LGBT Life

No, It’s Not a Lifestyle

Being gay or transgender isn’t a choice, so it’s inaccurate and misleading to describe it as a “lifestyle.”

By - Feb 10th, 2015 09:53 am
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“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.

Categories: LGBT Life, Politics

13 thoughts on “LGBT Life: No, It’s Not a Lifestyle”

  1. Dave says:

    Just want to say I enjoy reading these pieces. I hope they are a regular addition to Urban Milwaukee.

  2. Caity says:

    Thanks for tackling this complicated issue. I’ve found MKE to be generally pretty tolerant to LGBT people but perhaps lacking in a real community, especially for us Ls, and for sure in informed discussions. I think this calls for a deeper discussion of what is being implied or signified by the awful phrase “gay lifestyle.” I’m a staunch believer that I was born this way, and that even if I was choosing to be gay, that shouldn’t matter and it’s absolutely my choice who I spend, er, time with. Even then, this wouldn’t be a lifestyle. Who I date and love isn’t a consumer choice. The problem probably stems from the fact that the word “lifestyle” is so vague and versatile. The fact that “gay lifestyle” implies a choice is, of course, inaccurate, but it also reveals an inherent bias in the way we characterize or think about LGBT people as somehow ‘Other’ in terms of everyday life. It’d be great if we could all somehow start a larger community discussion not about PC language so much as the ways in which we conceptualize LGBT people and so frequently reduce their identities to sexual acts rather than deep-seated, irrevocable parts of who they are. But easier said than done, I suppose.

  3. Amy Horst says:

    Thank you for this! “Lifestyle” is a terrible locution. (And you have a beautiful family.)

  4. tapps says:

    yes! a million times yes! it’s just like people mentioning the “homosexual agenda”… which for me just includes my shopping list. and a “gay wedding”… because… why do we need to distinguish between types of marriages when they all function the same? (i mean, do i “gay drive” to work? or “gay grocery shop”?)

    there’s definitely plenty of public eduction that is still needed. i am hopeful, though, because I have seen how far we have come in such a short time.

    here’s to progress!

  5. Aaron Eggers says:

    While I agree that same sex attraction is not a choice, I think what one does with that is very much a choice or series of choices.

  6. PMD says:

    Meaning what exactly Aaron? Someone should pretend they are straight their entire life?

  7. AG says:

    People get so worked up over simple words. “Lifestyle” is just all the aspects that make up how someone lives… it’s not all by choice. Getting offended by a word like that usually stems from the offended persons mind alone and not from any actual attack or intention by the offender. So too with the term “gay wedding.” Yes, it’s “just a wedding” but it’s also a wedding with homosexuals. Heaven forbid it’s described for what it is… I don’t go around shaming people for mentioning they’re in their “second marriage” vs just saying “marriage” alone. That’s probably because… it just is what it is.

  8. PMD says:

    Sorry AG but you’re wrong. My homophobic father-in-law is constantly ranting and raving about having “gay people shove their lifestyle down his throat.” Seriously if I had a nickel for every time he went on a tirade about this, I’d be buying my own private island along with a professional sports team or two. I used to argue with him but now I just ignore it. But yeah, I have direct experience with someone using “lifestyle” to attack. And he means to be offensive.

  9. AG says:

    I think his comments are more offensive than the fact he uses the word lifestyle.

  10. PMD says:

    Maybe, but he is using the word lifestyle to attack, because he believes it’s a choice, and he honestly thinks they choose the “lifestyle” to stick it to people like him. He truly thinks he’s a victim of them.

  11. Kyle says:

    When we were having this same word-choice discussion about white priviledge, you dismissed those using the term to attack others as the fringe, to be ignored. It seems in this case, you’re related to the fringe. There’s no malice in the question this article leads with, “We want our employees to know their homosexual lifestyle is ok.” There’s just an expression of heterosexual priviledge.

  12. PMD says:

    Oh I am related to the fringe Kyle. And my father-in-law is hardly the only homophobic relative I have, or that my wife has. There are a lot of them in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Alabama. I am not suggesting that every use of the word “lifestyle” is mean-spirited attack. Just that I personally know people who use it very derisively, and as part of frequent attacks on the LGBT community.

  13. LiberalLez says:

    I love how this article is categorized under “LGBT Life”, yet “lifestyle” is the demon word here. Simply put, we (is it older – or more emotionally mature?) LGBT folks are okay with the word lifestyle. We pride ourselves on living life as gay people – therefore, “lifestyle” doesn’t offend. Let’s be clear – words like “faggot”, “queen”, “dyke”, and phrases like “carpet muncher” and “fudge packer” are far more (and meant to be) offensive. It’s not about accepting “lifestyle”, it’s about accepting that norms are still changing. Soapboxing about a word that isn’t meant to be a judgment doesn’t do us much good, really. Let’s just say, “I prefer not using the word ‘lifestyle’…” rather than so harshly attempting to “school” our allies.

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