Sticks & Stones: Why inclusive words matter

Smiling woman in front of red wall

Words are powerful.

While we’d all like to pretend that only “sticks and stones can break our bones” and that “words will never hurt us”, the truth is that they can hurt and they do—especially for people who face routine discrimination for their gender, sexual orientation, race or anything else that makes them stand out in their communities.

For LGBTQ2+ people, most of whom have encountered these words in less than pleasant circumstances countless times throughout their lives, these terms range from the overtly aggressive ones we all know to the common turns of phrase that seem innocuous at first but, when examined with a critical eye (or ear!), reveal themselves to be harmful as well (like calling something “gay” as a substitute for “stupid” or “tranny” or “transexual” when referring to a transgendered person).

Language is constantly evolving in response to our evolving society—many words that are unconscionable and archaic now were considered completely normal just a generation or two ago. Who would have thought we’d ever see “LOL” added to the Oxford English Dictionary (this actually happened in 2020: “LOL, v.: “intransitive. To laugh out loud; to be amused. Cf. LOL int.”). Change is a good thing, and keeping on top of it is a great way to stay culturally engaged and current (but perhaps saying “LOL” out loud during your next conversation is taking it a step too far).

While most of us pride ourselves on not being prejudiced, everyone slips up now and then, potentially hurting someone in the process. When this happens (as it does to the best of us!), the important thing to remember is to not feel badly or embarrassed, or to get defensive. It doesn’t mean we’re bad people! These moments are just an opportunity to learn and do better next time.

Derogatory or insensitive words are made powerful by years of being used to oppress others (either intentionally or unintentionally). For one person, being called a derogatory term might be easily brushed aside while, for others, it may conjure up a traumatic history of abuse or bullying. That’s why we all must be thoughtful—but not fearful—of what we say, so that we can work together to make Canada a welcoming and great place to age for us all.

To learn more about what certain words referring to LGBTQ2+ people mean, as well as words to avoid, check out this guide created by GLAAD.

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Part of our Pride 2020 post series. 

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