Terminology traps: LGBTI, LGBT, or perhaps just LGB?

Word cloud showing some of the many terms describing sexual and gender minorities. (Image courtesy of 123rf.com)
Word cloud showing some of the many terms describing sexual and gender minorities. (Image courtesy of 123rf.com)

In its latest report on violence against sexual minorities in Kenya, Human Rights Watch tackles the terminology troubles that come with the territory when trying to write respectfully, accurately and inclusively about people and groups that use a variety of labels for gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation.

A Note on Terminology

Selecting appropriate, accurate, and inclusive terminology to describe and classify individuals and groups on the basis of their gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation is challenging. Some Kenyan organizations restrict themselves to a discourse around lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) rights, acknowledging transgender activists’ arguments that it is inappropriate to use the term “LGBT” when one’s focus is on sexual orientation and does not include specific work around gender identity. Some organizations use the term “LGBTI,” to include intersex people, but intersex activists challenge the use of the term “LGBTI” when they find that those using the term are simply tokenizing intersex people but are not addressing their specific needs.

Due to the absence of intersex interview subjects in this research, we limit ourselves to the acronym “LGBT” (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender”) in describing our findings, while keeping in mind that intersex people on the coast and elsewhere in Kenya may experience similar violations. When citing the findings of other organizations that have documented abuses against intersex people, we adopt their use of the acronym “LGBTI.”

We also use the term “men who have sex with men” (MSM), a term used by public health practitioners in recognition of the fact that some men engaged in same-sex relations may not identify as gay or bisexual. The term MSM is an inclusive term which may include both those who identify as gay or bisexual and those who do not.

Finally, we found that gender identity was fluid or in flux for some of our interview subjects. Several individuals, whose sex had been assigned as male at birth but who partially or fully identified as female and who were sexually attracted to men, simultaneously described themselves as “gay” and as “transgender.” In one case, an individual described himself as a gay man when we interviewed him in 2014, but as a trans woman when we re-interviewed her in 2015.

Given the lack of awareness of transgender identities among many people in Kenya, the perpetrators of human rights abuses against gender non-conforming individuals are likely to perceive their targets as “gay.” Thus, at times we use the term “homophobia” while recognizing that transgender people, as well as lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, may be victims of homophobic discourse and conduct.

In the comments section below, feel free to mention:

  • Inaccurate or offensive terminology that you find particularly objectionable, and
  • Other useful guides to proper terminology, which might be added to this list.

Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, Erasing 76 Crimes. Contact him at info@76crimes.com.

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