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Why LGBTQ inclusive language matters—and how to use it

Main Line Health June 21, 2019 LGBTQ Health

Think about the last time you got in a new car. The headlights, the blinkers and the car stereo were all pretty much in the same area though positioned slightly differently, right? You just had to “relearn” the exact location and functionality of each.

A similar kind of brain retraining has to happen when we see a transgender person, explains Dane Menkin, CRNP, and divisional director of LGBTQ services at Main Line Health, for example, when we someone who is transitioning from male to female.

“Our eyes may see someone with facial stubble, pointed features and a receding hairline so our brain tells us the person must be male, but the person is ‘telling’ us they want something different. It’s learning to disconnect what we see with our eyes from what the person is telling us they want—and these are very difficult things to overcome.”

“Our eyes may see someone with facial stubble, pointed features and a receding hairline so our brain tells us the person must be male, but the person is ‘telling’ us they want something different. It’s learning to disconnect what we see with our eyes from what the person is telling us they want—and these are very difficult things to overcome.”

Language further solidifies the brain process, impressing upon the world that things are one way or another. Man or woman. Guy or girl. His or hers. Or what’s often referred to as binary, consisting of two things—no more, no less. The language we’ve inherited further reinforces this need for our brains to choose, becoming a lifetime of patterning that just isn’t arranged for anything other than male/female.

“As humans, we like things that are well-defined and in clean boxes,” Menkin continues, acknowledging that being comfortable with a transgender person takes a certain willingness to relearn what the brain has been trained to “know.” We have been socialized to accept that a man looks or sounds a certain way, as does a woman. Then the brain interprets whether the person is male or female. For some, seeing a transgender person might leave the brain slightly “dissatisfied,” but Menkin reminds us of the brain’s capacity to relearn this information. Then it becomes up to us, individually, to become comfortable with it.

Transgender word usage (and what to do when you’re at a loss for words)

Menkin emphasizes the importance of understanding SOGI (sexual orientation gender identity) as a starting point for any discussion about affirming LGBTQ language. As defined by the American Psychological Association (APA), “Sexual orientation refers to an individual’s enduring physical, romantic, and/or emotional attraction to another person, whereas gender identity refers to one’s internal sense of being male, female, or something else. Transgender people may be straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or asexual, just as nontransgender (cisgender) people can be.”

Menkin puts it like this: 'Sexual orientation is who you go to bed with. Gender identity is who you go to bed as.’—and that tends to clear it up for most people.

Now let’s suppose you’re interacting with a transgender person at a fundraiser or a luncheon, or perhaps in the hospital waiting area or a bookstore. You might notice your brain doing that “double-take” because there’s something different about the person. But that doesn’t mean you have to interact with them differently.

“I’ve had people tell me they’re nervous to talk to someone who’s transgender, afraid they’re going to say something wrong,” says Menkin. “A lot of us can relate to that strong sense of not wanting to offend people, like when we were little, asking ‘Why is that person in a wheelchair?’ and being told we shouldn’t ask things like that. But if you’re talking with someone who you know is transgender, ask of them what you know there is to ask of them. If you’re at the bookstore, talk about books. If you’re at the flower show, talk about flowers. Their gender identity isn’t the only thing there is to relate to.”

And what about pronouns? His, hers, theirs, not sure? Menkin suggests avoiding pronouns altogether until you know for sure what pronoun the person prefers. You can always ask, if you’re comfortable doing that. (The question would be, “What pronoun do you prefer?”) Or you can reference the person without referring to their gender at all, such as by saying “that person with the glasses” or “that person in the red shirt.” It is also appropriate—and becoming rapidly more acceptable —to use the plural pronoun “they” to refer to individual people, particularly those who do not identify as male or female.

Adopting LGBTQ language promotes LGBTQ awareness in the world

Why do we have to learn all this new LGBTQ language and recognize these different sexual orientation possibilities and nonconforming gender identities? What ever happened to boy/girl, or even gay/straight? (Keeping in mind that sometimes the pendulum has to swing a bit further in order for what was once a radical notion to become more mainstream.)

Menkin suggests that adopting new language is often personally motivated and not something people appreciate having forced upon them. As with any “new” idea, there will be early adopters who use LGBTQ language readily and there will be those who come on board more slowly, or not at all.

Yet Menkin asserts, “As people who live, work and participate in the world, we have to evolve an understanding of others around us who are often quite different than we are. For some, you’re going to get this kind of awareness through workplace training. For others, maybe just through following the news or TV shows and being open to what’s happening. As we have seen for generations past, there is a pursuit of progress and there is resilience in the face of societal change. We are already seeing more and more acceptance of, and equality for, LGBTQ people—driven largely by young people in our society.”

As part of Main Line Health’s Diversity, Respect and Inclusion initiative, LGBTQ Inclusive Care providers are going through a unique certification process that includes specialized LGBTQ health care training and understanding of LGBTQ inclusive language.

Menkin adds that as part of Main Line Health’s Diversity, Respect and Inclusion initiative, LGBTQ Inclusive Care providers are going through a unique certification process that includes specialized LGBTQ health care training and understanding of LGBTQ inclusive language.

The more people begin to embrace LGBTQ inclusive language, the greater fluency we will have to talk about things we didn’t know how to talk about before, or that made us uncomfortable. With such language comes greater understanding, and with greater understanding comes greater compassion and humanity.

LGBTQ inclusive language for greater fluency

LGBTQ inclusive language is extensive and can be overwhelming so Menkin advises starting with some basics. In addition to understanding SOGI and transgender word usage, here are some of the terms that will help your brain relearn:

  • Trans man – a person who was assigned female at birth who identifies as male
  • Trans woman – a person who was assigned male at birth who identifies as female
  • Transition – verb referring to the process a person undergoes in becoming a gender other than what they were assigned at birth
  • Nonbinary – a person who does not identify as only male or only female; may identify as having no gender or having two or more genders; sometimes referred to as being third-gender or other-gendered
  • Assigned at birth – the sex assigned to you at birth typically based on your visible external genitals
  • Cisgender – when your sense of personal identity and gender lines up with the sex you were assigned at birth (e.g., you were born a female and identify as a female)
  • Sexual orientation – according to APA, an “enduring pattern” of physical, emotional, and sexual attraction to male, female, or both sexes

Whatever your SOGI, give your brain a chance to adapt to a nonbinary world and develop some LGBTQ inclusive language to help navigate it.

And find out more about how Main Line Health is ensuring [link]compassionate, competent care for the LGBTQ community[link: blog/2019/05/29/care-for-the-lgbtq-community].

To schedule an appointment with a Main Line Health LGBTQ Inclusive Care specialist, please call the confidential telephone line at 484.337.LGBT (5428).