Growing up, many of us heard the term “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” This could not be farther from the truth. When talking about sexual orientation and gender identity, the words we choose and how we use them matter deeply.
People often speak without thinking and may not realize the words or terms they are using are offensive. The language they use, particularly relating to the LGBTQ community, may not always be meant in a harmful or demeaning way, but it can have a devastating and lasting effect.
Biphobia, homophobia and transphobia are sadly still prevalent, and when people use anti-LGBTQ rhetoric in their daily lives it creates an unwelcoming and potentially unsafe environment. We know from decades of research that LGBTQ students experience high rates of verbal harassment at schools, and in HRC’s groundbreaking survey of over 10,000 LGBTQ teens, many reported hearing anti-LGBTQ rhetoric not only from peers at school, but also from elected officials, clergy, teachers -- even their own family members. Young people who are exposed to this harmful language are potentially less likely to come out as LGBTQ because they fear rejection or physical harm.
Not only should people avoid using derogatory language in general, but it is imperative the stop engaging in homophobic name-calling -- including phrases such as, “That’s so gay.” Using the word “gay” to mean something is “stupid” or to degrade someone disparages the entire LGBTQ community.
The website NoHomophobes.com tracks in real-time Twitter posts that contain anti-LGBTQ words and phrases including “faggot,” “no homo,” “so gay,” and “dyke.” It also measures weekly and all-time uses of those four terms, while providing a running feed of users posting the offensive language.
The website’s numbers are startling, and appalling. For the week of May 6-12, the word “faggot” was tweeted nearly 49,000 times, while “no homo” was tweeted more than 20,000 times. Since the website began tracking these statistics on July 5, 2012, “faggot” has been tweeted more than 35 million times, while the terms “no homo” and “so gay” have each been tweeted nearly 11 million times and “dyke” has been tweeted almost five million times.
That being said, there are many people who refrain from talking about sexual orientation and gender expression because they fear saying the wrong thing, or it feels taboo. HRC’s Glossary of Terms is a valuable guide, providing words and meanings to help make conversations easier and more comfortable.
Additionally, HRC Foundation’s Welcoming Schools program provides resources with LGBTQ+ definitions for both adults and children to help ease conversations. Welcoming Schools’ resource What Do You Say to ‘That’s So Gay’ and Other Anti-LGBTQ* Comments? also provides helpful, simple and straightforward suggestions for responding to students who use words including “gay” in an offensive manner.
It is important to always be aware of the language we use, not just when speaking one-on-one with another person, but at all times -- and especially when we’re in public. Click here to read through HRC’s Glossary of Terms.