By choice or by chance, many jobs involve conscious language, such as writing, copyediting, parenting, teaching, managing, training, customer service, marketing, negotiation, persuasion, counseling, law, and meditation. In our “Conscious Language at Work” Q&A series, we spotlight people in our community who use language mindfully to support and enhance the work they do.
Sarah M. Vitorino, PhD, is part of a team that trains and coaches social service professionals on best practices and competencies for supporting LGBTQ+ youth in systems of care through the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s RISE Project. She specializes in combating stereotypes and internalized bias and implementing self-care tactics for LGBTQ+ competency trainers and advocates, as well as promoting positive well-being among LGBTQ communities and their allies. She holds a PhD in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies from Emory University and a BA in psychology from Westfield State University.
What role does conscious language play in your profession?
When training social workers, care providers, and foster parents on LGBTQ competency, it is absolutely vital to use language that is inclusive and accurate. When developing curriculum, our goal is to provide them with language they can use to connect to youth while also informing them about language that could alienate. For example, if an audience member asks a question using a biased term, it is the trainer’s role to call out the underlying bias and offer a more appropriate term.
What are your main goals with using conscious language?
Conscious language, for me, is language that is empowering, respectful, and inclusive. To use language in a conscious way is to dismantle some of the ways it has been used to oppress or exclude certain individuals or groups.
When language consistently makes room for the diversity of experiences possible, it can be incredibly empowering and humanizing, particularly for those who are largely invisible. We opt for conscious language that recognizes the legitimacy of people’s experiences while challenging myths that are often perpetuated about the queer community.
Give us some examples.
We encourage the use of words like sexual orientation or gender identity rather than words that imply choice, such as lifestyle or sexual preference.
When language consistently makes room for the diversity of experiences possible, it can be incredibly empowering and humanizing.
How ideal is this terminology for widespread adoption, and why?
It’s not realistic to imagine everyone using the same terminology at the same exact time. There are cultural differences, generational gaps, as well as room for the individual to identify which terms feel right for them.
It is quite common to have an individual identify with a term and create their own meaning around it. In fact, it is rare to find a handful of people who identify with one label define it in exactly the same way.
How did it come about?
The terminology we use comes from best practice recommendations from psychology and social work experts.
How much flexibility do you have with the terminology you use?
Flexibility of terminology is built into the philosophy behind our training for supporting youth, in that we recommend that care providers allow the youth to self-define. From there, workers should support the youth in whatever their identity and understanding of that identity may be.
It is quite common to have an individual identify with a term and create their own meaning around it.
What specific terminology is challenging, and why?
Terminology is most challenging when we are translating it across cultures and languages. It can be difficult to translate certain concepts, depending on the structure of the language as well as cultural references.
What are the consequences, if any, of not using language mindfully? Tell us about some cases from personal experience.
Some consequences include leaving certain groups out, which is a form of cultural annihilation. The LGBTQ acronym, though intending to be inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer folks, inherently leaves out those who are not named, or who do not identify under the queer umbrella. Countless identities are not included even in the extended version, LGBTTQQIAP2-SA+. The danger of an acronym is that it can leave out groups while also becoming incredibly unwieldy as groups are included.
Tell us about a time you experimented with finding ideal terminology and the results.
We have observed that social workers and care providers are often uninformed about respectful, affirming terminology or approaches for working with LGBTQ and gender-variant youth. One of our major successes comes in the form of myth-busting that LGBTQ youth are not sexual predators or confused—essentially deconstructing heterosexist and biased myths that are perpetuated against the community.
We have instructed folks about the importance of respecting a youth’s identity and gender expression by using the appropriate name and pronoun provided by the youth. This alone has prevented a number of social workers from referring to youth by incorrect names, pronouns, and quite literally, not using the word it when referring to their young clients.
The danger of an acronym is that it can leave out groups while also becoming incredibly unwieldy as groups are included.
What resources do you recommend for those wanting to learn more?
- Statistics on LGBT youth in foster care from The Williams Institute in collaboration with the RISE Project, called the LA Foster Youth Survey.
- Study by the Family Acceptance Project that is very helpful for understanding the impact of family rejection on LGBTQ youth, including statistics on the health consequences (which includes religious condemnation).
- In The Life Media (no longer in operation) created a few videos that help showcase the experience of LGBT youth in foster care, homelessness, and juvenile detention: (1) Foster Care’s Invisible Youth, (2) Our Bodies, Our Rights (juvenile justice), (3) A Day in Our Shoes (homelessness).
- A recent profile of LGBT youth in the juvenile justice system by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative revealed a staggering overrepresentation.
- A 2012 study by The Williams Institute includes statistics on the number of LGBT youth who are homeless.
- AB1856 requires LGBT sensitivity training for foster parents and care providers.
- Continuum of Care Reform (AB403) will begin phasing out most of the group homes in California. This legislation may disproportionately impact LGBT youth, who are twice as likely to end up in group homes (see LA Foster Youth Survey above). Statewide efforts will be crucial in recruiting safe, LGBT-competent foster families for these youth.
Anything else you would like readers to know?
Conscious language is extremely important. There are also levels of awareness that must be taken into consideration when introducing conscious language. For example, we don’t walk into a training space and use concepts that we have not yet defined. For some audiences, the conversation that sex and gender are separate already takes hours to comprehend. There is an educational process that needs to take place while, at the same time, an unlearning of myths and misinformation that they’ve internalized.
We recommend that care providers allow the youth to self-define.
In addition, many folks carry bias against folks who are outside of heteronormative ideas or the gender binary. This can act as a serious barrier to promoting or even simply using conscious language. When the learning curve is so large, sometimes the triage approach works best, when we focus on ensuring folks are performing conscious and affirming behaviors, even as their language continues to evolve.
Quote or motto that you live by?
“Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.”—Rumi
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