The Washington Post published a pro-gay editorial today about marriage. And that’s great. But they called us “homosexuals” throughout the piece, and that’s not great. It’s degrading and offensive and archaic.
I’ve written about this before, and some have disagreed. But I’d argue that those who disagree don’t understand the nuance of language or of this particular phrase. Ask any gay person, regardless of whether they agree or disagree that the word “homosexual” is archaic and offensive, whether they use the term “gay” or “homosexual” to described themselves. I.e., “I’m gay” or “I’m a homosexual.” Just ask them. Unless they’re living under a rock, gay people rarely if ever use the word homosexual. (My gay-friendly straight friends, however, use the term all the time. In the same way that I still hear friends use the word “oriental.”)
Why? First, because it’s become archaic. Usage changes, and just as Negro and colored changed to black and African-American, just as oriental gave way to Asian, homosexual has become gay. But second, and more importantly, the word homosexual is offensive in the same manner as negro and oriental. Sometimes archaic words sting. In the case of homosexual, I think the main problem is three-fold. First, the clinical nature of the term. It’s a scientific word that mildly dehumanizes gay people by suggesting that they have a medical or psychological condition. Second, the words “homo” and “sex.” Both words connote something negative, or at least something that shouldn’t be spoken out loud, to a lot of Americans. Third, and most importantly, homosexual is the word the religious right uses expressly and uniquely in an effort to dehumanize gays. Anti-gay religious right activists have said publicly that they will not use the word “gay” – rather, they insist on using “homosexual.” Why? Because for some reason or another they figure that the word homosexual helps their cause. And while I don’t agree with the religious right on many things, their ability to gay-bash swiftly and effectively is unqestioned. If they think the word gay helps us and the word homosexual hurts us, who am I to argue?
Again, I don’t mean to opinionated about it, but if you don’t hear the negative nuance in the word homosexual, it’s either because you’re not listening, or more likely, you don’t have an ear for language. There’s a reason that colored and Negro and oriental weren’t offensive terms years ago, yet are today. The nuance of words changes over time. And while gays were once thought to be mentally disturbed – that all changed in 1973 – the language has not changed since that time.
It’s time it did.
PS Don’t believe me? Read what a communications professional has to say about this. (Actually, I hadn’t read his piece until after I wrote mine, but the logic is remarkably similar.) Also, check out this recent editorial in the lead gay newspaper in the US.