In a vulnerable time like this, communication is incredibly important. Our kids are relying on us more than ever for education, and social development. So, how do we avoid unintentionally hurtful words and teachings that we ourselves may have learned by accident? Linguistically speaking these terms and phrases can be considered a “pathogen”—they’re “Word Germs.”

Perhaps you can recall a time when a parent or grandparent taught you a word, or spoke aloud an idea that was offensive to you, or to people you cared about. You, when you decided not to repeat it in that way, were the first link that broke that instructional chain of thinking and speaking. 

After surveying an NYC-based LGBT & Ally Performer network, we have come up with 10 commonly used words and phrases that you may not have known were offensive to the LGBT+ community and some alternative options that will promote our children to grow up to be compassionate and intelligent advocates for justice in their classrooms, social circles and future homes. 

“No, that’s for girls/boys.”

Kids are naturally curious and like to try out all different kinds of playtime activities as well as clothing options. Playing house, playing with trucks, or building LEGO sets are formative activities for young kids of any gender. Additionally, playtime, for households of multiple children, is a social activity. It’s not rare or wrong for a brother and sister to play cars, dolls, or dress-up pretend games together, so why do we enforce separation when it comes to other activities?

For example, when your son wants to try makeup or wants his nails painted, it can simply be because activities such as those are calming, and involve spending quality time with you, or perhaps an older sibling. When a young girl plays with tools or has an interest in mechanics/building, not only are those creative activities the foundation for important skills she will need as an adult but are also a bonding activity for her and a parent and/or sibling. Though these activities aren't indicators that your child will grow into an LGBT+ adult, your reaction will be remembered if they begin having questions about their gender and sexuality, so responding positively and openly will set a trusting foundation to your relationship when they need your help finding those answers later in life. Celebrating your child’s curiosity will ultimately bring you closer together.  

“He’s a little ladies’ man/She’s going to give her Daddy trouble when she’s older.”

It's a known fact: babies are cute. And it's exciting to see their personalities take form. When babies/toddlers are social and bubbly sometimes adults will remark in a way that indicates when they grow up, they’ll have plenty of romantic attention. Comments like this could potentially make your child fear making gestures of affection, particularly in front of you or other adults, in case they would be ridiculed or embarrassed. It also establishes an expectation that in adulthood, your child will be heterosexual.

Maybe you can recall having a “kindergarten boyfriend/girlfriend” who waved at you at pick up or held your hand on the playground. These sorts of gestures of friendship and closeness among young kids should be encouraged. It teaches kids to be honest about their feelings and establishes a place in their life for kind gestures and affection, rather than concealment of emotions and violent outbursts.

These types of comments can also set a tone that same-sex relationships or the need for physical comforts such as hugs or hand holding outside of a romantic relationship are "strange" or “abnormal.” Instead, it's important to encourage your children to be openly kind to their friends and classmates, without jokingly hinting that something else lies beneath those actions.   

"Be more ladylike."

Whether she was climbing a tree or sitting bowlegged in a chair, every single girl has heard this phrase at least once growing up. This saying is damaging to every girl, establishing limitations to what girls can and cannot do. In the same way that "no, that's for boys" discourages girls from exploring interests in male-dominated fields, "act like a lady" teaches girls to consider themselves an "other" to boys, even something less than boys. While, of course, we want to teach children manners, how to be polite, to say "please" and "thank you," to treat everyone with kindness and respect, comments like this make girls resent being born as girls.

It also assumes that a child's sex and gender match one another. Jo March from Little Women, the "blueprint" for how we view tomboyism, often remarked that she was "the man" of the family, cutting her hair short, wearing trousers, and refusing to do "girly" things like needlepoint or flirt with boys. She, like many young girls, rebels against conventional expectations of girlhood/womanhood. So, it's unsurprising that theorists have wondered whether Jo was gay or transgender. Allowing girls to breathe a bit as they develop, leaving room for any activities regardless of her sex will help her in expressing her gender identity later in life.

“You’re so brave for being out.”

While it comes from a place of kindness, and of understanding that there are plenty of people who are still intolerant of the LGBT+ community, telling a gay person "you're so brave" reinforces that being gay is an abnormality. Not every gay person is completely out, some are only out to friends, or friends and a portion of family. You may have heard "but I haven't told my uncle," or "but I'm never telling my Nona." This phrase subtly assumes that a gay person wants to talk about their struggle to openly accept their sexuality. Saying instead, "I'm here for you if you need to talk (coming out, your intolerant relatives, being bullied at school, feeling confused, etc.)" establishes that you're an ally, and they're in control of when they bring up potentially traumatic events. You could also say, "I'm happy that you're so happy," or "I'm glad you've found your significant other."

“I’m not gay but.../I'm no homo...” 

