It’s not entirely the Holocaust Museum’s fault.
In the old days, we called gays “homosexuals.” We also called blacks “colored” or “negro.” And we called Asians “orientals.”
Then times changed, and words that once were acceptable no longer were. The words either developed a negative connotation, or had one already, and as society lost its prejudice, it lost the corresponding vocabulary of prejudice as well. And in fact, even “black” is increasingly giving way to “African-American.” Language changes.
And that’s why it’s time for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and its Web site to stop using the word “homosexual” when it means to say “gay.” Their Web site might have been accurate years ago. Now it’s outdated — and worse, risks doing harm.
While the word “homosexuality” is sometimes difficult to find a synonym for — even I use it — the word “homosexual” is archaic to the point of almost being a joke in the gay community. For example, you might find a gay person jokingly referring to the “homosexual agenda,” but you wouldn’t find a gay person talking about the swank “homosexual bar” they visited in New York City after going to see that new “homosexual movie” with the “homosexual couple” that lives upstairs.
You’re as likely to find a gay person using those phrases as you are them talking about “homosexual marriage.”
The NYT took an interesting look at the change, from neutral to negative, in the word “homosexual” over the last few decades. Also, GLAAD, the lead gay anti-defamation group, has weighed in on the topic as well, basically agreeing with me — more on that below, but here’s a quick quote from GLAAD:
Please use “gay” or “lesbian” to describe people attracted to members of the same sex. Because of the clinical history of the word “homosexual,” it is aggressively used by anti-gay extremists to suggest that gay people are somehow diseased or psychologically/emotionally disordered – notions discredited by the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association in the 1970s. Please avoid using “homosexual” except in direct quotes.
If you look at the Holocaust Museum’s Web page devoted to the special exhibit about gays and the Holocaust, you’ll find 3 references to “homosexuality” (which is fine), and 11 references to “homosexuals” (which is not fine), including the abominable title – “Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals.” There are also 4 references to the word “gay.”
Now, it is true that the use of the word “gay” as a noun is relatively new. Such as, referring to “gays.” And I suspect that many of the references to “homosexuals” in the Holocaust Museum Web site reflect that concern. Such as this example:
After taking power in 1933, the Nazis persecuted homosexuals as part of their so-called moral crusade to racially and culturally purify Germany. This persecution ranged from dissolution of homosexual organizations to internment of thousands of individuals in concentration camps.
Except that even if you felt that “the Nazis persecuted gays as part of their so-called moral crusade,” there’s no such excuse for “homosexual organizations.” “Gay organizations” works fine. (And, instead of “the Nazis persecuted homosexuals,” you could write “the Nazis persecuted gays and lesbians,” or just “gays” or “gay men” if they kept the focus to men. And in fact, there are references to “gay men” in the same piece I cite above.)
And the Holocaust Museum’s general Web page about gays and the Holocaust is even worse. It references “homosexual” or “homosexuals” 39 times, while mentioning “gays” once.
People are biased against the word “homosexual”
Who does like the word “homosexual”? Religious right anti- civil rights activists. Why? Because the word now has a negative connotation, whereas the word “gay” does not.
Don’t believe me? I’d written before about a CBS poll on ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The poll numbers changed wildly when you changed the question from “homosexual” to “gay.” Here’s CBS:
In the poll, 59 percent say they now support allowing “homosexuals” to serve in the U.S. military, including 34 percent who say they strongly favor that. Ten percent say they somewhat oppose it and 19 percent say they strongly oppose it.
But the numbers differ when the question is changed to whether Americans support “gay men and lesbians” serving in the military. When the question is asked that way, 70 percent of Americans say they support gay men and lesbians serving in the military, including 19 percent who say they somewhat favor it. Seven percent somewhat oppose it, and 12 percent strongly oppose it.
When it comes to whether Americans support allowing gays to serve openly, there is also a difference based on the term used. When referred to as “homosexuals,” 44 percent favor allowing them to serve openly. When referred to as “gay men and lesbians,” the percentage rises to 58 percent.
To summarize the results:
Do you support “gay men and lesbians” serving in the military? 70%
Do you support “homosexuals” serving in the military: 59%
Do you support “gay men and lesbians” OPENLY serving in the military? 58%
Do you support “homosexuals” OPENLY serving in the military? 44%
That one word dropped us 14 points in the polls.
And that’s why I have a problem with the word “homosexual.”
GLAAD, the lead gay anti-defamation group, has weighed in as well, against the word “homosexual.” They basically agree with me, and offer some alternatives:
Offensive: “homosexual” (n. or adj.)
Preferred: “gay” (adj.); “gay man” or “lesbian” (n.); “gay person/people”
Please use “gay” or “lesbian” to describe people attracted to members of the same sex. Because of the clinical history of the word “homosexual,” it is aggressively used by anti-gay extremists to suggest that gay people are somehow diseased or psychologically/emotionally disordered – notions discredited by the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association in the 1970s. Please avoid using “homosexual” except in direct quotes. Please also avoid using “homosexual” as a style variation simply to avoid repeated use of the word “gay.” The Associated Press, The New York Times and The Washington Post restrict use of the term “homosexual” (see AP, New York Times & Washington Post Style).
Offensive: “homosexual relations/relationship,” “homosexual couple,” “homosexual sex,” etc.
Preferred: “relationship” (or “sexual relationship”), “couple” (or, if necessary, “gay couple”), “sex,” etc.
Identifying a same-sex couple as “a homosexual couple,” characterizing their relationship as “a homosexual relationship,” or identifying their intimacy as “homosexual sex” is extremely offensive and should be avoided. These constructions are frequently used by anti-gay extremists to denigrate gay people, couples and relationships.
It’s not just a personal peeve. It’s a word that in today’s English (at least in America) does damage to the civil rights of gays. And, while many have used the outdated term in recent years, including the Washington Post and the BBC (the BBC went so far as to refer to “practising homosexuals,” a term that doesn’t even really make sense), no one should be more sensitive to the use of language to reinforce bias than the Holocaust Museum.