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.