LGBTQI….? The Importance Of Language Around Diversity

When does policing language go too far?

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Let’s get this out of the way early: I’m a stickler for language.

I’m one of those people who mentally sub-edits you while you speak. Yep, annoying. Sometimes my girlfriend speaks to me and I think, ‘She used that word incorrectly’. Then I wonder if I should tell her. Sometimes I interrupt her to tell her.

In reality, my girlfriend doesn’t care much about the misuse of words. By interrupting her, I’ve not only been a shit, I’ve also completely missed the point of what she was saying. In that instance, the message of my loved one was lost because I focused on a tiny error in its delivery.

In my defence, I’ve been a magazine editor for ten years; a huge part of my job is policing the correct use of language. I do it all day, and sometimes it’s hard to switch off. But since launching Archer Magazine, language has become one of the most anxiety-producing parts of my work life.

I launched Archer last year because I wanted to write for a glossy, luxe publication about sexuality and gender diversity – and I realised it didn’t exist. In just a year we’ve amassed several awards, a nomination in the United Nations Human Rights Awards, coverage in The Guardian and The Monthly, 500 digital subscribers and a sold-out second edition.

Despite all this success, I work in constant fear that a language error will be my undoing.  Given the incredibly personal topics we cover, and the marginalised voices we commission to tell those stories, incorrect terminology can be extremely harmful. We’ve all been harmed by language, especially those of us in minority groups. It’s no small feat, surviving in a world that is still so fearful of difference.

I chose to launch Archer as a print publication because I wanted to create a relic of this period of the sexual equality movement; a piece of history that reflects our attitudes to gender and sexuality in 2014. I hope we’ll be able to look back incredulously on old editions, and be reminded of where we’ve come from and how quickly things have changed.

And things are changing really fast. Our knowledge of people’s diverse experiences with sex and gender, and the preferred language to describe those experiences, shift so quickly it’s hard to keep up. Though many readers may not realise it, each issue of Archer is outdated before it has even hit the stands.

The Problem With “LGBTI”

A perfect example is the initialisation of LGBTI, which (often incorrectly) groups together lesbian, gay and bisexual people, transgender people, and intersex people. For the most part, it’s inaccurate to include intersex people (that is, people born with atypical sex characteristics) in this shorthand for sexual and gender diversity.

“Intersex is about bodily diversity, not gender diversity,” explains Morgan Carpenter from Intersex Australia. “There are at least 30 or 40 intersex variations, largely genetic in origin.” Morgan adds that many intersex people identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, and many are heterosexual. “Language like ‘sex and gender diversity’ can promote misconceptions [about intersex people], and conceal our issues.”

Many intersex people face discrimination from birth, says Morgan. Intersex babies are often medically forced to conform to a gender stereotype, a decision made for them when they are too young to consent. Masking these issues with incorrect language can be extremely harmful.

I asked Morgan why intersex people are so often grouped with sexually and gender diverse people. “There are many different reasons… we all suffer discrimination because of the idea that we might not be ‘real men’ or ‘real women’. On the other hand, a single acronym for all kinds of sexual minorities is convenient for many institutions, including governments and funders.”

Previously, the Archer Magazine style guide stipulated the use of LGBTI when talking about sexual and gender diverse communities. This original decision was made to promote inclusivity. In future issues, however, the ‘I’ will only be included if intersex people are being specifically addressed. The same goes for each initial. For example, in articles that only refer to sexuality, we’ll use LGB to refer to the correct group of people.

Language Vs Message: When Does Policing Go Too Far?

Chatting with Eloise Brook, a lecturer in public relations at Victoria University and a contributor to Archer’s third issue, I started to wonder whether this focus on correctness can be detrimental to the movement itself.

“The sexual equality movement is in its relative infancy, terms are changing constantly,” she says. “It’s really important that we are tolerant of other’s mistakes or misinterpretations.”

“Even within the community there’s constant exploration and re-invention that is not going to end anytime soon, and we need to support our allies.”

Eloise has a preference for the term ‘transsexual’ to describe herself, which many trans people believe to be outdated, and to carry stigma. “I worried about language earlier in transition,” says Eloise. “It felt like it was really important to describe myself as a transsexual woman. But I’m not too caught up with policing terminology [these days]. If your intentions are good and if you’re happy to learn, then that’s the best kind of trans ally.”

I’ve spoken to a number of individuals from minority groups about this conflict. If the intention is right, why police the terminology? Being up in arms about correctness can deter people from having these discussions in the first place, so frightened are they of harming or offending the people they are referencing.

But the main reason I’m an advocate for the policing of language is to educate the mainstream media. The Courier Mail’s horrific treatment of the murder of transgender woman Mayang Prasetyo was a perfect example of harmful reporting and language that completely dehumanises a minority group. Media outlets that don’t have their subject’s best interests at heart must be made accountable for the damage they cause to marginalised groups. Outrage, in these cases, is essential, and I would encourage it from all angles so that the media circus is kept on its toes.

I also promote correctness of language because all people should be allowed to speak for themselves, rather than being spoken about. At Archer, we avoid running articles on marginalised communities unless they are written by a member of that community. We always run article edits by the writers and sources, to ensure everyone is happy with the context in which their voices appear.

There have been instances in which readers have pointed out mistakes or misused terminology.  When our social media editor used the term ‘transgendered’ on our Facebook page in our early days, one of our readers was quick to let us know that the correct term was ‘transgender’, and that using the incorrect term may cause offense.

Our response to these corrections is to hear that person’s point of view, admit our error, and then offer that person a platform to have their say, whether it’s over our Twitter feed or via a piece of writing on our website. Then we amend our style guides and processes to reflect the issue that has come to light.

How To Get It Right

If you’re not sure how to refer to someone — whether it’s figuring out if they prefer ‘he’ or ‘she’, or understanding someone’s relationship dynamic — politely and privately give them the opportunity to educate you. By providing people from marginalised groups with a platform to speak, we allow them to choose how they are referred to, rather than our language being policed from the outside.

As a member of the LGB community, I would hope that no independent media outlet (or people sitting around at a pub, for that matter) was deterred from discussions of diversity out of fear of using incorrect language, or misrepresenting a minority group. Our movement and its people need all the platforms we can get, and that may require our patience as everyone tries to get it right.

If someone makes a language mistake, correct them by all means. If someone calls you out on a mistake, try to see the positive side: you have learnt something, and you’ve created an opportunity for discussion and education. But let’s also remember that in the end, it’s the message that counts, not its delivery. By over-policing language, we run the risk of perpetuating silence around the issues that matter most to us.

Amy Middleton is a Melbourne-based journalist and founding editor of Archer Magazine. Issue 3 is out now.

Feature photo by Matt Buck, under a Creative Commons license, via Flickr.