As every attorney knows, proper attorney-client communications are essential for effective representation of a client. For attorneys who represent LGBT clients, this might mean familiarizing yourself with wholly new terminology. It’s essential to understand the terms that your client is using, as well as to recognize that usage of certain terms might differ depending on your client’s particular background. For example, an aging LGBT client might find a particular word offensive while a younger LGBT client might use that same word freely (more on that below!)
Lawline’s program, Advocating for the LGBT Aging Community, defines the phrases you’re most likely to encounter when speaking with your client. Importantly, it also provides terms to avoid and cautions attorneys against making common mistakes. Here are some helpful tips to remember when you’re speaking with your clients:
Be careful not to conflate sexual orientation with gender identity.
For example, someone who identifies as transgender may not identify as gay. If you’re not familiar with these terms, refer to An Ally’s Guide to Terminology or the Human Rights Campaign’s Glossary of Terms. These are helpful resources that will guide you in your work.
Be mindful of generational differences within the LGBT community.
As in any community, understand that you might encounter several generational differences within the LGBT community.
For example, be cautious with use of the term “queer.” Younger LGBT individuals often use this word as an empowerment tool. For aging LGBT clients, however, this word is laced with historical context and could be particularly harmful. “Homosexual” is another word that older clients might find offensive. While it seems like an innocent word now, older clients might associate this term with the time period when certain homosexual acts were criminalized and the term was used in a highly stigmatized way.
Additionally, many older clients grew up during a period when issues of sexual orientation or gender identity were not often discussed or recognized. Consequently, they might be unfamiliar with some of the terminology you’re using. Additionally, some terms like “intersex” or “cisgender” have only recently entered the vernacular.
Listen to your client.
If you’re not sure what vocabulary is appropriate, politely ask your client what language they prefer. Most importantly, listen carefully when your client is speaking. Use the terms they feel comfortable with.
Angelica is a Program Attorney with Lawline. She graduated cum laude from Amherst College in 2008 and holds a B.A. in Women's and Gender Studies and a Certificate in Latino and Latin American Studies. She received her J.D. from Columbia Law School in 2013 and is admitted to practice law in New York and New Jersey. Before joining Lawline, Angelica worked as a labor & employment litigation attorney. Outside of work, Angelica mentors a bright and funny high school student and serves on the Board of Directors of the TEAK Fellowship. During her free time, Angelica loves to read, try new foods, and spend time with her wife, daughter, and her dog, Scotty.