Being gay or transgender isn’t a choice, so it’s inaccurate and misleading to describe it as a “lifestyle.
“We want our employees to know their homosexual lifestyle is ok.”
My mind scrambled. This potential client was very astute in reaching out for help with addressing her employees. Yet her choice of words offered a teachable moment not to be passed up.
“So what goes into your heterosexual lifestyle?” I asked. No response.
Knowing she and I both have a son, I asked her, “Is getting your child ready for school, doing homework, or practicing piano and getting your own work done part of your heterosexual life? “
“Yes,” she replied.
“Do you think of yourself as living a heterosexual lifestyle?”
“No,” she replied. “Of course not.”
“Well, I don’t think of myself as having a homosexual life either. My life consists of figuring out what to make for dinner, how to get my son to do his school work, finding time to talk to my spouse, and doing my work.”
Referring to being LGBT as a lifestyle is both inaccurate and offensive.
Lifestyle implies a choice. There is no way anyone is choosing to be something that is ridiculed, has less rights, costs more, and is not popular in your culture. If being gay or transgender were a choice, most LGBT people would simply choose to be heterosexual.
Lifestyle is a way of styling your life, be it a Harley enthusiast, outdoor fanatic or Martha Stewart devotee. Each of these conjures a picture in our head of what that person might be interested in, how their home and clothing might look, what type of classes they might attend or even the food they might select. Lifestyles can change too based on income, interests and popular culture. In Milwaukee we would never imagine someone becoming interested in BMW motorcycles instead of Harley, but it could happen. And Martha Stewart’s time in prison might have lost and gained her some fans. We might not like a person’s lifestyle choice, but it’s unlikely we would fire someone, not speak to them, or worse, disown them over it. Their finances and legal rights probably wouldn’t be affected either.
But this problematic word, lifestyle, is so commonly used that even some (often older) gay people think it’s ok to describe being gay as a choice. I was at an equality event in Milwaukee where a gay man 50+ years of age said something about his gay lifestyle when speaking to the group. It took everything for me to not pull him aside and point out his internalized homophobia. He is living a life and he happens to be gay. I want to welcome him into the 21st Century.
A new era in LGBT equality was marked in January 2015 when President Obama became the first president to use the words bisexual and transgender in a State of the Union address:
“As Americans, we respect human dignity, even when we’re threatened,” the president said, adding later, “That’s why we defend free speech, and advocate for political prisoners, and condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. We do these things not only because they are the right thing to do, but because ultimately they will make us safer.”
Social media blew up. LGBT people couldn’t believe the validation, that their president saw them and honored their existence by saying what they were: lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
But the word lifestyle has bled into our vocabulary at such an alarming rate, it is an epidemic even amongst our allies. Just five days after his State of the Union address, President Obama slipped during a YouTube interview:
“I think people know that treating folks unfairly, even if you disagree with their lifestyle choice …” and later: “Let them live their lives and under the law they should be treated equally, even if you disagree with their lifestyle choice …”
Obama getting it wrong in an off-the-cuff interview and right when he had time to practice with speech writers guiding him shows how engrained this phrasing is in our culture.
Recently, Mike Huckabee has also been in the news for his misuse of the word ‘lifestyle’ in speaking about LGBT people during CNN interviews.
No one should say lifestyle in relation to sexual or gender orientation — ever. I don’t care if you are the President, a Republican presidential candidate, or an Urban Milwaukee reader. It’s not accurate and it’s demeaning. Imagine if we started calling our African American friends negroes?
What terms might you use instead of lifestyle? Here are two: “sexual orientation” and “gender identity”: both help describe the fact that LGBT people are different, but not through choice.
Soon, the Supreme Court is going to be holding a hearing on marriage equality. So the issue will be in the news and will be getting discussion, and inevitably the words “lifestyle” and “choice” will be wrongly used to describe what LGBT people inherently are. I hope you’ll think about your own word choices when you talk about this.