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Why Language Matters

Most of us use words and phrases when we speak or write without thinking much about their origins. For example, you might say that something is “a dime a dozen” and never dig into what that actually means. This is pretty typical — and usually not a problem.

Yet the language we use does matter, particularly when it comes to how it makes others feel. Paying attention to our word choices is one way to be an ally — especially to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) community.

To get started, we first need to address a critical term: heteronormativity. Originally coined by Michael Warner in 1991, heteronormativity is the belief or assumption that heterosexuality is the norm or default. Heteronormativity can be seen in many aspects of our culture — from clothes for baby boys that feature sayings like “Ladies’ Man” or “Lock Up Your Daughters” to the fact that it wasn’t until 2021 that a gay couple was featured on Sesame Street. The coming out process is also a type of heteronormativity — LGBTQ+ people are assumed to be heterosexual and cisgender until they tell us otherwise. To learn more about this concept and related terms, check out our glossary.

Our language is often heteronormative as well. Many of the words and phrases that we use are based on the idea of one sexual orientation and two genders. For example, we may begin a speech with the phrase “ladies and gentleman.” This may seem harmless — but if there are non-binary people in the audience, it can be hurtful. A better option is to avoid that phrase entirely by simply introducing yourself, or using a word like “folks,” “team” or “everyone.

This is an example of inclusive language — a form of communication that avoids using words, expressions or assumptions that would stereotype, demean or exclude people. Using inclusive language shows that you respect and care for the person you are communicating with, and it doesn’t have to be difficult. It can be as simple as quickly considering whether a term or word makes an assumption, and then selecting one that does not.

Here are a few examples of inclusive language that you can use:

  • Instead of boyfriend, girlfriend, husband or wife, say partner or spouse

  • Instead of chairman, use chair or chair person

  • Instead of sexual preference, say sexual orientation or sexuality

  • Instead of mankind, use humankind

  • Instead of he/she, use they/them

  • Instead of opposite sex, say all genders

Using inclusive language is more than just your word choice, however. It should start by communicating with the LGBTQ+ people in your life. Remember that like any other community, LGBTQ+ people are not a monolith. If you want to know what terms a particular person prefers, simply ask them!

You should also avoid making assumptions about another person’s gender, sexuality or relationships. Accept and respect how people define themselves, without judgment.

Finally, use language that acknowledges that we have diverse relationships and families, and that sexual orientation and gender are not limited to one or two options. For example, you might choose to say “parents” instead of “mom and dad.” In this way, you won’t be making any assumptions about who a person’s parents are.

If you find this overwhelming, remember that it is OK to make a mistake — especially when you are learning. If you make an error, apologize and then move on from it. Then you can use the experience to help you do better the next time. You can also schedule a training on this topic (Words Matter) for your business or organization. Reach out to us at 724-837-9540 to learn more.

At Blackburn Center, we are dedicated to advocating for the right of ALL people to live free from violence. If you need us, we are here for you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call our hotline anytime at 1-888-832-2272. All calls are free of charge, and can be confidential.


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