Allies & Advocates

Avoiding Heterosexual Bias in Language

Language plays an important role not only in reducing heterosexual bias, but also in increasing the visibility of LGBT people and promoting positive images. Simply by being more aware of your own language use, you can be an advocate for the LGBT community.

Problems occur in language concerning the LGBT community when language is too vague or the concepts are poorly defined. There are two major problems of designation. First, language may be ambiguous in reference so that the person being communicated to is uncertain about the meaning or its inclusion and exclusion criteria. Secondly, the term homosexuality has been associated in the past with deviance, mental illness, and criminal behavior, and these negative stereotypes may be perpetuated by biased language.

  • The term sexual orientation is preferred to sexual preference . The word preference suggests a degree of voluntary choice that is not necessarily reported by GLBT people and that has not been demonstrated in psychological research.
  • Lesbian and gay male are preferred to the homosexual . The word homosexual has several problems of designation. First, it may perpetuate negative stereotypes because of its historical associations with pathology and criminal behavior. Second, it is often unclear.
  • The terms gay male and lesbian refer primarily to identities and to the modern culture and communities that have developed among people who share those identities. They should be distinguished from sexual behavior. Some men and women have sex with other of their own sex but do not consider themselves to be gay or lesbian.
  • While the term lesbian refers primarily to women and the term gay refers primarily to men, the term bisexual is used to refer to both men and women that are equally attracted to both sexes.
  • The term transgender is preferred to transvestite, cross dresser, and transsexual. The word transgender is a n umbrella term used to include all people who cross gender lines, including transsexuals, cross-dressers, and drag queens. Like the term homosexual, terms such as transvestite and transsexual also carry with it negative stereotypes.
  • Terms such as partner or significant other is preferred to girlfriend or boyfriend.

Source: Condensed and adapted from the Committee on Lesbian and Gay Concerns, 1991  

Page last modified December 22, 2010