To most ears, it probably sounds inoffensive. A little outdated and clinical, perhaps, but innocuous enough: homosexual.
But that five-syllable word has never been more loaded, more deliberately used and, to the ears of many gays and lesbians, more pejorative.
“ ‘Homosexual’ has the ring of ‘colored’ now, in the way your grandmother might have used that term, except that it hasn’t been recuperated in the same way,” said George Chauncey, a Yale professor of history and an author who studies gay and lesbian culture.
Consider the following phrases: homosexual community, homosexual activist, homosexual marriage. Substitute the word “gay” in any of those cases, and the terms suddenly become far less loaded, so that the ring of disapproval and judgment evaporates.
Some gay rights advocates have declared the term off limits. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, or Glaad, has put “homosexual” on its list of offensive terms and in 2006 persuaded The Associated Press, whose stylebook is the widely used by many news organizations, to restrict use of the word.
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George P. Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, has looked at the way the term is used by those who try to portray gays and lesbians as deviant. What is most telling about substituting it for gay or lesbian are the images that homosexual tends to activate in the brain, he said.
“Gay doesn’t use the word sex,” he said. “Lesbian doesn’t use the word sex. Homosexual does.”
“It also contains ‘homo,’ which is an old derogatory,” he added. “They want to have that idea there. They want to say this is not normal sex, this is not normal family, it’s going against God.”
Historians believe the first use of “homosexual” was by Karl-Maria Kertbeny, a Hungarian journalist who wrote passionately in opposition to Germany’s anti-sodomy laws in the 19th century.
But by the 20th century, the word had taken on a definition associated with the American Psychiatric Association’s classification of same-sex attractions as a mental disorder. That did not change until the association reversed itself in 1973.
William Leap, a professor of anthropology at American University who studies the field of “lavender linguistics,” which examines how gay people use certain words and phrases, said the offensiveness of the word stems from its medical history. “It already has all that clinical baggage heaped on it: that’s the legacy of the term now,” he said, adding that because of its use in a scientific way, many people do not realize how it can fall on gay and lesbian ears.
“It’s not like ‘faggot,’ which is a negative term that could get somebody’s mother to slap their hand,” he said. “Homosexual is a term that everybody knows.”
Yet it endures.
“Now they’re encouraging this young man who’s announced he’s homosexual to go play, when Obama said he wouldn’t even let his own son play,” Rush Limbaugh said recently as he talked about Michael Sam, the college football player who recently came out. When Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona faced pressure to veto a bill that would have allowed businesses to refuse service to gay and lesbian customers, Mr. Limbaugh cited the work of the “homosexual lobby.”
And last year, when Jason Collins became one of the first professional male athletes to reveal he was gay, Chris Broussard, an ESPN commentator who has called homosexuality “that lifestyle” and condemned it as a sin, announced that he had “no problem with homosexuals.” Later, an article in The Christian Post described his comments, noting that Mr. Broussard went on to discuss his conversations on the subject with a gay colleague, LZ Granderson, whom the writer noted is “a homosexual ESPN commentator.”
During oral arguments last year in the Supreme Court case Hollingsworth v. Perry, when Justice Antonin Scalia asked the lawyer Ted Olson, “When did it become unconstitutional to prohibit homosexuals from marrying?” it seemed to some that he was unable (or unwilling) to use the word gay.
The word’s power depends, of course, on who is using it. In the late 1970s, Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign was centered on the notion of “homosexual recruitment,” the belief that gays and lesbians tried to woo unsuspecting children into their ranks. Gerry E. Studds, the first openly gay member of Congress, once recalled how someone confronted him about whether he was still a “practicing homosexual.” He shot back: “No. As a matter of fact, I think I’m very good at it.”
When Professor Leap’s students use the term, which they still do occasionally, he corrects them. “I say, ‘Excuse me. Let me give you a piece of vocabulary instruction. In this class the word is gay or lesbian, and this is why.’ “
Gays and lesbians adopted various terminology of their own, often code words in conversation with one another. Because gay was already a known adjective meaning joyful, it could be used as a way to communicate same-sex desires to others who were in the know.
“A lesbian could say she met a gay gal the night before and her lesbian friend would know exactly what she meant,” Professor Chauncey said, “while her straight boss would have no idea what she was talking about.”
The early gay-rights movement was called the homophile movement because its founders explicitly rejected the word homosexual; they did not want to be identified as exclusively sexual beings.
Franklin E. Kameny, a gay rights pioneer, coined the phrase “Gay is Good” in 1968 as a way to help strip away some of the negative association. By then, gay had become the preferred term among gays and lesbians. But it would take decades for the rest of the country to catch on.
The New York Times resisted the word gay until 1987, preferring homosexual (now, it prefers the word gay in most contexts). The Washington Times set off in quotes the term gay marriage until 2008. The newspaper also updated its standards that year to say the term was preferred over “homosexual marriage.”
In the early 2000s, when same-sex marriage was a brand-new concept, gays were routinely described in mainstream media as homosexuals. Today, use of the word is less and less frequent. A Google Books scan shows a sharp decline in its use in recent years after peaking around 1995.
Scholars expect the use of the term to eventually fall away entirely.
“These shifts always reflect a change in sensibility,” said Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist who teaches at Berkeley. “That’s what happened when ‘Negro’ yields to ‘black’ and ‘African-American.’ It’s just an old-fashioned word that denotes a generally neutral but old-fashioned sensibility.”
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What about the phobias? Homophobia, transphobia, etc? Gayphobia?