Friday Takeaway: Words Matter

  • Joe Levine Photo

For Hampshire Life
Published: 7/3/2019 12:50:49 PM

Perhaps the most important words in any language are those we use to speak about ourselves. The words we use in telling our story — especially in our own understanding of it — can make it a tragedy or a heroic journey of courage and resilience. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer (LGBTQ) people understand the power of words better than most. We learn to be attuned to their nuances because we are subjected to so many words meant to hurt us.

We know that words can undermine us or strengthen us. But not even all of us LGBTQ folk understand the power we have to choose for ourselves what we will let something mean for us.

For lesbians and gay men of the Stonewall generation, those now in their sixties and above, the word queer was our version of the “N-word.” It was a dehumanizing, vulgar slur. At the New York City headquarters of SAGE, the nation’s largest advocacy and services organization for LGBTQ elders, the word queer is explicitly forbidden because of the hurt and trauma it can still inflict when used as a weapon.

Choosing our words well

After the German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing used the words “homosexual” and “heterosexual” in his 1886 book “Psychopathia Sexualis,” men and women who felt naturally attracted to members of their own sex were referred to as homosexual. The clinical term would become so common it succeeded in reducing same-sex loving individuals to nothing more than their sexuality.

Early 20th century homosexuals used words like “normal” and “fairy” to describe men according to where they ranked on a scale of “traditional” masculinity. Gay men spoke euphemistically about being “musical” or “horticultural” to denote someone’s homosexual orientation.

Coded words provided an important way to subvert and survive in a homophobic society where being found out as gay could lead to jail, loss of a job, family rejection, and public social shame when one’s name was printed in the paper after being subjected to one of the many bar raids and mass arrests of gay citizens simply for exercising their constitutional right to free assembly.

Black gay men in 1920s New York City spoke of being “in the life” and “the sporting life.” White gay men starting in the 1930s chose the word “gay” as their preferred coded word to describe themselves.

“In calling themselves gay, a new generation of gay men insisted on the right to name themselves, to claim their status as men, and to reject the ‘effeminate’ styles of the older generation,” writes historian George Chauncey in his book “Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940.”

After the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York, “gay power” was shouted in the streets and graffitied on the walls of gay neighborhoods. Veteran gay activist Frank Kameny coined the phrase “Gay is good” to flip the usual insults and put-downs on their head.

The LGBTQ community was coming out of the closet. How we spoke about ourselves and about our lives mattered. We were shredding the social straitjacket we were expected to wear simply because we weren’t heterosexual, and we needed words and language to reflect our newly asserted freedom.

Words have power.

The language of illness

Out and proud gay men were the first people to be public about living with HIV-AIDS in the early 1980s. Their outness and pride meant they rejected the shame and stigma American society attached to this particular illness because of its associations with homosexuality, drugs and death.

Everyone was scared of AIDS at the beginning. But gay men with the illness understood the importance of words and language in talking about the epidemic. Meeting at the second national AIDS forum, in Denver in 1983, gay men from New York and San Francisco adopted the Denver Principles, a kind of constitution for how to care for and involve people afflicted by the illness in decision-making about their care. These courageous men rejected the label “AIDS victims,” insisting they be referred to as “people with AIDS,” or PWAs.

Thanks to effective medical treatment that became available beginning in 1996, far fewer people today live with the effects of end-stage HIV disease known as AIDS. The language has shifted accordingly, and we speak about “people living with HIV,” or “PLH.”

The main point is to keep the focus on the person, not the illness — and most definitely not to reduce a human being to a medical diagnosis.

Words can help to heal.

The language of sex

For the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, the Associated Press released a new supplement of essential words, phrases, and definitions for its widely used stylebook that guides the way many news organizations speak about LGBTQ individuals and issues.

Today even our gender identities — whether we identify as male or female, man or woman — have been sub-categorized with new words.

Instead of being “one or the other,” we can now identify as cisgender (when your gender identity as a man or woman corresponds to your biological sex at birth), gender-nonconforming, nonbinary (you don’t identify as strictly male or female), or even transgender (your gender identity doesn’t match the biological sex at birth).

Today we can identify as “pansexual” (sexual or romantic attraction to people regardless of their sex or gender-identity), “androsexual” (attracted to masculinity), “gynesexual” (attracted to femininity), and any of a number of other terms to denote the particulars one is attracted to — or not. There are even terms for those with no interest in romance (“aromantic”) or sex (“allosexual”) at all.

The power of words

Words are most powerful when we use them to describe ourselves. The labels we give ourselves, or allow others to pin on us, can shape our entire life. If I finish the phrase “I am ...” with such words as “weak,” “a failure,” “cursed,” it’s not hard to imagine I’ll think of myself precisely in those terms. But if I tell myself, “I’m a survivor,” well, you can see the difference it will have in helping me to feel empowered rather than undermined by my own choice of words. This is true regardless of my sexual orientation or gender identity. You could say it’s a human thing.

Likewise, anyone can look to the LGBTQ community’s experience to understand the importance of choosing words that heal, not harm; language that frees us to be our true selves, rather than keeping us enslaved to others’ definitions of us and our value.

By deliberately taking control of the words and language we use to speak about us, LGBTQ people offer a lesson that anyone can learn for themselves. The lesson is this: Choose your words well, especially those you use in your “self-talk,” the voice in each of our minds that helps us sort out and make sense of things. Negative words — complaining, putting yourself or others down, whining about life’s unfairness — become the fabric of the cloth over your face, slowly suffocating the spirit within.

On the other hand, positive, uplifting words — encouraging, reflecting compassion toward yourself and others, offering hope of a better future — can be the difference between surrendering to despair or carrying on. The essential role of words and language in the lives of LGBTQ people and in the LGBTQ equality movement makes Stonewall’s 50th anniversary an ideal occasion to reflect on their unique power. In the end, and in our day-to-day lives, it’s up to each of us to choose what we will allow the words we use for and about ourselves to mean. Words can enslave us. Or they can liberate us. The choice is ours to make.

Health and medical journalist John-Manuel Andriote is the author most recently of “Stonewall Strong: Gay Men’s Heroic Fight for Resilience, Good Health, and a Strong Community.” He writes the “Stonewall Strong” blog on resilience for Psychology Today. Visit


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