All attorneys know that proper communication with clients is essential. If you can’t clearly, sensitively and thoroughly have discourse with your clients, you can’t effectively represent them. For those who represent LGBT clients, proper communication means first familiarizing yourself with terminology used within and accepted by the LGBT community.
This terminology might be new to you, but it’s imperative you understand the words and phrases your client uses. And, it’s vital you pay attention to how slight variations in terms could potentially change a conversation’s entire meaning.
For instance, some LGBT terminology is widely accepted by the younger LGBT community but may be considered offensive by an older LGBT person. The words we use to talk to and about people who are LGBT have a powerful impact on our discussions. We can change people’s attitudes and actions for the better when we carefully consider the language we use when it comes to LGBT clients.
LGBT representatives will find the following guide to terminology useful.
Communicating with Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Clients
Remember that the word gay is an adjective, not a noun. Some people use gay to describe gay, lesbian and bisexual orientation (not transgender). While lesbians are usually fine with being called gay, referring to them as lesbians often makes it clearer that they are women.
Talking about the “homosexuality” of a person can tend to reduce their life to purely something sexual. Don’t talk about “sexual preference.” This often implies that the speaker thinks an LGBT individual can choose whether or not to be gay or can decide to become “cured” somehow.
It’s fine to say someone is “openly gay,” but talking about how a person “admitted he was gay” suggests that being gay is something to feel ashamed about.
Terms to use: gay, lesbian, bi, bisexual, being gay, orientation, sexual orientation, transgender, openly gay
Terms not to use: homosexual, gay (as in, “he is a gay”), homosexuality, lesbianism, sexual preference, gay lifestyle, same-sex attractions, sexual identity, LGBT (when talking with someone who isn’t familiar with the term), “admitted he was gay”
Communicating with Transgender Clients
The word transgender refers to individuals who express gender different than the genders assigned to them. At a certain point, transgender people decided that they sensed they were actually a different gender than their physical bodies would suggest. They then chose to commit themselves to living the gender they have always felt themselves to be, so they transition completely.
Terms to use: transgender, gender identity, gender expression, transition
Terms not to use: transgendered, a transgender, transgenders, tranny, transvestite, sexual identity, transgender identity, sex change, sex-change operation, pre-operative, post-operative
This is just a snapshot of the ways to communicate and not communicate with LGBT clients, or to speak about them respectfully when representing them.
If you’re interested in learning more about communicating with LGBT clients, consider taking CLE courses that dive deep into LGBT issues.