Queer Writers: Our Words Matter

My gut told me something was off.

As I reviewed the copy edit of my memoir manuscript—my final chance to make any substantive changes to THE ONLY WAY THROUGH IS OUT—something bothered me about one sentence in Chapter 1, but I didn't know why.

I didn’t even know whether she was literate.

Straightforward, well-intentioned, and no one—not my book coach, my beta readers, my peer reviewers, or my editors—had flagged this particular sentence. If they didn't have a problem with it, maybe I shouldn't either.

I moved on to Chapter 2.

The next day, a post entitled: Words to Avoid—2023 Edition showed up on my social media feed.

And there it was, Word #4: illiterate.

Granted, my sentence contained the word "literate," not "illiterate," but it was close enough to get my attention and read on.

As a writer, I know that words matter—and I also know that I will sometimes get it wrong because language is constantly evolving.

I've learned to avoid "crazy," "insane," blindspot," "falling on deaf ears"—expressions that some in the disability community find offensive.

As Maya Angelou said, "when we know better, we can do better."

Here's what I learned about the use of the word "illiterate," from this post by Big Duck, a strategic communications company:

When communicating about literacy, we should always strive to avoid the term “illiterate.” For one thing, there are very few instances in which the term can be applied accurately and truthfully.

More often than not, people who are described as “illiterate” likely have a low level of literacy. This is because literacy is not a binary descriptor, as it is often made to seem. People are not either literate or illiterate, but are rather on a lifelong continuum of literacy and learning. 

Additionally, and equally important for communicators to keep in mind, “illiterate” is a deficit-based word. It focuses on what someone is unable to do instead of the fact that they are learning and growing. The label of being “illiterate” unfairly blames the individual for not having certain skills, rather than confronting the systemic issues that exist around education.

My intentions were good when I wrote I didn’t even know whether she was literate, I was describing an encounter I had with a woman who was in desperate need of help.

She had six young children, another on the way, her husband was in jail, and she wasn't able to pay her rent. In the scene, I am trying to assess her situation so I can try to help her. Does she even have a written lease for her rental, and if she does, does she understand the lease? Can she read it?

But that context was not clearly spelled out on the page. I made an assumption that my reader would understand the meaning behind I didn’t even know whether she was literate.

A second problem: the curse of the author's knowledge.

In addition to the problematic use of "literate," this sentence had a second problem. I had fallen victim to something I talk to my writers about ALL THE TIME: The curse of the author's knowledge.

Whether you are writing fiction or memoir, you, the author, know your story and your characters so well that you sometimes forget to fill your reader in on your insider knowledge. You make assumptions that the reader must know a certain fact or how a character feels about a particular situation, because it is oh-so-obvious to you!

It's rare for me to read through a set of client pages without asking a variation of the question: Why does [character] feel this way? Often the writer will give me a lengthy explanation, to which I respond: "Great! Now put that on the page!"

Possible solutions to fix my problematic sentence: 

I didn’t even know whether she was literate.

  1. I could take out the sentence completely. Maybe the scene could work without it.
  2. I could change the sentence to something like: "Even if there was a written lease, I didn't know Teresa's literacy level and whether she'd read or understood the lease's terms."
  3. Or this: "Even if there was a written lease, I didn't know whether Teresa had read it or understood its terms."

I like the third option best. It makes the point without any problematic blaming or binary language. Truth be told, it took me a while to get there, but I'm happy I made the effort. The point I was trying to make was important and now that I know better, I can do better.

Queer writers, we know how words can hurt.

Those of us in the queer community know how language has been—and continues to be—weaponized against us.

I considered listing all the slurs but I decided I didn't want to give them air time. You know what they are.

We know how language can hurt—intentionally or otherwise—and we have a responsibility to do better.

We can do better when we share our work or our questions about language with people who have different perspectives than our own—inside and outside the queer community.

Some questions about language don't have clear-cut answers.

I love how Jessi Hempel, author of the memoir The Family Outing, shares her journey about how she decided how to describe her brother Evan (who was assigned female at birth) before his transition.

Does she call Evan her sister, as she knew Evan until his transition, and then switch to calling him her brother? Does she use she/her pronouns before the transition and he/him after? It feels oh-so-confusing to the author, but when she talks to Evan, he says: "I'm just Evan. ... It's what I choose to be. Why is it hard to respect that?"

Jessi sits with his question and eventually comes to the decision that she will always refer to Evan as her brother and always use he/him pronouns:

"You'll know, even as I use the word "Evan," that Evan had a name before this. It's a name I won't tell you. To utter it would be to disrespect all the work he has done to find his way to Evan. The more you get to know him, the more you'll see the pronouns, and the names, don't matter at all ..."

So does that mean that this is the answer for every writer who is writing about a trans person pre-transition? What about if the writer is writing about themselves?

One writer in my WRITE YOURSELF OUT mentorship and community is grappling with how to talk about his pre-transition self in his work-in-progress memoir. He is comfortable using she/her pronouns and his birth name (sometimes referred to as a "dead name" in the queer community), but he recognizes that others might find that language troubling or triggering. I will continue to support him in wrestling with this question, to make the choice that feels right for him and his ideal readers.

Our job as a writer is to wrestle with the questions, not necessarily land on the “perfect” answer—because In many cases there may not be a perfect answer.

But there is a wrong answer: to be unconscious, stick our head in the sand, and pretend our words don’t matter.

Queer or straight, writers—your words matter.


  1. Pay attention to that voice inside you that says "something is off" in your writing. It probably means something is.
  2. Just because no one else noticed a problem, doesn't mean there isn't a problem. See #1.
  3. Share your work and/or your language questions with someone who has a different perspective than you do. Stay open, listen, and learn.
  4. Sometimes there is no one right answer but the wrong answer is to not wrestle with the questions about language, to stick your head in the sand. 
  5. Don't beat yourself up if you get it wrong the first time—whether it's using problematic language or falling victim to the curse of the author's knowledge. When we know better, we do better.

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