Wednesday, July 25, 2007

"Gay" or "homosexual"?

Over on, Professor Eugene Volokh is refusing to stop using the word "homosexual" to describe gays and lesbians, after one commentor suggested that such usage is bigoted. According to Eugene:

First, the descriptive assertion that there's a high correlation between use of the term "homosexual" and the speaker's hostility to homosexuals strikes me as entirely unfounded. Search the archives of the New York Times — or for that matter the Advocate — the works of Andrew Sullivan, and a wide variety of other sources, and you'll see.

Second, I'm not even persuaded by the assertion that homosexuals themselves generally prefer "gay" or "lesbian" . . .

My response, as posted in the comments section:

Eugene, you've previously argued that you'd consider abandoning a term for two reasons:

"One . . . is when one term is so often used pejoratively that reasonable listeners might assume that the current user is using it pejoratively. Another is when the term is so archaic that it will make people wonder whether the speakers must have some ulterior motive in using it (the obvious motive, which is that it's a commonly used term that springs to people's minds naturally, being absent)."

Isn't that what this commentor is arguing? Now, the commentor may be wrong about whether the term "homosexual" is really a flag for a Christianist or bigot, for the reasons you articulate, but that involves examining the evidence, rather than rejecting the argument as per se unpersuasive.

And about that evidence. While I'm not sure what Andrew Sullivan references or New York Times citations you found, I think the commentor is accurately describing not only the feelings of the overwhelming majority of gays and lesbians, but those of us who are active in the movement, who hear "homosexual" as an anachronism of a time when "homosexuality" was defined as a psychological disease. I think the costs of switching here are relatively low -- please keep an open mind about whether you need to make a stand here.

In response, Prof. Volokh cited one Andrew Sullivan article in the NY Times and two brief quotes from The Advocate as evidence that pro-gay speakers use the word "homosexual." So I responded once more:

Eugene, thanks for the citations to Sullivan and the Advocate. But do you think they suffice to demonstrate convincingly that "homosexual" is in widespread use among the -- ah, let's use "LGBT" for now -- community? I could point you to this Wikipedia entry on the word "gay":

"Some people reject the term homosexual as an identity-label because they find it too clinical-sounding. They believe it is too focused on physical acts rather than romance or attraction, or too reminiscent of the era when homosexuality was considered a mental illness. Conversely, some people find the term gay to be offensive or reject it as an identity-label because they perceive the cultural connotations to be undesirable or because of the negative connotations of the slang usage of the word.

According to the Safe Schools Coalition of Washington's Glossary for School Employees: “ Homosexual: Avoid this term; it is clinical, distancing and archaic. Sometimes appropriate in referring to behavior (although same-sex is the preferred adj.). When referring to people, as opposed to behavior, homosexual is considered derogatory and the terms gay and lesbian are preferred, at least in the Northwest [of the United States]. ” —Safe School Coalition, Glossary for School Employees

I think the Safe School Coalition hits the mark here. The phrase "incidence of homosexuality" is less offensive than, say, "according to Professor William Eskeridge, a homosexual, same-sex marriage should be . . ." So I ask again: are the costs really that high to switching to "gay and lesbian" for general usage?

He hasn't responded yet, but I suspect he won't change his mind.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Three questions:

1. What, then, replaces 'heterosexual'?

2. What, then, replaces 'homophobic'?

3. If "Gay" is intrinsically more humane and decent, why do right-wing fanatics not rant about "Homosexual marriage" rather than "Gay marriage"?

Seems to me that context (what's being said about whatever label one is choosing) is far more important than the label....

-- Big Daddy

5:03 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

The answer to nos. 1 and 2 are "nothing" and "nothing." The argument is confined specifically to describing persons who engage in sex with persons of the same gender as "homosexual" instead of "gay" or "lesbian." Although most people I know use "straight" in lieu of "heterosexual." (Some people use "breeder" but that's an outlier).

As for question no. 3, I think they rant about both, but again, the argument is about words to describe people, not acts. As my comment to Volokh stated, I think the term "incidence of homosexuality" is not loaded at all; the phrase "Rosie O'Donnell, a homosexual" is. There's nothing instrinsic about these terms -- I agree that the context is king. And what I'm claiming is that in most contexts, people should be described as gay or lesbian, not "homosexual."

9:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course there was a time, not too long ago, with both 'gay' and 'lesbian' were horrible slurs. As the black population did in regards to 'nigger', the words were picked up and used by... yes yes, gays and lesbians, to take away that power and claim the words, along with fag and queen and dyke, to help with social acceptance as well as self pride. But for people of an older age group, 'homosexual', like Negro, was the non biased word to use, and although we eventually come around to new usage, the change is harder for the elderly, infirm, decrepid fogeys,geezers,spinsters and old maids. In all honesty, until I read this posting, I was not really aware that 'homosexual' is viewed as perjorative to such a degree. (Good thing you have the Washington Coalition of Safe Schools at hand.)

Perhaps a non-charged word, such as maybe 'same-sex,' would be preferable. Or maybe something else, or do an active consciousness raising campaign to help society know what are the current OK terms. Just as an aside, I had an interesting discussion with a high school student recently about how the word 'woman' was really negative when I was young, as was 'female' except in the clinical sense. That person over there was a 'lady.' It took a lot of active consciousness raising to change that.

~momther the breeder

10:52 PM  
Anonymous Ellie said...

Great work.

5:34 AM  

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