Social Justice Advocates Handbook: A Guide to Gender Understanding

Flowchart: when it’s okay to say “gay”

by Sam Killermann · 51 comments

in Edugraphics,Printable Resources

When I published my original flowchart, I said it was for the more analytical folks who are wondering if “gay” is the right word choice for them.  Well, this one is for the most analytical folks, and also folks who enjoy data presented in cute and adorable ways.

"I want to say gay" FlowchartView the Hi-Resolution .JPGDownload Printable .PDF

Oh, and as usual, my readers are way smarter than I am, and I wanted to give a special thanks to Bob Black for his comments on the original flowchart that led me to create this far superior version.

Written by Sam Killermann

Sam is a writer and performer who uses those skills as an ally to advance progress in the realms of LGBT equality and social justice. He tours the country speaking to college students about stereotypes, prejudice, and oppression, and writes for this site when he's at home in Austin, TX.

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  • Guy Rintoul

    Haha, definitely one for the analytical folks :) IMHO it misses out “is
    it said in jest?”, “do you know the person?” and “is it meant offensively?”…
    but those are all up for debate and depend on your POV, I guess!

    • Samuel Killermann

      Hey Guy, 

      Thanks for the comment!  And I agree – those are certainly up for debate.  Let’s do that :)

      I don’t buy into the “it’s the thought that matters” thing.  I thought I wrote an article about that (I was looking to link), but I guess I didn’t :)  Here’s the quick and dirty:

      If you didn’t mean to hit someone with your car, but hit them, you hit them, right?  Well, it works the same way with language.  If you say something that leads someone to feel uncomfortable, hurt, hated, offended, etc., it doesn’t matter if you didn’t mean to.  You did.

      That’s why I don’t support the use of any identity-centric language as anything but that.  Using such words jokingly, even just amongst friends where “nobody will be offended,” normalizes their potentially harmful use and perpetuates the problem.

      • Guy Rintoul

        Hmm, I see the argument but I’m not sure I buy it :)

        First off, the car example is a bit obtuse because while (rightly or wrongly) you can normalise emotional damage, you can’t normalise physical damage. There’s a case to be made that you can normalise offensive or hateful speech by “reclaiming it as your own”, and it’s a good way to fight back against it – it removes the power from those who would otherwise seek to hurt. I kind of buy that… reclaiming the word “queer” means that it’s one less word homophobes have in their arsenal to cause real deep emotional upset. With the car example, on the other hand, if you keep hitting someone with a car it will cause physical damage every time – you can’t “reclaim” it. But anyway, maybe that’s a bit pedantic on my part – the key point is about reclaiming the word.

        The other key thing is that there’s also a school of thought that offence is in the eye of the beholder, and while you can try to mitigate offensiveness by moderating what you say when you know that those in your company may be offended (which, of course, is common courtesy) there will always be SOMEONE who has the potential to get upset by a comment you thought was completely innocent. So in that case, how is it then ever possible to draw the line as to what is offensive? Surely the take-away is that we should just try to treat others with respect in the context of our relationship with them and who they are, rather than trying to set down some kind of hard-and-fast rules about what it’s acceptable to say?

        • Samuel Killermann

          (Yeah, I think the reclaiming a word thing is a different idea for a different day, so I’m going to leave that one alone for now :) )

          You’re completely right: the school of thought that I’m advocating is that offense is in the eye of the offended.  It may not be perfect, but can you think of a better alternative?  
          Offense in the eye of the offender is dangerous and impractical – I can’t imagine any civil rights ever being granted if this line of thought were 100% supported.  And a third-party would simply have to determine the worth of both arguments and make a decision if someone was actually offended or not.

          And it’s perfectly reasonable to set down basic rules about what is and isn’t acceptable to say; we’ve been doing it for years – it’s called courtesy.  Here would could say if you’re trying to be a compassionate person, using identity-based language to convey negativity isn’t acceptable.  It doesn’t matter if that person is okay with it (e.g., your friend is a Jew who makes fun of Jews all the time) or nobody around identifies with the word you’re using (e.g., making “Black” jokes with no Black people around).  In all situations you’re conveying/reinforcing the idea that X-identity is attached to Y-deficiency.

