LGBTQ+ language in historical fiction

LGBTQ+ language changes

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

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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.

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.

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LGBTQ+ language in fiction

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?

Some things to consider

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?”

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A reader’s understanding

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.

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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”.

Not sure?

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

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.

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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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