LGBTQ+ Terminology: What words should we be using?

How can we possibly have too many words to describe the range of sexualities and gender identities within the human race?

How can we possibly keep up with the huge glossary of ever-changing terms which describe the range of sexualities and gender identities?

Difficult, isn’t it? But these are the opposing debates that we’re trying to suture together right now at Speak Out. Part of my job as Catalogue Editor is looking back through our catalogue for any reference to LGBTQ+ issues. However, a lot of it is quite difficult to find as it has been catalogued using outdated terminology.

To make it easier to search for LGBTQ+ material, I’m going to be adding in enrichment descriptions which will attach modern terminology to our records. This means that if you want to find the witness statement for Robert Northcott and George Harvey’s illicit Regent’s Park rendezvous, you will be able to search for records of ‘gay men’ instead of the rather ambiguous ‘unnatural misdemeanours’.

It could be argued that adding in this extra information is corrupting the historical record. For example, to call a woman from the 19th century a lesbian would be incorrect as the word indicates a cultural context that she would have been unaware of. She would not have thought of herself as a lesbian.

There is also the worry that the words that we use today could be considered antiquated or even offensive in the future. ‘Homosexual’, for example, used to be considered a polite term but nowadays, many consider it too clinical and diagnostic. And then, of course, there’s ‘queer’. As a member of the LMA LGBT History Club pointed out, a lot of people are very happy to describe themselves as queer, but quite a few people, particularly of the older generation, are still very uncomfortable being referred to as such.

Ultimately, the plan is for us to choose a list of about 10 LGBTQ+ words with which we can ‘tag’ our collections, but what those are going to be is still up for discussion. What do you think?

Written by Rosemary Munro (Speak Out Catalogue Editor)


3 thoughts on “LGBTQ+ Terminology: What words should we be using?

  1. Dear All, Why, when using it for the first time in this piece, is the word queer surrounded by ”.  Also the use of Lesbianism to describe sexual and emotional relationships is first DOCUMENTED in 1870. This use of the word must have been current verbally prior to that date as the user of it gives no claim to coinage. 1870 is well within the Victorian era…………… I agree that we should all be free to use what words work for us. I use Tranny for it’s historical connotation when it was coined by drag queens, transvestites and people I now call wrongly assigned M/F at birth, as an INCLUSIVE term that implied a sisterhood. It was first coined in Australia in the late 1970s.  We need to be accurate as creating a document such as this becomes part of our history that others will be struggling to unpick in the future. Hope Winter Hall

    From: Speak Out London To: Sent: Tuesday, 13 October 2015, 13:56 Subject: [New post] LGBTQ+ Terminology: What words should we be using? #yiv4279101173 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv4279101173 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv4279101173 a.yiv4279101173primaryactionlink:link, #yiv4279101173 a.yiv4279101173primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv4279101173 a.yiv4279101173primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv4279101173 a.yiv4279101173primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv4279101173 | gpbadmin posted: “How can we possibly have too many words to describe the range of sexualities and gender identities within the human race?How can we possibly keep up with the huge glossary of ever-changing terms which describe the range of sexualities and gender ident” | |


    • The word is in quotes because that’s how you write about words when you don’t want to use the word within the grammatical context of the sentence.


  2. Hi Rosemary,

    I suppose one of the issues that I would raise would be, is the list that we come up with for your enrichment descriptions going to be static? As in, once it’s decided, is it set in stone forever? My issue with this would be, what if in 50 years the word ‘queer’ for example changes its meaning, or its connotation again. Does the LMA have a responsibility to continuously update the way it organises its records in order to keep them relevant to new and contemporary audiences, or if not, are we simply making it so that future generations have to deal with the same questions in 50 years time? An example (from German), Magnus Hirschfeld was one of the greatest proponents of what we might think of as gay rights of his generation and he founded the Institute of Sexual Science at least partly to categorise and define sexual identities and sexualities much like we’re attempting to do – and yet, he uses terms that we simply would not these days, like the ‘Urnian Person’ (Der Urnische Mensch). Would a translation of his work into English today require that this be translated as something other than ‘Urnian?’

    The other thing that I think the LMA needs to decide form the outset is what sort of tone is it attempting to convey when it presents records? I think an example here would be clearer – take the word ‘queer’. Now there are several people within my social circle who use the word to mean exactly, or at least a similar, what I use it to mean, so I know that when they refer to me as ‘queer’ that they mean by it what I would mean by it (what exactly the word ‘queer’ actually means is a whole other issue). However, if I were walking down the street holding hands with another man, and someone walked past me and said the word ‘queer’, I would take that in mean something entirely different and profoundly offensive. So you can see then that the speaker and the context of the speaker has a profound influence on the way people react to those words. And whilst I don’t think anyone approaching the LMA’s records would ever believe that the tag ‘queer’ on a record was ever being used in a derogatory way, there is still the issue of whether the LMA wants to take a position on a potentially divisive issue. I don’t know, what do you think?

    Sorry, more questions than answers there!


    P.s. it’s got to be a brave person who proposes the first 10 words for the list – I’m not sure I’d want to be the first!


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