February 1, 2024

How to Say Gay in Arabic

For years, many linguists have argued that Western languages didn’t have a word for homosexuality until about a millennium ago. That’s what makes it so striking when a movie like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, with its subtitles in Arabic, uses the pejorative term shdh to describe gay men and women.

The closest translation to shdh is probably "homosexual," but it doesn’t quite capture the full range of meanings in the Arabic language. To a person who is LGBT, the word may have unpleasant connotations, and it can also sound clinical and othering. It’s important for interpreters to be aware of these differences and try to avoid using such terms in their work.

A number of positive neologisms have been developed by LGBT organizations and others to replace the derogative words sadj, shudhudh jinsi, and miboun. They include misli ( mthlyy) and junusi ( junus). Misli is a more colloquial form of the word queer, which has been reappropriated by LGBT activists in the Arab world to replace the term "sadj" and other pejorative terms.

Those same activists have also used the word khnwn@ to refer to the Arabic term for transgender people. However, this term can be misleading to those who are not familiar with the concept of gender identity in the Arabic-speaking world, and it’s best to avoid using this term if possible. Also, since Arabic has a binary system of grammatical gender, it can be difficult to solicit an addressee’s pronouns without inadvertently gendering them.


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