We'd love to say the reminder is unnecessary, but we'll say it anyway: stop saying this phrase or any variation of it. Whether you think Lupita Nyong'o is beautiful or you love spending time with your best friend, you don't have to reaffirm the admiration of a celebrity or the strength of your love as platonic. This is another phrase that alienates LGBT+ people, making it seem as though gay people are abnormal, and there's a necessity to keep reaffirming you do not belong to that group. It makes it seem as though there is some fear attached to being mistaken for gay, as if there is some punishment that may be involved. It's much easier to simply say "I'm really happy we're friends" or "I love the time we spend together" to someone you care about without adding the addendum at the end.

“I have a great gaydar.”

We've all heard some version of it: "I always knew ____ was gay!" or, "With style like that, it was obvious!" or to the opposite effect, "But you don't look like a lesbian?" Employing your "gaydar" assumes that there is one single way of being gay. When in fact, gay people and their experiences are just as diverse as anyone else. It also gives gay people a reputation for being "sneaky" as if being in the closet is an act to fool or trick people, but those with "gaydar" are more adept at seeking out the lie. Instead of telling your friend/child/family member that you always knew they were gay, try saying "That's great!" Or if they tell you they're transgender or nonbinary, ask questions like "What does that mean for us going forward?" and "Do you have a new name or pronouns?" and "How can I best support you in this?" Showing you're listening and you care is the most crucial step in making the person you care about feel loved and accepted.

“But, are you sure? Have you ever dated a (person of the opposite sex)?”

Even members of the LGBT+ community are guilty of this one. It's natural to be curious about how someone came into their sexuality, but ultimately it's not your business. Often times gay and transgender folks experience "internalized homophobia" where, it's difficult not to listen to the voices of bullies, politicians, clergy members, even characters on television, who tell them they're "looking for attention" or "just haven't found the right person" or "can't possibly know unless they tried." You wouldn't ask a straight person how they knew they were straight if they'd never been in a same-sex relationship, so why the curiosity when it comes to gay people?

“I don’t mind what you are but, you’ll always be my little boy/girl to me.”

It's understandable that a change such as your child's gender can be shocking. Especially when discussions of reassignment surgery, hormone therapy and legal measures (regarding name, insurance, official documents, etc.) follow. Fond memories of watching your child grow up will potentially feel like a "Before" and "After" and perhaps, your child will not remember those precious moments with the same fondness, as they will remember them as a time of closeted-ness. It is so crucial in helping your child to feel accepted for who they are, to let go of the "Before" and "After" mentality. Talking openly about your concerns, and listening to theirs will help you better understand each other's needs. Sometimes decisions about how best your child can live their life happily as their preferred gender will require several conversations and lots of research. Tackle those moments of doubt by listening to what your child needs. Help them find an LGBT+ network, and as their parent, talk to adults who went through the same thing at their age, and what they needed/wish they had, as far as parental support.

“That’s gay.”

This phrase has somewhat fallen out of fashion in the last ten years but it still comes up, particularly around the adolescent schoolyard. The sentiment is simple: all things stupid, inconvenient, weird, loud, gross, tedious, annoying and so forth, are branded "gay" instead. With a vocabulary so rich and diverse with words that describe the things that irritate us, why continue to choose the word gay at all? It reinforces the notion that there's something inherently wrong with being gay. If you hear it said by someone you know or even someone you don't, it's easy to correct, "Did you mean (new word)?" or "Gay isn't a synonym for (new word)." Setting an example for your kids in this way, when they hear these pathogen-like phrases (especially when they're uttered by others in your presence), will help them to not only learn not to say these things but also why it's important not to.

The “Reclaimed Slur”: “Fairy,” “Queen,” “Queer,” “Dyke,” “Faggot,” “Tranny,” “Cross-Dresser” 

This last one is a little trickier than the others. Sometimes, you will hear members of the LGBT+ community use terms that seem offensive, or you've heard used offensively before. There isn't one single opinion from the community about these terms. Some people find it liberating to use words that were once meant to damage them as a signifier of pride or self-love. Others prefer to leave slurs in the past. However, at one point in history, the words "Gay" and "Lesbian" were also slurs, so it's difficult to come down decidedly on one side of the argument or the other.

Ultimately, “slurs” can only be reclaimed by the parties they were originally used to bully. Even if you hear someone call themselves an offensive word, it does not mean they’ve permitted you to use that word to describe them as well. Communicate with your child, friend, or family member, and ask them how you should refer to them—there’s almost always a straightforward answer. Whether it be “Sometimes I call myself a dyke, but please call me a lesbian in conversation” or “I’m gay, but I also use the word queer, so you may too when talking about me.” 

As with any marginalized group, the best thing you can do to support the LGBT+ community is to listen to, and amplify their voices whenever/where-ever you can. Educating yourself is the first step to becoming an Ally to those you care about.

—Emilie Swartvagher

featured image: iStock

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