Don’t Say That!
40 of the worst words, phrases, and language likely to offend someone LGBTQ – a guide for our family and friends
By Dawn Ennis
Once you tell the world you’re gay, lesbian, bi, trans, queer, intersex, or any of the other identities out there, sooner or later, you can count on people outside of the community to ask you… pretty much everything. And some questions, frankly, just plain suck.
These folks would probably never say some of some of these things out loud, if only they knew how incredibly offensive, rude and inconsiderate those words are. That’s where this guide can help.
This is for our well-meaning relatives, curious coworkers and awkwardly too-familiar acquaintances who embarrass themselves – and us – when they say the wrong thing. Even your straight BFF might slip up without realizing their faux pas. Whether they realize it or not, these words aren’t just taboo, they’re cruel.
Now here’s another shocker: Every once in a while, one of us steps in it, too.
In some cases, it’s a word that’s being “reclaimed,” like “queer,” “dyke,” or “fag.” And for every person who considers those words badges of honor, there are likely 10 people who cringe upon hearing it or reading it.
One more thing: before I pull back this guide’s glitter curtain, let’s be clear: this list of 40 is, of course, by no means complete. And I expect some folks to question, even disagree, with the selections therein. Let Connecticut VOICE know by sharing your thoughts with us on social media.
Don’t say that …
To a gay person:
40. “Which one of you is the wife/the husband?”
Gay couples aren’t straight couples, and to suggest they must adhere to heterosexual societal norms is not only sexist but homophobic. They can couple without the need for one of them to assume a “male” or “female” role. Don’t get hung up on what society considers male and female roles.
39. “You just haven’t met the right girl/guy yet!”
If you’re only sexually attracted to people of the same sex, meeting someone of the opposite sex, even “the right” man or woman isn’t going to change that. That’s homophobic.
38. “But you don’t act/seem/look/sound gay!”
Girl, please. A lot’s been written about “the gay voice,” effeminate men and butch women, but stereotypes only serve to reinforce bias and oppression.
To a gay or lesbian woman:
37. “Why do you call yourself that?”
“Lesbian” is not universally accepted, and more and more women reject being called anything other than “gay.” Some prefer “dyke;” others find that word offensive. Activists who worked to win their place in society and are proud to be called lesbians recognize it’s not for every woman. But it is the one word that men cannot claim, and lesbian feminists pride themselves on that. Use of the L-word by transgender women has also become a flashpoint for anti-trans feminists.
36. “Were you a ‘tomboy’ growing up?”
Lots of gay women have always enjoyed being a girl and never wanted to be anything else.
35. “You must be really handy around the house!”
Another stereotype that presumes gay women are more masculine. Some women are indeed handy with tools.
34. “Would you be willing to join us for a threesome?”
This is a question gay women and lesbians get asked by couples all the time. It can be annoying to those who aren’t “unicorns” — usually, bi/pansexual women who might say “yes” to this question. They’re rare, hence the name.
33. “Doesn’t your desire to be penetrated mean you actually want to have sex with men?”
Wanting to have a part of your body sexually satisfied has nothing to do with men, or their body parts. Grow up.
32. “With that haircut, I almost mistook you for a man/trans woman!”
This is stereotyping of the worst kind. Ask your stylist how many women prefer their hair short! And unfortunately, there have been cases of cisgender women with short hair being removed from women’s bathrooms under the mistaken impression that they are transgender.
To somebody bisexual, pansexual or polyamorous:
31. “You’re just greedy!”
No, bisexual and pansexual people love who they love. That’s not greed, that’s being open-minded.
30. “Why can’t you make up your mind?”
Attraction to more than one gender or one sex or more than one person is not indecision. It’s a valid orientation. Don’t be so judgmental!
29. “Being bi is just a phase!”
No, it’s not. See our article on page 69, which also explains the difference between bi and pan.
To a trans woman:
28. “Have you had ‘the surgery’?”
As Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrera informed Katie Couric in 2014, what’s between the legs of a trans woman is no one’s business but hers, her partner’s and that of her doctor. When asked this question, I typically respond with a question of my own: “How was your last pap smear/prostate exam?”
27. “Are your breasts ‘real?’”
