By: Joshua Lipack
Many people find discomfort in discussing the acronym LGBT or LGBTQ … or LGBTQIA for that matter. And herein lies the point. The discomfort often encountered when discussing these issues isn’t coming from a place of animus or moral disapproval as it more commonly would have been less than a decade ago. Many people find it uncomfortable discussing these terms, primarily in mixed-company, because the terms, and the acronyms that house them, are strange to many people. People don’t want to say something that comes across as ignorant or offensive. I know this because, as someone included among these letters, I too find many areas within my apparent “community” that remain foreign to me.
As a subject that changes regularly with generational preferences on self-identification it is difficult, even with modest effort, to feel entirely well-versed on everything falling under the newly reclaimed “Queer” umbrella. What is offensive to some may be a badge of honor and self-identification for others. In this kind of environment, attorneys Sarah Demarest and Kelly Durden of the LGBTQ Law Center in Charlotte have sound advice to offer. Refer to people by name, be respectful, and only use terms they have already used to identify themselves.
Last week Demarest and Durden gave a special training to the Civil Rights Clinic to better understand how to serve the specific needs of LGBTQ clients. A portion of the training was dedicated to terminology and terms to avoid. One of those terms was “homosexual.” As a gay male, I had always thought it was the more appropriate term in place of ‘gay’ during academic conversation or in writing. Since coming out four years ago, I have seldom thought about the myriad of terms available to the Queer community. I wasn’t even aware that “queer” was no longer offensive.
When I came out, I was the only person, at least to my knowledge, who was openly gay on my campus at Queens University in Charlotte. I had the support of my fraternity and of my family and therefore never ventured much into the LGBTQ community around me, the existence of which was largely unknown to me. For the sake of terminology, I never wanted my sexuality to define me as a person. I am gay and therefore my boyfriend, like me, happens to be male. Beyond that, this revelation was of no importance to any other aspect of my life. I was “gay” and, for me at least, it was as simple as that.
While it is my personal opinion that the terms available and those continually being added or removed add too much confusion, this is only true through my personal experience. A key factor in our training was that each person, based on vastly different life experiences, will feel differently towards each term and how they most comfortably identify themselves. Just as there is more to the color spectrum than blue and green or red and yellow, sexuality, as well as gender identity and expression, fall within a spectrum with many people finding themselves somewhere in-between the more familiar gay or straight. I cannot blame, and people should not feel uncomfortable, for a want of understanding this spectrum when, as a member of the LGBTQ community, I myself learned new things during this training.
One letter I had generally been unfamiliar with, other than the umbrella ‘Q’ of course, was the ‘T.’ People, whether they are aware of it or not, identify in three categories: gender identity, gender expression, and sexuality. In my case, my gender identity is male, my gender expression is male, and my sexuality is gay – or, until last week, ‘homosexual’ in my mind since I am writing. What many are unaware of, particularly in dealing with the Transgender community, is that people can find themselves within any number of possible combinations of these three categories. Cross-dressers for example, a term which should only be used in reference to people who self-identify that way, are not necessarily transgender, meaning that while someone who is biologically male may dress as a female (gender expression) they do not necessarily consider themselves to be female (gender identity) as would be the case with someone who is transgender.
The key takeaway from all of this is to respect people’s freedom to identify themselves. If someone who is biologically female, and perhaps even appears to be female, identifies themselves as male, that distinction is one that should be respected. It requires no further knowledge to interact with the LGBTQ community without being offensive. There is no need to ask whether this person is ‘post-op’ or ‘pre-op,’ in fact this should be avoided entirely, because all that matters is how they feel and choose to present themselves. The process for transgender individuals is one that is deeply emotional and personal. Questions regarding the process or where they are in the transition are inappropriate unless they offer to speak on the subject.
For many of my fraternity brothers, I was the first ‘gay’ person in their life and so of course, many had questions. While some were naturally inappropriate or offensive, such as asking whom between my boyfriend and I “wears the pants,” they all generally came from a place of seeking understanding or general curiosity and even fascination. Revisiting my fraternity today as an alumni chapter advisor, the number of openly gay and lesbian students on campus has grown exponentially in part of a general trend of coming out at a younger age, a change occurring only in recent years. I notice now that the questions are less frequent and the understanding seems to come more naturally with younger generations. The LGBTQ community has unique and complex issues that take time and experience to understand. I feel that understanding is coming more easily to younger generations not from education but simply from living in a world where members of this community are seen daily as our friends, neighbors, and family. What’s to understand? Perhaps the need for so many terms and spin off definitions will fade as we move towards a world where the fact that I plan on proposing to a man is of no concern to anyone. In the meantime, the information provided by the LGBTQ Law Center is a valuable tool for any future lawyer hoping to feel confident and comfortable working with LGBTQ clients.