Recognizing and Respecting the LGBTQ+ Community By Charles Golaszewski W ords matter. As members of the legal community, we understand well that a comma here or an
adjective there can significantly affect how a statute or court decision is interpreted. Similarly, in speaking with one another, our word choices can greatly impact how listeners interpret what we say. In a given interaction, the use of certain words con- veys that the speaker recognizes that the listener is a person who deserves dignity and respect. While the use of other words may communicate the same basic informa- tion, an empathetic speaker does not use them to avoid offending the listener. Inevi- tably, even the most empathetic speaker will make mistakes, and listeners will be offended. When this occurs, our reaction cannot be to dismiss those insulted by our words as being “too sensitive.” Instead, if we truly believe that everyone is entitled to equal dignity and respect, we must apologize for the error, recognize the harm that we may have caused, and ensure that we will do our best to avoid committing similar mistakes going forward. Word choice has particularly unique and wide-ranging consequences when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community. A recent example of this impact occurred during the confirmation hearings of Amy Coney Barrett when the nominee received backlash for using the term “sexual prefer- ence” as opposed to “sexual orientation.” The outrage and anxiety that resulted from Barrett’s choice of words stem from the discrimination and indignities suf- fered by LGBTQ+ people for centuries. Sexual “preference” suggests that one’s sexual orientation is a choice rather than an immutable aspect of one’s identity. Classifying sexual orientation as a choice has led many to determine that being gay, lesbian, transgender, etc. is a wrong choice. Choices deemed wrong are subject to con- demnation and the ostracization of those who make those choices.
In the courtroom, many LGBTQ+ people face blatant homophobia or trans- phobia by court personnel. Following their day in court, LGBTQ+ individuals frequently report feeling uncomfortable during the experience. When addressing judges and lawyers, many indicate that they felt pressured to act in accordance with societal expectations at the expense of their own identity. Individuals assigned male at birth feel pressured to act more “masculine” by, for example, lowering their voice. Similarly, individuals assigned female at birth feel compelled to dress in a more “traditionally feminine” manner. Transgender and gender nonconforming people regularly have negative experiences in court. As a prosecutor, I have person- ally observed attorneys, deputies, clerks,
When members of the LGBTQ+ com- munity suffer indignities due to the word choices of others, it shapes their views of the institutions that tolerate and perpetuate those word choices. An important example of this is how mistreatment by police offi- cers, lawyers, judges, and members of the penal system have affected how LGBTQ+ individuals regard the criminal justice system. Several studies and surveys reveal that LGBTQ+ individuals are less likely to report crimes to police out of fears that they will be victimized a second time. They also often feel that they will not be believed or that their cases will be poorly handled. When these victims do contact the police, many of them, especially transgender people, have experienced verbal, sometimes physical, harassment by officers.