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10 Things You Should Never Say to an LGBTQ+ Individual


Every time someone begins a sentence with, “I’m sorry if this offends you, but…” an LGBTQ+ person groans. The phrase to follow is often, “I don’t understand that lifestyle,” or “How do you have sex?” So much of what is said to LGBTQ+ individuals is offensive, harmful or intrusive – and you may not even know it. The best way to combat this is through educating yourself, and getting to know why some common things aren’t okay to say to those who identify as queer.

1. “It’s just a phase.”

You may have heard this one before, because it’s directed at everyone from asexual to bisexual to transgender people. It often comes from a place that’s well-intentioned, especially from older adults when someone is newly coming out. If you’ve heard this, it’s likely because the person often just wants to make sure you’re comfortable sharing this part of your identity with others, because people can be cruel about it at times. 

Trish Bendix, editor-in-chief of AfterEllen, an online publication geared toward queer women, calls this phrase “an attempt to understand how we can be so sure that we are who we are.” Bendix says, “People tend to be most curious about the clues we had as to what makes us queer or trans, likely trying to reconcile if it’s something they’ve ever been close to dealing with themselves.”

The accusation that it’s just a phase can still be hurtful to hear as an LGBTQ+ person, especially if you’ve known your identity for quite some time. You may have just gathered the courage to tell a friend something important about yourself, and hearing that “it’s just a phase” basically shuts that trust down.

2. “Which one of you is the man and which one is the woman?”

This relies on stereotypes and assumes that there is supposed to be a “man” and a “woman” in every relationship. Hello—same-sex couples don’t want that! If they did, they would be dating the opposite gender.

“People generally assume that I’m the guy just because I’m bigger and stronger,” says Macey Lavoie, a first-year graduate student at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. “Being the guy implies that I’m masculine when I’m just a strong female,” she adds. If someone asks who plays the male and female roles in a relationship, they're reducing men and women to those stereotypes associated with their gender. We’re capable of so much more than these kinds of stereotypes, especially in the 21st century.

3. “Do you hate men?”

Just because women are queer doesn’t mean it’s due to a personal dislike for men, but so many people think female queer sexuality is rooted in some hatred for guys—especially if the woman also identifies as a feminist.

“Being a lesbian doesn’t mean that I hate men,” says Sarah Dollard, a first-year graduate student at Emerson College. Sarah has also heard the question, “Why do you want to be a guy?” That’s ironic, because it assumes that she hates men and also wants to be them.

Besides—straight women are the ones who are in relationships with men, so they’re way more likely to find fault with men than queer women are. 

4. “How do you have sex?”

This question is often aimed at transgender people, intersex people and people in same-sex relationships, but no matter whom it’s being asked of, it’s horribly intrusive. A good rule of thumb is: if you wouldn’t ask someone who's straight and/or cisgender (meaning they identify with their assigned gender) the question, don’t ask anyone else just because they identify differently.

Mary Malia, the founder of Gay Girl Dating Coach and the Live Your Best Lesbian Life Tele-Summit, suggests that those who are really curious use Google for research instead. “There are plenty of articles out there, where people are writing and sharing about their lives,” she says. She finds sexual questions asked of LGBTQ+ people to be extremely problematic. “It's depersonalizing people; it's turning them into a Facebook post. It's so disrespectful of them as individuals.”

It’s easy to find people and communities online where you can access the information you may want to know about LGBTQ+ people, whether it’s personal or not. It’s much more appropriate to ask these types of questions on an online forum designed for this discussion, because it doesn’t have the same effect as asking someone personally.

5. “What genitals do you have?”

This follows along with any questions about sex, which are inappropriate to ask anyone who hasn’t explicitly given you their permission. It’s not okay to ask transgender people about their genitals or what surgeries they have had. If someone wants to share the details of their transition with you, they will.

It’s also extremely disrespectful to use the incorrect pronouns for a transgender person on purpose. If you make a genuine mistake with a transgender person’s name or pronouns, you should apologize and let them know that you didn’t mean to hurt them.

Kristin Russo, the co-founder of Everyone Is Gay and The Parents Project, suggests “changing the subject and moving on” when asked a question that is uncomfortable to answer. She says, “Dannielle [the second co-founder] and I lean on humor,” but admits that it is very dependent on the situation and whether she’s in the mood to be informative, or if she just feels like walking away.

And if someone genuinely is curious about LGBTQ+ individuals, she suggests that they turn online, or watch First Person—a weekly YouTube series run by PBS Digital Studios and WNET Interactive Engagement Group that features a person who is queer or trans talking about their identity and experiences.

6. “Bisexuals don’t know what they want.”

Bisexual individuals in particular have a whole host of unique stereotypes associated with their identity—that they’re greedy, that they don’t know what they want, or that they’re sexually promiscuous, etc.

