Think Before You Speak By Tina Phillips
February 11, 2011
Previously published in The Pioneer
I have heard the word “lifestyle” used with increased frequency lately. I have heard it used to describe a “healthy” lifestyle, a “bohemian” lifestyle, or a “hip hop” lifestyle. It is difficult for me to understand exactly what that is supposed to mean. I suppose “lifestyle” means a way of life. I do not much care for the term because it can be vague and pigeonholes people. Furthermore, what I really question is why the term “lifestyle” is applied to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community?
As a gay person when I hear someone refer to my life, sexual identity, and sexuality as a “lifestyle,” “lifestyle choice,” "alternative lifestyle," or as a “choice,” it makes me cringe. Another term that I reject is “sexual preference”—which also denotes that there is a choice involved or like I just prefer one thing over another. I strongly feel that I was born gay—although sexuality can also be fluid throughout one’s life and shift and change. I advocate accepting wherever someone is at any given moment in their life.
There are many biological studies indicating that sexuality is not a choice. When someone refers to who I am as being a “lifestyle,” it denotes that I chose to be this way when in fact I did not. Many young people are now coming out at age 10-12, way before they could actually make a conscious choice to be LGBT. Also many LGBT people recognize themselves as non-heterosexual as early as 5 years old, when they look back on their lives.
If you think about it… LGBT people face such discrimination and rejection from people in society that it makes no sense that being gay would be a choice one would choose. Would you choose to be ridiculed, isolated, called names, teased, bullied, beat up, hated, made to feel disgusting, kicked out of your house and rejected by your own parents and family? Would you choose to be a target of hate crimes, sexual assault, and murder and be at an increased risk for depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide? I doubt it. Not that being LGBT is a death sentence—most LGBT people grow up to live wonderful lives but that does not mean we do not still struggle with discrimination and stigma (which needs to be combated).
Besides that, most people want to fit in to society. Wanting to fit in is just one example of why being LGBT as a young person is extremely difficult and often times is very painful for a young person to admit to themselves they are non-heterosexual, let alone come out to anyone else. There is a lot of fear surrounding this issue because no one wants to be rejected, feel different, and looked down on.
So that gets back to my original point. When someone refers to the life of a LGBT person as a “lifestyle” or a “choice” it demeans LGBT people. For example would anyone who is heterosexual refer to their heterosexuality as a “lifestyle choice” or even a “lifestyle”? Of course not! It becomes apparent that the label of “lifestyle” is not an accurate description but really a misnomer. It is applied to the LGBT community to further marginalize LGBT people and make being non-heterosexual appear taboo.
Being LGBT is intrinsic to who one is and encompasses many complex things about one’s life. It is not just about sexuality it is about culture, love, relationships, and family too. We often times fall in love with the same sex and can have long term commitments with people of the same-sex – start families together and raise children. We deserve validation and respect for who we are.
It is important that people are validated in their sexuality and affirmed. Doing so helps to raise their self-confidence and self-acceptance. If a person feels accepted by others they are more likely to accept themselves and grow to have a positive self-concept and image. Using words like “lifestyle,” “choice” and “preference” disempower LGBT people and make them feel inferior to heterosexual people. I have heard teachers at this very school use that term to refer to gay people. I have heard it in the media, and I have even read it in assigned reading. It is unacceptable.
Using these terms is a subtle cue that you are not accepting of gay people. I hope for the sake of the young people and others you encounter, you would choose not to use these words because of the negative impact and effect it has on others’ self-concept. Unfortunately many people use those terms so it is easy to them pick up from our society and the media. That is why we all have to work hard to be conscious of what is coming out of our mouths and think before we say things that could have a negative impact on others.
Recently there has been much talk in the media about suicides mostly by LGBT young people who were bullied for being LGBT or because they were perceived as LGBT just because they did not conform to gender norms. It is very sad and it is an outrage. We need to do everything we can to prevent things like this from happening.
So what I am asking is if you can make a commitment to not use the terms “lifestyle,” “choice,” or “preference” to describe LGBT people, to reject it when you see it used in text books etc., and confront others who use those terms so they know that those terms are not okay to use.
Could you imagine what a LGBT young person must go through on a daily basis? When everyone they know uses those terms and worse, if you were to use them too they will just reinforce the idea that there is something wrong with them. Try to encourage those around you to accept who they are by using words that make them feel good about themselves. I prefer sexual identity, sexuality, or sexual orientation as good words to use. We can all do our part to encourage the safety and mental health of our community.