When I wrote a publicity description for One Gay, One Straight: Complicated Marriages, my documentary showing straight spouses telling their own stories, I inadvertently included a phrase that some found offensive. I called the DVD "The first documentary revealing the pain and confusion of marriages mired in the secrecy of a homosexual closet." At the first screening, one psychologist in the audience took issue with that use of homosexual. While I had used that term only to include both gay men and lesbians in mixed-orientation marriages, she pointed out that my usage was dated and offensive. She asserted that Homosexual now is relegated to medical contexts.
Language is a living thing, changing constantly, and connotations around socially sensitive subjects are especially ephemeral. That's why I was relieved to discover on the Internet a current stylebook on LGBT terminology by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, a Washington based writers' organization. It clarified the woman's criticism of my documentary publicity piece and revealed other fine and useful nuances.
The stylebook's clear definitions would be useful to anyone interested in this subject. For example, I learned that the term transvestite, one who wears clothing associated with the opposite sex, is currently considered "crude and old-fashioned." The preferred term today is cross-dresser and is differentiated from transgender. A clear distinction was also made among civil union, commitment ceremony, domestic partnership, and same-sex marriage. The decades-old designation GLBT (acronym for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender) was supplanted by LGBT. Ladies first? Additional letters are also used: LGBTQ, the Q for Queer or Questioning. The use of “queer” is now often used with pride, rather than as an insult. Terminology changes rapidly, following societal shifts.
I believe that these shifting linguistic distinctions are important to more than writers and speakers in this field. If we hope to reach across the divides that exist between LGBT and straight, we need to be informed about these sensitivities. Words wound and cause more distance between social factions when they are used with ignorance or malice. Mutual acceptance begins with clear communication, unencumbered by negative connotation.
I recommend the NLGJA's excellent stylebook, not only for political correctness, but for the larger goal of mutual understanding. Visit <http://www.nlgja.org/resources/stylebook_english.html> to learn more.