Hormones help trans women achieve a more feminine physique, and that includes growing breasts, to varying degrees. Whether any woman gets breasts implants is her business, even if she’s trans. Unless you’re interested in having sex with a trans woman or you’re her doctor, why ask?
26. “I can touch your ass/breasts without your permission… because I’m gay!”
NO, IT’S NEVER OKAY. That’s a violation of someone’s body. Hands off, dude.
25. “You’re a man/not a ‘real’ woman/‘transgendered’/a biological male!”
Trans women are women. Although trans woman are not the same as cisgender [not transgender] women, to suggest a trans woman is “not a real woman” or a “fake” woman is to invalidate her gender identity. “Transgendered” is not a word; use “transgender” or “trans” to show respect, understanding and knowledge of the community. The phrase “biological male” is popular among opponents of transgender rights. It’s used to call out trans women as separate and unequal to cis women, and reduce them to the sex they were assigned at birth.
24. “You’re a ‘tranny’ ‘transvestite’/’he-she’!”
“Tranny” is a slur. Some trans women, like Laura Jane Grace, have sought to reclaim this word. But for most, the T-word is the equivalent of the N-word. “Transvestite” is an outdated word for cross-dresser, and not a synonym for “transgender.” Use it only to refer 1970s cross-dressers. “He-she” is a slur that originated in pornography. Don’t say any of these. Ever.
23. “How long have you been wearing women’s clothes?”
A doctor at a Connecticut hospital actually asked me this during an examination. I told him, “I’m a woman, so they’re my clothes.”
22. “Aren’t you really just a gay man?”
Some transgender people are gay, some are straight, some bi or pan, and some asexual. But no trans women are men. Sex and gender are two different things. Author and scholar Jennifer Finney Boylan famously said, “sex is who you want to go to bed with; gender is who you want to go to bed as.”
21. “You’re just looking to trap a straight guy into having gay sex!”
Trans women are often misconstrued as gay men pretending to be women, and trying to deceive straight men. Violence and murder have too often been the result. Also, the truth is, if a trans woman is gay, she’ll want to have sex with other women, not straight men. And actual gay men aren’t interested in straight men, either.
20. “You’re trans? Wow, you fooled me!”
This is meant to be a compliment, to say that a trans woman “passed” as a cis woman. The problem is, trans women aren’t trying to fool anyone; they just want to be seen as the authentic women they are. It’s also insulting to note when the opposite is true, like if a trans woman’s voice is a baritone, or when her hands are compared to that of a cisgender man. Lots of cis ladies suffer from “man hands,” unfortunately, so it’s not as surefire a telltale sign as one might think.
19. “Welcome to womanhood!”
Another back-handed compliment. While cis women often say this to trans women to show commiseration in the experience of being a woman, the upshot is that the trans woman feels she will always be seen as someone who previously was male. It’s best to avoid saying this, even with the best of intentions.
To a trans man:
18. “Are you a ‘real’ man?”
As with trans women, this question suggests trans men are just pretending or dressing up like men, and invalidates their authentic gender identity.
17. “Do you have a penis? How do you ‘get it up’?”
Why, why, why is this anyone’s business?
16. “You’re trans? I wouldn’t have guessed! I just thought you were short…”
Like the “You could have fooled me” trope for trans women, this only serves to stigmatize trans men, who are sensitive to physical comparisons to cisgender men. Reducing trans men to just the characteristics that are apparent is an affront to them and objectifies their effort to live authentically.
To any non-binary person:
15. “But how can ‘they’ be singular? ‘They’ goes against the grammar rules we all learned in grade school!”
Oy vey! Language evolves as is needed. The Associated Press now accepts “they” as an option instead of “he” or “she.” Merriam-Webster, America’s oldest dictionary, added a definition of “they” as a singular, non-gender-specific pronoun in September 2019. And the truth is, the use of “they” as a singular pronoun has been around a lot longer than people think – since the late 1300s, according to a Merriam-Webster blog.
To anybody and everybody LGBTQ:
14. “How do you have sex?”
Privately, and with anybody other than you. Why ask this?
13. “What will the children think?”
They’ll think you’re a bigot if you cannot accept LGBTQ people as equals.
12. “Do you have to go and flaunt your gay sexuality like that?”
