share with civil rights advocates who are not necessarily lesbian or gay. "Lesbian and gay movement" accurately describes the historical effort to achieve understanding and equal treatment for gays and lesbians. Notions of a "homosexual agenda" are rhetorical inventions of anti-gay extremists seeking to portray as sinister the lesbian and gay civil rights movement.


OFFENSIVE: "special rights"

PREFERRED: "equal rights" or "equal protection"

Anti-gay extremists frequently characterize civil rights and equal protection of the law for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans as "special rights" in an attempt to energize opposition to anti-discrimination and equal opportunity laws.


"fag," "faggot," "dyke," "homo," "queen," "she-male," "he-she," "it," "tranny" and similar epithets.

The criteria for using these derogatory terms should be the same as those applied to hate words for other groups: they should not be used except in a direct quote which reveals the bias of the person quoted. So that such words are not given credibility in the media, it is preferred that reporters say, "The person used a derogatory word for a lesbian, gay man or transgender person."


"deviant," "disordered," "dysfunctional," "diseased," "perverted," "destructive" and similar descriptions
The notion that being gay or lesbian is a psychological disorder was discredited by the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association in the 1970s. Today, words such as "deviant," "diseased" and "disordered" often are used to portray lesbians and gay men as less than human, mentally ill, or as a danger to society. Words such as these should be avoided in stories about the lesbian and gay community. If they must be used, they should be quoted directly in a way that reveals the bias of the person being quoted.


Associating gay men, lesbians, same-sex relationships or homosexuality with pedophilia, child sexual abuse, bestiality, bigamy, polygamy, adultery and incest.
Homosexuality and/or being gay is not synonymous with pedophilia, child sexual abuse, bestiality, bigamy, polygamy, adultery and/or incest. These associations often are used to suggest that lesbians and gay men pose a threat to society, to families, and to children in particular. Such suggestions are defamatory and should be avoided, except in a direct quote which reveals the bias of the person quoted.


Relevant Resources


Glossary of LGBT Terminology

Communicating Respect

Frequently Asked Questions
Myths and Misconceptions

Ethical Treatment

Counseling Skills



Beyond Political Correctness

"Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me."

-Old Proverb

“Sticks and stones will break our bones, but words will break our hearts.”

-Robert Fulghum


According to Wikipedia: "Political correctness is a term which denotes language, ideas, policies, and behavior seen as seeking to minimize social and institutional offense in occupational, gender, racial, cultural, sexual orientation, certain other religions, beliefs or ideologies, disability, and age-related contexts. To be politically incorrect connotes language, ideas, and behavior unconstrained by a perceived orthodoxy or by concerns about offending or expressing bias regarding various groups of people."


Choosing the right words is a good start in acting with civility. It is important to be sensitive to others and avoid using offensive language or hurtful words.  The words we used have an impact on other people and can cause harm.  So, out of a genuine sense of caring and compassion, and not simply because we want to be "politically correct," we should seek to understand others and communicate with respect.


According to research done by counselor Courtney East, there is a distinction between "political correctness" and "inclusivity."  She says the difference is whether the motivation is external or internal. Being "politically correct" is externally driven, behaving in a way that will gain approval from others.  It compromises the value of free speech and can be equated with censorship. However, being "inclusive" is internally driven, treating the other person with sensitivity and respect.  It's not just about the "Golden Rule," in which you do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  It's more about the "Platinum Rule," in which you actually treat the other person better.  Using inclusive language is preferred to being politically correct.  It is more of a mindset and an attitude that is motivated by a a sincere desire to show respect for others.


Research has shown countless times that the therapeutic relationship is a key factor in treatment (Remember Carl Rogers).  That means positive, unconditional regard, and creating an air of acceptance.  That means using respectful and inclusive language all the time and with everyone.  That means (at minimum) getting comfortable with the right words and the proper language.  We have the opportunity to choose language that promotes self-acceptance in our LGBT clients and also models respect and fairness for others.

“Language plays a central role in the way human beings behave and think”



Where words hurt, civility heals.  According to the Civility Project, "We build a stronger and more diverse community by actively sharing our ideas and opinions with others in thoughtful and considerate ways. By practicing this basic commitment to civility, we learn and grow from one another – even in disagreement."  They offer these tips:


--Pay Attention – Be Aware of Others & Sensitive to the Immediate Context of Actions

--Listen Closely – Understand Other Points of View

--Be Inclusive – Welcome All; Don't Exclude Anyone

--Don't Gossip – Remind Others of the Importance of this Practice

--Show Respect – Honor Others, especially in disagreement

--Be Agreeable – Find Opportunities to Agree

--Apologize Sincerely – Repair Damaged Relationships

--Give Constructive Comments, Suggestions & Feedback – No Personal Attacks

--Accept Responsibility – Don't Shift Blame; Share Disagreements Publicly


Relevant Resources


Slideshow: Respectful & Inclusive

Gender Neutral Pronouns

Jason Alexander Apologizes for Inappropriate "Gay" Jokes
Video: Words Hurt
Video: Anti-Bullying Awareness
Huffington Post: The Word "Gay"
GLAAD: Media Guide

Brian McNaught: Good Words Bad Words

The Other "F" Word

Drag and Pronouns

LGBT on Wikipedia
Polari: Gay Slang
Gay on Wikipedia
Lesbian on Wikipedia

Dictionary of Queer Slang and Culture
Homosexuality on Wikipedia
GLSEN: Ten Things Educators Can Do
Ten Ways to Make a Difference for Gay Rights
Terminology and Language Guide


Think B4 You Speak

GLSEN (Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network) launched the Think B4 You Speak campaign in 2008 to raise awareness
of the common use of derogatory vocabulary among youth towards LGBTQ people and to raise awareness among straight teens about the prevalence and consequences of anti-LGBTQ bias and behavior in America's schools.




Think B4 You Speak

Video: Think B4 You Speak
GLSEN: Think B4 You Speak
Hillary Duff: Think B4 You Speak



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Association for Lesbian Gay Bisexual & Transgender Issues in Counseling of Alabama