On LGBTQ+ editing: Language

This is the second in a mini-series of posts looking LGBTQ+ fiction editing. By LGBTQ+ fiction, I mean any fiction that features LGBTQ+ characters. From erotica to science fiction, stopping off at romance, fantasy and historical. No genre should now be without LGBTQ+ representation.

Last week, we looked at building authentic LGBTQ+ characters. This week, we’ll shift our focus to language.

What is the language of an LGBTQ+ book? What makes it authentically LGBTQ+?

Research is, as always, absolutely vital. You need to know when your book is set to understand the language used at that time. Because language changes. Especially language used by those who are, perhaps, marginalised or on the fringes of society.

Take, for instance, polari. Like Cockney rhyming slang, polari was used by those wanting to avoid detection by the undercover police. Although now effectively died out, if you were writing about gay characters in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries you would, in order to be authentic, need to pepper your dialogue with some appropriate terms.

And polari isn’t completely dead. We still have a lot of terms that have their origins in polari. If you’ve described something as naff you’ve used polari!

And whilst it might not be so secretive, today’s world of dating apps provides us with a whole new terminology. And outside of the world of secret languages, other terms change.

The author Garrick Jones (who’s excellent works you can find by reading the comments on this post) recently sent me a link to an excellent tool. Here you can see the development of terms for the male member.

And, of course, how sexuality is described has changed massively. Here is a quote from the Oxford English Dictionary:

“Both as an adjective and a noun, homosexual was for much of the first half of the 20th cent. the most widely accepted term used to refer to same-sex desire and activity, and to same-sex oriented individuals, especially men. While the term is still used in many formal contexts, from the 1960s onwards gay became preferred by many same-sex oriented men, who regarded homosexual as too formal and clinical, or as being associated with a history of the treatment of homosexuality as a medical or psychiatric condition and the criminalization of sex between men in many jurisdictions. When referring to same-sex desire and relations between women, the term lesbian is often preferred.”

Oxford English Dictionary

Language isn’t always used positively, either. Bear in mind, if it’s appropriate to your writing, how language is used and has been used to stereotype, to belittle or to put down LGBTQ+ people. Queer is one such word that can be used negatively by those outside the community but is also accepted within the community as an expression of someone’s identity. As always, context is key!

Coming out is, now, the term used for the open declaration of someone’s sexuality. But that hasn’t always been the case. In the early part of the twentieth century, coming out was more about becoming active, both socially and sexually, within the community. A subtle difference but it helps to set the scene of your book.

And then there’s pronouns. These seemingly insignificant words have a huge impact on our understanding of the character. He and she are wrapped up in loads of expectations. The singular they seems confusing to some many but, it’s been around for a very long time and must be used, especially if it’s part of someone’s gender expression or their own preferred pronoun.

Personal pronouns are known to cause a great deal of confusion and sometimes anger. Well, sod them! If you want to be Mx, be it. If you want to be they/them, be it. As writers and editors, we also need to be aware of what pronouns our characters use. Being true to characters is being true to the whole LGBTQ+ community so it matters.

Language is the tool we have to tell our stories. Getting it right is important and you can slave away for hours choosing the very best words. Language is always, and will continue to, evolve and change. It shapes who we are as individuals.

When writing about LGBTQ+ characters, bear in mind who they are. How do they identify? Think carefully as you write about your language choices. Is it right for the time? Is it right for the character?

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Published by Nick Taylor | Editor & Proofreader

Editor and proofreader specialising in LGBTQ+ writing, both fiction and non-fiction.

7 thoughts on “On LGBTQ+ editing: Language

  1. Another excellent article, Nick, and heads up for the mention. When I first visited London in the very, very early 70s, Polari was still alive and kicking. There was an adult club that showed movies upstairs in Praed Street, opposite Paddington station. You had to answer questions in Polari before you were allowed in. This fact brought to you courtesy of a long-gone friend who was the houseboy for a wonderful, eccentric woman named Calypso Brown, who’d been a vaudeville entertainer during WW1 and a once time lover of Edward VII.

    Language is everything. We Aussies have our own LGBTQ slang terms and language, something I’m always mindful of when writing. Choices between comprehensibility and authenticity.

    Thank you again for allowing me to high jack your exemplary post!

    1. As always, it’s a pleasure to read your comments. Never feel like you’re hijacking them!

      I’d never considered, although I should of course, considered that other countries and other cultures would have their own LGBTQ+ slang. How silly of me to overlook the international nature of the English language. I will dive into some research immediately!

  2. Thank you for this post. It’s important to remember how language changes over time. I’ve read otherwise well written historical fiction that used words like “queer” anachronistically. Also, different subcultures in the LGBTQ community have their own usages. For example, the meanings of terms as people in the leather and bear communities commonly use them can come as news to people outside those communities.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment. I really appreciate it!

      You’re absolutely right. So many subcultures will use different language and slang terms. I’d love, one day, to be able to compile them all. But, of course, by the time I got round to printing it, they’d all be out of date!

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