Why is this a problem given that straight couples hold hands, hug and kiss in public everywhere and all the time?
11. “I have no problem with gays/lesbians/transgender people, I just don’t want to have to serve them/deal with them/ treat them/see them.”
Well, at least in Connecticut, the law says you do. Federal laws are a different, sadder story.
10. “I’m in favor of equal rights for everyone, but I don’t believe in ‘special rights’ for anyone!”
Rights are not a pie. Giving rights to protection from discrimination to the marginalized does not mean fewer rights for the majority. And there are no laws or even proposals for “special rights” that would only benefit LGBTQ Americans, even here in Blue State Connecticut. There are, however, ongoing conflicts elsewhere, over the right to religious freedom and the right to be free from discrimination. The U.S. Supreme Court is to decide three cases involving LGBTQ employment rights during this term.
9. “You are mentally ill!”
In 1973, the American Psychological Association removed “homosexuality” from its official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In 2012, they removed “Gender Identity Disorder” and renamed it “gender dysphoria,” to remove the stigma of it being considered a mental disorder. In May 2019, the World Health Organization stopped classifying gender dysphoria as a mental illness. Also note: “transgenderism” is an outmoded word used by opponents of trans rights to describe being trans as if it were an illness or medical condition, as opposed to it being a legitimate gender identity.
8. “You’ve been brainwashed!”
For generations, parents and spouses of LGBTQ people have convinced themselves their loved ones had been brainwashed to think they’re gay or lesbian or trans. This gave rise to conversion therapy, a practice illegal in more than a dozen states. It’s bullshit. You can’t change a gay person into someone straight any more than you can brainwash someone into being gay.
7. “You’re not suitable to raise a child.”
This argument has been used in several states to deny adoption rights to LGBTQ individuals and couples. Studies show a child who is raised by parents who are members of the LGBTQ community suffer absolutely no harm, and in fact, thrive.
6. “How do I know you don’t have HIV or AIDS?”
There is still a stigma associated with being HIV positive but that has started to change. Advances in medications have made it not just possible, but typical, to live a full life with HIV. Screening for the virus is only necessary with intimate partners and medical professionals. You simply cannot get HIV or AIDS just by being in proximity to someone who tests positive.
5. “What you’re doing is illegal/a sin according to God!”
Laws against sodomy still linger on the books in some states, even though the Supreme Court struck them down in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas. As for the Bible, many things people do now were considered sins when the scriptures were written. Interpretations, of course, vary across many religious beliefs, and so we’ve put a call into God to ask for clarification. We have not received a response as of press time.
4. “That’s so gay!”
Homophobes and 12-year-olds are the only ones who still say this. It’s really bad.
3. “You’re queer/a fag/a faggot/a fag hag!”
These are words that some people have reclaimed as their own, and while they won’t offend everybody, chances are you’ll offend somebody. That last one is sometimes used to describe a straight woman who associates with gay men as friends. Unless you’re a writer on “Will & Grace,” avoid using it.
2. “Have you any regrets about coming out?”
This question raises the possibility that being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender can be “fixed,” or that we can be “converted.” It gives fuel to the enemies of the LGBTQ community that our orientations and identities are something we adopt like an affectation or a lifestyle.
And please, don’t say this number one worst word or phrase to anyone:
1. “I have no problem with you, personally; I just don’t agree with your ‘lifestyle’!”
Sigh. Is being straight a “lifestyle”? Don’t say “lifestyle.” It’s a crutch for bigots.
The reason “lifestyle” can be more offensive than any slur or insult is that it seeks to invalidate that thing we’ve discovered about ourselves that every straight person takes for granted and understands without thinking: their genuine identity.
A recent study debunked the myth of a “gay gene.” But the researchers concluded that even in the absence of such definitive proof that LGBTQ people are “born this way,” it does not follow that being who we are is a choice or a lifestyle. The scientists called our orientation and identities “a natural part of our diversity as a species.”
So, share this with your straight friends: when they review all the awful words compiled here, please consider that nothing could hurt us – their LGBTQ friends, coworkers, employees and relatives – more than questioning how we know what we know in our heart of hearts.
We are who we are, and we’d appreciate it if you would avoid calling us any of the other 39 insults, too.