Johns Hopkins University’s online “LGBTQ Glossary” was designed to provide an array of “inclusive” and “welcoming” terms for a marginalized community. Instead, its definition of lesbians as “non-men” has triggered online outrage from both the right and left, labels of misogyny, and even criticism from controversial Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling.

The definition was removed on Tuesday with the promise of an update in the future.

Johns Hopkins declined to comment beyond a statement saying that it “strives to create a campus culture that is inclusive and welcoming for all gender identities, sexual orientations, experiences and viewpoints, and we are committed to ensuring Johns Hopkins is a place where LGBTQ people feel supported.”

It continued, “Upon becoming aware of the language in question, we have begun working to determine the origin and context of the glossary’s definitions. We have removed the page from our website while we gather more information.”

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It was unclear what prompted the glossary — or who at the university was responsible for the definitions, which were posted on the student affairs page. Johns Hopkins’ statement noted that the glossary was “an introduction to the range of identities and terms that are used within LGBTQ communities, and is not intended to serve as the definitive answers as to how all people understand or use these terms.”

The glossary’s definition of lesbian was different in September 2015, when the internet archive The Wayback Machine first captured the page.

Back then, it defined “lesbian” as: “A woman who is emotionally, romantically, sexually, affectionately, or relationally attracted to other women, or someone who identifies as part of the lesbian community. Bisexual women may or may not feel included by this term.”

The glossary maintained that definition for at least seven years, until Oct. 13, 2022, when a capture shows the definition that appeared on the page before it was pulled: “A non-man attracted to non-men. While past definitions refer to ‘lesbian’ as a woman who is emotionally, romantically, and/or sexually attracted to other women, this updated definition includes non-binary people who may also identify with the label.”

The glossary’s definition of lesbian was widely shared in recent days and lambasted on social media.

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Some critics said Johns Hopkins, in trying to provide a more expansive definition for lesbian, was erasing women.

The conservative National Review tweeted, “Johns Hopkins University has issued an LGBTQ glossary, and once again, it’s women who are undermined by LGBTQ ideology.”

Right-leaning Twitter users described the university as “woke” and seemed to take joy in the university’s decision to remove the glossary, with one stating, “We did it y’all, they pulled it.”

Rowling, the British “Harry Potter” author who has been accused of transphobia, on Tuesday shared a screenshot of the glossary on Twitter and commented: ”Man: no definition needed. Non-man (formerly known as woman): a being definable only by reference to the male. An absence, a vacuum where there’s no man-ness.”

By Tuesday evening, her tweet had been viewed more than 8 million times and received more than 84,000 likes and 16,000 retweets.

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Femily Howe, the San Francisco-based executive director of the American Association of Corporate/Gender Strategists, said the university’s definition was flawed.

“The problem with using ‘non-men’ is that it centers the dominant group — men, the group with all the power. The far bigger problem is centering men before women,” Howe said.

She noted that focusing on the words can be a distraction from the “real tasks” of striving for equality for women.

And while Howe agrees with Rowling that the university made a misstep, she sharply disagrees with some of the author’s other views.

Rowling has been a frequent critic of efforts to define or validate transgender women as women. Her anti-transgender tweets and writings have caused “Harry Potter” actor Daniel Radcliffe and other cast members to distance themselves from the author.

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“Many people who find the phrasing ‘non-men’ offensive greatly disagree on many things,” Howe said. “I try my best to be a trans-inclusive feminist. I understand we disagree on transgender opportunity, safety, and dignity.”

If Johns Hopkins were a client, Howe said, she would advise it to be inclusive when making decisions on matters such as the glossary.

“Johns Hopkins should be asking some lesbians of all kinds to sit at the table to vet things like this going forward,” Howe said. “When you have a diverse board of feedback channel, you don’t have these types of messes.”

Stuart Getty, a genderqueer author from Duluth, Minnesota, agreed that the Hopkins glossary definition of lesbian was offensive.

“I’m shocked, in 2023, that this framing would be used. A lesbian, interestingly enough, could be a nonbinary person or could be a woman,” Getty said. “There is a little more nuance to identity now. It’s kind of gross to describe it as men first. But that is the world we live in — from a male perspective.”

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But the author of the 2020 book “How to They/Them,” a humorous illustrated guide to nonbinary pronouns and the world of gender fluidity, also thinks that the university should be allowed to fix its misstep.

“It’s rectifiable,” Getty said. “It’s easily changed. … There’s got to be grace in mistakes. We have to be able to make mistakes to learn and grow. I hope that Johns Hopkins wants to become better.”

T.J. Ortenzi contributed to this report

johnj.williams@thebaltimorebanner.com

John-John Williams IV is a diversity, equity and inclusion reporter at The Baltimore Banner. A native of Syracuse, N.Y. and a graduate of Howard University, he has lived in Baltimore for the past 17 years. 

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