What's Offensive

If you're here, it means you either want to learn or have a weird sense of humour. If it's the latter, you'll probably be more amused here. If it's the former, welcome!

If you have any additions to this, by all means contact me.

For basic tips on how to be respectful to Trans people, click here. Excellent resource.

Okay. Let's start with some absolute basics.

We've all heard this one. Some people don't seem to care about it, some think it's funny or cool to say, and some (like myself) are incredibly offended by it. But most people really don't know why it's so offensive, and a lot of folks probably just think that "those gays" are overreacting; it's just a word, it doesn't mean anything really. Allow me to clarify.

Back in the day (clear into the 20th century, actually), gay people were burned at the stake. Often they were made to collect their own firewood before being tied up and burned alive. And this wasn't a rare occurrence at all. If you look up "faggot" in the dictionary, you'll see something similar to this: "a bundle of sticks or twigs esp. as used for fuel". A faggot is something to be burned, that's its entire purpose. Calling someone a faggot is the equivalent of saying "All this person is good for in the world is to be burned alive, which is one of the most horrible and torturous possible ways to die".

You may believe that about gay people, and I can't stop you from believing that. (Although, if you really do believe that, why are you here? Maybe you want to read this instead.) But I'd advise against publicizing that belief. You have a right to your belief, and a right to voice it, but whoever hears you may beat the hell out of you when they hear it. And if you don't really believe that about gay people, please stop calling people faggots, even if you're joking with your friends. You really never know whom you're going to offend.

"Fag", obviously, is often used as shorthand for "faggot", especially in the US. In most of the English-speaking world outside the US, a fag is a cigarette, but "faggot" is still a derogatory term for a gay man. But trying to say "Oh, I was using the British version" when you say "fag" and someone calls you on it usually isn't going to work, unless you ask someone if they have any fags you can smoke or something like that.

According to my dictionary, a dyke/dike is "a bank of earth to control water; levee".

In the early 1900's, when a man dressed up for an occasion, he was said to be "diked out" (not sure why). Butch lesbians at the time picked this up as a codeword, and since then it has gone from verb to noun and changed spelling slightly. But that's where our present-day use of the word "dyke" originally came from. (Thanks to Gene for contacting me with this!)

A lot of people call any masculine female a dyke. This reinforces the stereotype that all lesbians are masculine or "butch", which is SO not the case. Some lesbians are butch, some are feminine ("femme/fem"), some are a little bit of both depending on their mood, some are androgynous (gender-neutral) ... there are all kinds of lesbians, just like there are all kinds of straight people. Not all straight women would be considered feminine, and not all lesbians would be considered masculine. If the only lesbians you've encountered are butch, you need to get out more.

Calling someone a dyke, regardless of your reasoning, is anti-lesbian. And again, while you may not approve of homosexuality, you never know whom you're going to offend and eventually your safety may be jeopardized. Besides, we should have a basic respect for one another as human beings. What someone does sexually shouldn't have any impact on how you treat them on a human-to-human level. Unless you're discussing your sex lives, it really shouldn't come into play at all.

Tossing around words like faggot and dyke is like tossing around the word n****r. Be very careful, or you're going to offend someone you really don't want on your bad side. Best to avoid using those words altogether.

I get a lot of questions about this, and probably a lot of other Queer people do too. We use it often as a statement of pride and identity, and so sometimes non-Queer people assume that it's okay to toss it around even if they don't mean it as an offensive term. It still is offensive to a lot of people, though. To me it's all about tone and context. I know a lot of middle-aged and older people who, regardless of their sexual orientation, are really offended by the use of the word queer, because to them it was always an incredibly offensive term, lumping Gay, lesbian, Bisexual, and transgender people into one category: abnormal. "Queer", according to the dictionary, means "strange". Usually when we call something strange, it's not that it's unfamiliar so much as that it's weird, it's freaky, it's abnormal.

Today, the GLBT community is taking back the word queer. I proudly call myself Queer. But you need to be careful with it, too. If you, as a GLBT person (or even a straight person who is immersed in the GLBT community), use "queer" and it's really obvious that you're using it in a prideful way, odds are you won't get much of a fight except from a few elders who still see it as purely offensive. (Respect that.) But if you, as someone outside the GLBT community, call someone a queer in a way that's clearly offensive, or say that something is "queer" when what you mean is that it's stupid, odds are it's going to be taken as offensive, and once again, you never know whom you're going to offend. Unless you're positive that it's a safe space and won't be taken the wrong way, best to avoid it.

That's so gay
Odds are that the younger you are, the more you hear this phrase. It's used the way "queer" is sometimes used ... it means that something is stupid, pointless, etc. Sometimes you'll hear "faggy" or something similar used in this context, also.

