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Saying “Homosexual” Is Totally Gay

July 25th, 2007 · 5 Comments

Eugene Volokh defends his right to use the word “homosexual” against a reader who regards it as a shibboleth for bigotry, which leads him to repost an interesting analysis originally prompted by an argument over the relative merits of “handicapped” and “disabled.” A commenter links to John Aravosis’ recent brief against the term, characterizing it as “archaic and offensive.”

I had two contrary reactions in rapid succession. The first was that this was all a bit much, that “homosexual” is a perfectly neutral descriptive term, just as “heterosexual” is, and that both are embedded in other terms we readily use, such as “homophobia” or “heteronormative.” But on a moment’s reflection, I realized that, in fact, it would never occur to me to describe a gay person or practice or institution as “homosexual,” certainly not in the noun form, and probably not as an adjective either. Not because I’d have regarded it as rude or offensive, mind you, but because it would have seemed faintly ridiculous—to the point where it would probably be relegated exclusively to clearly ironic or tongue-in-cheek uses, as you sometimes hear with “negro.”

All of which got me thinking about how neutral terms become offensive, especially in light of Eugene’s (not “Gene’s”!) analysis. I think a story roughly like this is probably right: “Gay” starts out as a bit of slang, used mostly internally by gay folks. Gradually, it becomes mainstream, and for a while, though “homosexual” is obviously more formal and clinical sounding. But especially for people who live in areas where there are, in fact, lots of homosexuals, “gay” starts to seem more natural and predominate. Meanwhile, there are determined anti-gay types who make a point of not using the term, convinced it has positive connotations. And the result, over time, is that people begin to wonder what’s up when someone persists in using “homosexual”—not, pace Eugene, because anyone has had to convince them that the term is bigoted, but because ever increasing numbers of non-bigots are naturally defaulting to “gay.”

That said, for many of the reasons Eugene advances, I’m not sure it’s worth making a fuss about “homosexual” or trying to brand it as a bigot’s term. Unlike various other more unambiguous pejoratives, it can certainly be used without ill intent, and to people who do use it that way, I expect it’s counterproductive to come off as some sort of language police. This gives the genuine homophobes an excuse to start whining about PC excesses. Better, it seems to me, to let the process already underway continue, so that more and more people just naturally come to regard “homosexual” as silly and anachronistic, and the people who continue to insist upon it as humorously out-of-touch.

Tags: Language and Literature



5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Anthony C // Jul 25, 2007 at 7:10 pm

    I think there are two problems (such as they are) regarding the term, though I’m unconvinced that either of them are worth getting into a flap about.

    The first is that, as you note, gay has become a term of such general usage that a tendency not to use it is increasingly seen – sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly – as a hallmark of people who have what might be termed conservative attitudes on the issue (“I remember when gay meant happy…” is the stereotypical grumble in the UK).

    The second is that as I understand it, while homosexual is generally perceived as being a pretty neutral term to employ, there seems to be an argument that it originally came into common use in the gay context in the nineteenth century as part of a general attempt to classify same-sex attraction as a psychiatric disorder.

    As I say, I’m inclined to agree that this is all pretty small beer. But I believe those are the key issues.

  • 2 John Goes // Jul 26, 2007 at 12:29 am

    The language we use and the way we see things are intimately related. The more vocal participants in such futile arguments seem concerned to emphasize their own understanding of the world as the correct one from the start. Those that believe homosexuality is offensive may believe that there is a nonsexual character to homosexuality that integral to an understanding of what it means to “be gay”. Those that vehemently believe gay should not be used regard “being gay” as a sexual, or homosexual tendency/behavior in individuals, and use the traditional, more formal nomenclature.

    There are, though, quite a lot of people who don’t really care much about these things that would like to use the words gay and queer (which have synonyms, but no exact equivalents in shade and tone), but cannot do so without misunderstanding and confusion because of a cultural fashion.

    This is obviously not important, but it is queer to see that a topic that has no trace of gaiety is considered so important by some activists.

  • 3 AC // Jul 26, 2007 at 1:37 am

    Big picture: Actions speak louder. If you’re a person who demonstrates by your actions that you accept and like gay people, then homo, gay, queer, mariposa, and all the rest are yours for the using. AND PEOPLE WILL UNDERSTAND THAT YOU MEAN NO OFFENSE. It AMAZES me how intellectual types can get so worked up over this.

  • 4 Anthony C // Jul 26, 2007 at 7:31 am

    “If you’re a person who demonstrates by your actions that you accept and like gay people, then homo, gay, queer, mariposa, and all the rest are yours for the using.”

    I think this is largely true.

    Mariposa is a new one for me, I must say.

  • 5 homo for me // Feb 23, 2008 at 4:34 pm

    I don’t use the term gay because it now connotes a wide social universe of attitudes and beliefs beyond just sexual orientation (rainbow flags, shirtless muscle men on floats, drag queens, the whole boring pride charade). I don’t like “queer” either because it stresses the unnaturalness of same-sex attraction (while supposedly reveling in it). Homosexual is too long and clinical, so I prefer “homo”, partly because it is not used by gays. It always struck me as a masculine term, and please don’t even try telling me it’s pejorative. If “queer” is ok with you don’t go throwing rocks at “homo”.

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