          The no matter what you say SOMEONE might be offended argument is a bit lazy.  It’s tantamount to arguing slippery slope.  What I’m suggesting with this graphic (and in general) is much broader in scope that SOMEONE – it’s focusing on a whole subsection of population of someones.

          Guess I need to write that article after all :) I always do a better job of putting my thoughts together there than here.

  • ProudBandMom

    I saw the original and then the updated version of this and love it. I have something to add, a prospective you might not have considered. Over the past weekend, I chaperoned my son’s high school drumline competition trip to Dayton, Ohio. 31 students, riding on a school bus at night, approaching a bridge near the University of Dayton. The bridge was lit from underneath by various colors and the lights reflected in the water. I don’t know if it was in honor of Friday’s Day of Silence or if that particular bridge always has rainbow lights on it, but it was beautiful. I smiled at my son, who was taking in the colors as well and saying how pretty it was. I replied, loud enough for all the students sitting around us to hear, “Oh my god, that bridge is gay!”

    The point wasn’t to be offensive in using the word in the ‘wrong’ context but to raise awareness and open dialogue among teenagers. My son’s friends know him to be a very outspoken ally and his closest friends know about my sexual orientation. The remark led into a positive discussion of gay rights, the Day of Silence activities that they were missing out on at school by traveling to the competition and the hypocrisy they see in the ‘adult’ world.

    I may have used the word in the wrong context…but I feel I used it appropriately in order to open a conversation with the children on the bus. It was a very rewarding conversation.

    • Samuel Killermann

      Hi there!  Based on what you described here, that sounds like it was a very appropriate use of the word and I would say it falls into the “is it anything that has to do with gay culture?” caveat.  While the bridge doesn’t seem to be something that was explicitly supporting LGBT+ equality, you drew a solid parallel.  

      And I’m always a sucker for teachable moments, even if it means using words incorrectly or “unacceptably.”  In social justice training we might call that an example of “jilting,” and I find it to be an effective way to begin a conversation, particularly with young people.
      Thanks for sharing!  :)

  • Kerrihurman

    I want one Sam! :-)

    • Samuel Killermann

      Noted :)  If I get 30-40 I can do a presale/Kickstarter to get some made.

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  • Trista

    Sam, this would make a lovely shirt. (:

  • Gloucester136

    What about the use of the word in its original, non-orientation usage?

    • Samuel Killermann

      Gay no longer means happy, at least in a general, contemporary society sense. Webster and (perhaps) folks over 70 are the only ones who hear “gay” and first think “merry” (and I’d argue that most 70+ers aren’t even likely to think that). If someone is using gay that way, they are likely to be constantly misunderstand, confuse their poor friends, and create weird friction.

  • Scott

    Very neat – though it would’ve been nice if it included the idea that only some men who like men are gay.  Others are also attracted to women.  Once I asked a man out by intentionally including the possibility that he was bi – and he was quite impressed.

    • Samuel Killermann

      That’s definitely the downside to this graphic, Scott.  It’s not very bi-/poly-/pan-inclusive.  But I think baby steps are in order.

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  • JJ

    What? I am not allowed to say gay for happy anymore? What a strange world the 21st century is.

    • Samuel Killermann

      Nope.  Not allowed.  Read the clouds!  


  • Amber

    What about a woman who likes women who does identify as gay? Or queer?

    • Amber

      Oh, I missed that arrow that goes UP. Sorry, I think so linearly. 

      • Samuel Killermann


  • C.

    Seriously – it also means ‘happy’. It is ridiculous not to include that meaning and frankly makes the flow chart irrelevant IMO

    • Samuel Killermann

      Gay no longer means happy, at least in a general, contemporary society sense. Webster and (perhaps) folks over 70 are the only ones who hear “gay” and first think “merry” (and I’d argue that most 70+ers aren’t even likely to think that). If someone is using gay that way, they are likely to be constantly misunderstand, confuse their poor friends, and create weird friction.