Obviously (at least to me), when you say this, you're equating being gay with being stupid or whatever. This is seriously offensive. It's like saying "that's so Black" or "that's so Jewish", although those may sound sort of silly because you're not used to hearing them (hopefully). But it's the same idea. It's offensive, regardless of how you mean it, and it's best to eliminate that phrase from your vocabulary and encourage those around you to do the same.

A lot of Queer people are also working to reclaim faggot/fag and dyke. You'll often hear "dyke" tossed around in Queer circles. It's about on the same level as Queer in terms of use as a prideful term, I think. "Faggot" is less accepted, possibly in part because of its horrific history. But we're working on it. I use it from time to time in safe spaces (never on the street or in public areas because it's still so offensive), and some of my friends do too. I think it's important to reclaim these terms. But we need to respect those who are still offended by them, too.

So anyway, if you hear someone using terms like these, by all means call them on it. But if they are Queer, they have a right to be using them as prideful terms. (No one, regardless of whether or not they're in the GLBT community, should be using them as offensive terms.)

"A Trans"
While "Gay", "lesbian", and "Bisexual" are sometimes used as nouns, "Transgender" isn't. It's an adjective. Typically, in my experience, people referring to "a transgender" or "a trans" are those looking for cybersex, who know next to nothing about Trans issues and don't much care. Be warned: especially online, people may think you're just a "chaser" or "Transfan" if you say it like that. The respectful way to refer to a Trans person is just like that - say "a transgender person" or "a Trans person". "Transsexual" is used more as a noun, but saying "a Transsexual person" is more respectful. I, personally, am not "a Trans". I'm a Trans person, a person who is Trans. Trans is not all of who I am, which is what is implied by calling someone "a Trans".
This one's being reclaimed by the queer community too. It basically refers to a feminine gay man (a "flamer", which probably has the same roots as "faggot" but is way more accepted). Basically it's the same as with queer. ("Fruity" is also used to mean flamboyant or flaming or whatever ... visibly gay, if you go by stereotypes.)
Shemale, she-male, she male - there are a lot of different ways to write this, but they all mean the same thing - a person who is biologically male but is a woman. What people usually mean by this is someone who has breasts and a penis. The first part - "she" - refers to the person's gender expression, the second part - "male" - refers to their biological sex.

This is an incredibly offensive term. It reduces those on the MTF spectrum to the old "man in a dress" designation, and I have yet to meet an MTF person who won't bite your head off or get very upset on hearing this term. Just say "pre-op or non-op Trans woman" to indicate someone who has breasts and a penis. (By the way, lots of intersex people have both breasts and a penis naturally.)

Also, if you're looking to hook up with someone (as so many of the people who use this term online are), don't use the term shemale. You have no chance in hell of getting lucky (short of going to a prostitute) if you're that disrespectful. If you want someone to sleep with you without paying them, try showing the slightest sympathy and understanding for what they're going through.

(Want tips on how to hook up with or date a Trans person? Look here. If you're looking for a Trans woman, as you probably are if you're interested in "shemales", start with TransPersonal #3 The Transwoman's Boudoir, And How To Get Into It.)

The converse of shemale. Those who have read Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg (a must-read for all, by the way; powerful novel) will remember it. The "he" refers to the person's gender expression, and the "she" refers to the person's biological sex.

Again, this is incredibly offensive. It reduces those on the FTM spectrum to the "woman trying to be a man" designation, which isn't what it's about at all, except perhaps in a few scattered situations. Most of these people are expressing their own identity and sense of self, not "trying to be men".

Avoid he-she and shemale. I'm sure the reasons are more complex than I've been able to articulate (if you think you can do it better, please contact me and help me out), but the basic fact is that they're very offensive. Try being respectful.

A word about being "politically correct" or "PC"
"One such perversion of the gains of our movements is the right-wing reversal of the meaning of politically correct. When the movements were in full stride, being politically correct was a good thing. It meant confronting racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, anti-disabled, and anti-worker slurs, attitudes, and actions. It meant using language that demonstrated respect and sensitivity for each other's oppression.

"George Bush [Sr.], and later Rush Limbaugh, waged a divisive campaign to se that phrase against the movements as a weapon. Their ilk asks: 'Why do we have to all be so "politically correct"?' What they mean is why can't they publicly repeat the crude, bigoted slurs they used before these movements challenged them. The right wing has characterised these progressive movements as 'oppression.' The message from those in power is: Don't blame us, blame the people trying to change the situation. This is an attempt to thwart the formation of new liberation movements. But these movements are potential allies, not enemies".

--Leslie Feinberg, speaking at the 1997 True Spirit Conference in Maryland (quoted from Feinberg's Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue)


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This page was last updated on: Sunday 21 August 2005.