LGBTQ+ language in historical fiction

February is LGBTQ+ History Month (in the UK). Last week, we looked at when to set your LGBTQ+ book, this week we’ll consider language through time.

Language evolves constantly. English, a language known for taking on words from different places, is always growing, changing and adapting.

This is especially true when it comes to language that is used by marginalised groups. The LGBTQ+ community has always had its own language. When we write, we need to ensure that our language accurately and sensitively reflects the community.

There can be a fine line between accuracy and sensitivity. Take the word “queer”.

Since it’s first use in relation to sexuality in 1894, it’s had a complicated story. A slur and a self-identifying term at the same time. And the word moved from having its duality, to being a slur to being reclaimed by the community. While some are still wary of using the word, for some it has been very liberating and has become their label.

Using the word in fiction is going to require a little thought for the writer and the editor. It’s not as simple as saying, “this was the language of the time”.

When it comes to editing, I ask myself a series of questions that will apply not just to the word “queer” but to many other words:

  • Is the word necessary to the story?
  • Is the word, in context, appropriate for the character?
  • Is the word, in context, going to cause offense or hurt to readers today?

There are, of course, many other considerations. But these three thoughts guide my overall thinking.

When writing historical fiction, it is likely that you are going to want to use words that were in use at the time. It sets the scene beautifully and takes the reader to the time in history when your book is set, fully immersing them in the world you are creating.

But this can cause a few issues for readers.

First, you must ask yourself, “Will the reader understand this language?”

If you wrote a book set in 1950s Britain, you might like to have your gay characters use Polari (or more about this, see Paul Baker’s fabulous book, Fabulosa!). This short film shows just how confusing the language could be to people not familiar with the terminology! Although a lot of it has lingered, a whole novel might confuse readers.

The second consideration is that of the understanding of readers of today to language of yesterday.

This is where writing and editing with sensitivity is important. Just because it was used, doesn’t mean that we can use it today. It’s not as simple as a list of “good words” and “bad words”. The context, the author, the character and the tone of the narrative are all going to play a part in deciding whether a word is acceptable.

Understanding the readers’ expectations and backgrounds is also going to be an important consideration. Regardless of the time setting you have chosen to write in, if you are writing for children you are likely going to avoid out and out slurs!

Editing LGBTQ+ fiction requires the editor (whether a professional editor or if you are self-editing), to really consider the language, the time and the reader. While authenticity is very important, so is sensitivity. We don’t need to perpetuate old slurs, just because it was used “at the time”.

If you are unsure about language, what can you do?

  • Ask an authenticity (sometimes called a sensitivity reader)
  • Ask someone from the community
  • Find an editor that specialises (you can always get in touch with me to ask questions!)

Remember, language is always evolving. The words we use today will, one day, be seen completely differently.

The language we use, and the language we used, is kept alive in the stories we tell. So tell our stories with authenticity and sensitivity.

For more information about LGBTQ+ language, I recommend the books The Queen’s English, by Chloe O. Davis and The A-Z of Gender and Sexuality by Morgan Lev Edward Holleb. These books sit on my desk and remind me of the richness of the language we, as LGBTQ+ people, have.

Nick (he/him) is an editor and proofreader, specialising in LGBTQ+ writing. He is an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and a member of PEN, the Professional Editors Network.

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Published by Nick Taylor | Editor & Proofreader

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

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