Wednesday, 4 May 2011

A Question of Language - LGBTQ

* Please note there is adult language in this post.

I've been thinking a lot about reviewing and what language to use - both in terms of mentioning content issues, but also plot and character issues.  In this post I want to deal specifically with language associated with: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer.

Now, while I know, and have known, several people who fall into these categories, I don't know any of them well enough to have a conversation about which label they prefer when talking about communities.  In other words, as with most people, I don't feel comfortable talking with friends and acquaintances about things that are none of my business, namely their sexuality and how they define their sexuality in a larger context.  But when I review books I sometimes need to use a category to give a more accurate explanation of who the characters are.

Why, you ask?  That's a good question.  Why should a character's sexuality end up in the review?  What relevance does it have to the plot?  Possibly none, possibly a huge relevance.  Ultimately, whether I mention the character's sexuality or not, I've still wondered how I SHOULD mention it, if I choose to.

And one reason to mention it, is that unlike other elements in a book that can often be gleaned from the dust jacket [like setting (on a boat), subgenre (steampunk, post-apocalyptic), character type (angels) - the things I use when creating my reading lists and endcaps], quite often sexual orientation isn't mentioned.  Which made it hard for me to do my LGBTQ reading list last year (I still intend to finish that, now that I've read more and done more research).  Ultimately, for that list I needed to either read the books and know they included such characters, or hear from others who had.

So mentioning them in book reviews is one way for people who want books with LGBTQ characters to find them.  Of course, it also allows people who aren't interested in reading about different sexualities the chance to avoid them.

But I'm concerned with how it looks when I point out that there is LGBTQ content.  Despite my reasoning, it can be perceived as being homophobic.

And that brings me to language.  I used to use the expression 'that's gay', before I learned that the word 'gay' had more connotations than 'lame' or 'stupid'.  A co-worker asked me not to use it because she found it offensive because by this time 'gay' and 'homosexual' were more aligned. 

I find it rather awkward to call people 'gay' because of how I've always used the word, and I don't consider people with different sexualities than mine 'lame' or 'stupid' or any other meaning I associated with the word 'gay'.  And the word 'queer' gives me the same knee jerk, gut sinking reaction that 'nigger' does.  I'm not quite sure why, as I take that word to mean 'strange' or 'odd'.  Yes, I don't think people should have to identify as 'strange' or 'odd' with regards to their sexuality, but I'm not sure why that particular word causes such a visceral reaction for me.  At any rate, I don't like the idea of using it.  Lesbian, as a word, has no negative connotations for me, so I'm fine using it, though 'dike' leaves me uneasy.

So my default word has been 'homosexual'.

Imagine my dismay when I read this blog post by Malinda Lo (I found her excellent blog via an interview she did for the Querring SFF series on  She mentions several words used to describe the LGBTQ communities, and how those words are perceived BY those communities.  Here's what she says about 'homosexual'.  "homosexual – These days, this word has distinct homophobic connotations due to the word’s medical history and usage by the anti-gay right. See this article for more info."


Several of the terms she advocates using, like pansexual instead of bisexual, were new to me, so I thank her for mentioning them.  I especially liked her ending, "None of these words are wrong, but they do have histories. It’s your job as a writer to take that history into account."  Ultimately, it's the histories of words that carry the pain of them - both the histories people know and everyone's personal histories (like my personal dislike of the word 'queer').

Ultimately, whether I'm comfortable with the word or not, the word that seems to be used by the communities to describe themselves, is queer.  So if I don't want to offend people - and I don't - it looks like I'll have to start using that as my describing word.

That still begs the question of whether I should mention LGBTQ content in reviews or not.  I'll leave that up to you, my readers.  My poll on content issues is over, and I'm still considering the results, so here's your new poll.  Content issues aside, would you like me to mention if there are LGBTQ characters in the books I review?


71 said...

There are many words to describe the GLBT or GLBTQ community. I think the safest way to label books without possibly offending memeber of the commuinty is to use GLBT.

As a memeber of that community, what I call myself is not necessarily the same terms as my friends might choose for themsleves.

GLBT or LGBT are the safest.

Thanks for mentioning books that include Queer characters. As one, I am more likely to read a book that includes some likeness of my life.

Jessica Strider said...

@71 Thank you for your comment. I like the idea of using LGBT/GLBT better than some of the other options, and I can see how the chance of offending someone using it would be less than using another word incorrectly.

My husband suggested that rather than explain the type of content, I just mention if the content is positive or negative with regards to the LGBT community.