Emily Jones, a junior at Westfield State University, has been asked, "Are you more gay or straight?" many times. Hayden Dupuis, a senior at Westfield State University, has often heard, "Are you gay or straight? Because you can’t be both."

Pansexual people are also uniquely stereotyped alongside bisexuals for being confused, attention-seeking and are often the butt of jokes. “Oh, you’re pansexual, does that mean you’re attracted to kitchenware?” is one obnoxious question that Marissa Campbell, a junior at Framingham State University, is frequently asked. “I do not believe I get the same respect as someone who defines as either gay or straight because of it,” Campbell says.

7. “What’s your real name?”

This is a question that transgender individuals are asked all too often, and there’s no reason for it. All that matters is the name they want you to call them—that’s the only name you need to remember.

Malia believes that a lack of education is responsible for all the personal and offensive questions and statements people have for LGBTQ+ individuals. She suggests that people who get these kinds of questions should say, “I don’t really think that’s any of your business.” If you’re less outspoken, you could say that you don’t feel comfortable answering, or simply change the topic.

Christina Spaccavento, a counselor specializing in sex and relationships, says, “Always remember that what is most important is that you always maintain personal safety and that might mean biting your tongue if a situation could become potentially dangerous.” Even if it’s your first instinct to get into a heated debate with someone who has offended you, make sure you’re safe above all else. LGBTQ+ people are at a high risk for violent crimes, so deciding when to challenge someone’s opinion can be a balancing act.

8. “Have you ever dated/had sex with the opposite gender? Then how do you know you don’t like it?”

“How do you know you wouldn’t like it if you’ve never gone out with someone of the same sex?” is a retort that Macey often uses when she gets this question.

Asking someone this kind of question implies that people have to try something to know they wouldn’t like it. It’s sort of akin to asking an English major why they’re not a math major—how do they know they don’t want to study math intensively if they haven’t tried? People tend to know themselves pretty well, and these questions fall in line with the “it’s just a phase” saying.

Bendix explains it this way: “Queer people will always be confronted with the idea that their lives would be somehow ‘easier’ if they could conform to societal traditions. So even if a lesbian hasn't had sex with a guy, she doesn’t need to know it’s not for her, just like a straight person doesn’t need to have gay sex to know it’s not what they’re interested in.”

Let people speak for themselves instead of assuming that they don’t know what they want or who they are.

9. “You’ll change your mind once you meet the right person.”

This is commonly associated with those who are in a same-sex relationship or who come out as gay or lesbian, but it applies to people in the asexual spectrum as well. Asexual people all differ, but most identify as not being interested in sex, and some identify as not being interested in romance either.

“Some people just aren’t interested in romance or sex,” says Faith James, a freshman at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. It doesn’t matter to asexual people who they meet, because they’re still asexual, just like meeting a really attractive man doesn’t turn lesbian women straight.

10. “You don’t look/act queer.”

“[This comment] tries to enforce unfair stereotypes on people,” according to Alec Beaulieu, a junior at Springfield College, who has heard this assumption many times. There’s not one way to look or act LGBTQ+, since we’re all different. There’s no one way to look or act straight, or cisgender, either.

If someone says this to you, you can point out how silly and immature it is to lump people into categories.

If you find yourself wanting to ask an LGBTQ+ person a question that might be offensive or intrusive, or wanting to get into an in-depth discussion about their identity with them, take a moment to think about it first. Bendix urges people to think about why they’re asking the question first. “How does it help the LGBT person you are asking? Only if the situation is an attempt to provide this kind of information on the queer/trans person’s terms should these conversations be had.”

To be an ally to the LGBTQ+ community, you should try to become informed about the terminology that the community uses, and learn about common misconceptions and stereotypes so you can help combat them. Take the time to listen to LGBTQ+ individuals and hear their side of the story.

Sometimes well-meaning people can still say something that’s offensive. Kristin Russo urges everyone to remember that allies are “not the only people who might make a misstep.” Those in the LGBTQ+ community are just as capable of using harmful terminology or asking inappropriate questions, and she remembers to hold herself accountable and be open to learning opportunities. “I’m trying to remind myself that it’s okay to make mistakes,” she says.

People often tiptoe around queer people because they’re worried they’ll be offensive, but that assumes that we can’t sometimes enjoy a good-natured joke or a genuine curiosity. Instead, you should let the person know that you’re trying to stay informed, and that you want to ask a question or share an opinion. Make sure they know that if you cross a line, you want to be made aware, so you can change any problematic behaviors.  

If there’s one sentiment that everyone has in common, it’s this: education is the key to not coming off as rude or intrusive. Use the vast resources available online and in the media to learn about the terms that the LGBTQ+ community uses, and the issues that the community faces, before diving in to ask your own questions, and always be open to learning something new.

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