      • guest

        Gay definitely still means happy. It may not be what first comes to mind, but it IS used and IS relevant. 

        • Jesse Cruickshank

          Seriously, words change in widely accepted meaning. The use of the word gay that he is describing is its primary use today.

    • ellen

      Come on, who even uses the word “gay” these days and actually means “happy”? Except for people who are writing historical fiction, maybe. Yes, dictionaries may still recognize “gay” to be synonymous with “happy”, but you have to admit that the first thing most people think of these days whenever the word “gay” is mentioned is “homosexual”. I doubt anyone actually hears something like “my friend is gay” and thinks “oh, what is he happy about?”

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  • MMM


    nice idea+graphics, but as someone who would describe himself as one of the most analytical folks :-)) I have to tell you there is one arrow missing: from “…has to do with gay culture”, the response “no” does not lead anywhere. Just to tell you…
    Best wishes,

    • Samuel Killermann

      Haha – you’re completely right.  I updated that a while ago, but the old graphic must be cached.  I’ll clear the cache :)

    • Samuel Killermann

      Updated!  There’s another important set of revisions on the new version as well.  Wonder if you can spot ‘em…

      • Denny

        Does it have anything to do with gay culture? No.

        Are you sure? Yes.

        Go for it.


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  • guest

    …Um. I guess the chart is nice. It makes a point. But it does kind of get into this idea of telling people how they should identify. If a man is only attracted to men he’s gay? I don’t think so. Not if he doesn’t think so. I’m a woman, I’m almost entirely attracted to women, and I would never call myself gay, lesbian, queer, bi, straight, any of those things. Awkward.

    • Jessie Rushie

      I think it’s a loose guide, for those of us less informed about the LGBTetcetc world which can be very scary and daunting if you are not in it! I for one found this helpful as a straight girl who just doesn’t come in contact with many gay people (who have told me anyway) so I don’t know hwo to approach it without being offensive! Obviously, it is important to ask somebody’s preference but for the majority I think this is a safe way to assume it – especially, say, if you don’t know somebody well enough to ask.

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  • Steve

    Sam, I think your flowchart is gay, which is apparently an acceptable use of the word.

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  • Jessie Alexander

    Great flowchart sam… just one problem with the flowchart. Consider the following route:

    are you describing a person? No
    are you sure you want to keep going? Yes
    is it a place? No
    is it a rainbow? No
    is it a flag with the colours of a rainbow? no
    does it have anything to do with gay culture? No
    are you sure? yes

    Then it says go for it… I know what you were getting at, I just notice those things… Kind of wish I wasn’t a science student, then my brain wouldn’t be so hyperanalytic.

  • KR

    While I generally like this chart, it excludes members who identify as part of the bisexual community and would still consider themselves to be gay. I myself am a bisexual female, but am clearly not bothered if a person calls me gay because I still accept that term (though admittedly prefer queer). Attracted ONLY to women or ONLY to men could be troublesome to those of us in the bi community

  • NP

    Same thing with “queer” meaning strange. You should do one of those. :)

  • Deshawn

    Love the use of diagrams found here, right on. This method gets right to the point, and I’m trying to use it more in my work. Lucidchart’s flow chart tool is really easy to use, what do you use?

  • John

    So, what’s the deal? Gay people get to decide when I get to use the word “gay”? Excuse me for saying so, but that’s pretty fucking gay. I support equal rights for all people, no matter what your sexual preference or religion. It’s pretty fucking bigoted for a group to declare when I can or can’t use a specific word, don’t you think? Not to mention the level of hypocrisy involved. The gay people in this shitty fucking society (rightfully) piss and moan about their rights being neglected and / or infringed upon, yet they do it in turn by coming up with shit like this? Again, I support “gay” rights. In my opinion, there should be no discussion over the issues involving gay marriage or health insurance, etc. A person’s rights should not be contingent on sexual preference. Gays should not have to fight to get married and I should not be looked down upon for using the word “gay” however the fuck I see fit.

  • Jess Barlow
  • rasberry mcfaggotcakes

    this was gay as fuck