Feb 11, 2015

What's Wrong with the Word "Homosexual"?

Some people who comment on this blog actually use the term "homosexual."  I delete their comments.

The word makes my ears hurt.  I will not permit it to be said in my classrooms.  I never use it in my writing.  I will purchase no book with that term in the title.

The English language didn’t have a word for people who are exclusively drawn to one sex or another until 1892, when the English translation of Richard Von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis appeared.  It divided human beings into two populations, the heterosexual and the homosexual, the one normal, natural, benign, the other contingent, abnormal, unnatural, purveyors of evil, victims of an insidious and destructive psychopathology.  Psychiatrists, criminologists, teachers, and journalists continued to talk about the dark, sinister “homosexual” psychopath for the next 70 years.

Meanwhile, in subcultures organized by people with exclusive same-sex desires and behaviors, the common term was “gay,” probably derived from prostitute slang of the 1890s.  We don’t know how early it was used, but at least by 1932, when Noel Coward wrote the song “Mad About the Boy”:  “He has a gay appeal that makes me feel there’s maybe something sad about the boy.”

Certainly by 1938, when, in the movie Bringing Up Baby, Cary Grant must answer the door in a lady’s nightgown, and he tells the startled caller, “I’ve just gone gay all of a sudden.”  The bisexual actor ad-libbed the line as an in-joke for his friends, assuming it would go over the  heads of the audience.

It was deliberately meant as a code term, used only by members of the subculture.  As late as the 1960s, you could say “I’m going to a gay party tonight,” and judge by the reaction of the listener if they got it or not.

Most outsiders preferred not to "name" same-sex desire at all -- it was much too sinister – but if they had no choice, they used the word “homosexual.”  The first gay rights organization, the Mattachine Society, used the word “homosexual,” reasoning that otherwise no one would know what they were talking about.

In 1969, the Gay Liberation Front, and the subsequent Gay Rights Movement, made two significant changes.  First, they believed that they were not psychotic, not abominations, not evil.   They chanted “Gay is just as good as straight."

Second, the word “homosexual” had to go.  It was old-fashioned and bigoted. It referred to a mental disorder.  Besides, it had to do with who you have sex with, and they were about so much more than that.  They were about living and working together, sharing a history and a destiny, being a community.  They were not homosexuals, skulking in the darkness, seeking out anonymous liaisons in t-rooms.  They were gay.

The term “gay” was not without detractors.  Many famous homophiles, such as Gore Vidal, Christopher Isherwood, and Truman Capote, said it was much too frivolous for a bona fide minority group.  Many people said that it was sexist, like using “men” to mean “all people,” ignoring the women.  It also assumed exclusive same-sex desire, behavior, and romance, whereas the community also included bisexuals and transgendered persons.  Eventually LGBT appeared an alternative, and then "queer."

Regardless, “homosexual” was gone, and would remain out of favor among gay people for the next 40 year.  In an Advocate poll in 2000, in answer to the question “What should we be called?”, 95% of respondents said gay or LGBT; 3% homosexual.

There are over 5000 gay or LGBT organizations in the United States, and no homosexual ones.

Barnes & Noble lists 3,389 books with “gay” in their titles and 305 with “homosexual,”  most written to argue that “homosexuals” are bad, evil, and psychotic after all: The Homosexual Neurosis, Hope and Healing for the Homosexual, The Homosexual Agenda.

The Gay Rights Movement had a good precedent for a society-wide name change. In 1965, the Civil Rights Movement objected to the term “Negro,” then used by government agencies, journalists, and on the streets.  Negro was old-fashioned and bigoted.  They chanted “Black is Beautiful!”  They wanted to be called Black.

Mass media changed instantly.  Within 2 years, no one was saying “Negro” except for the incredibly old-fashioned and the bigoted.  In Julia, in 1966, the titular character is on the telephone, & identifies herself as “a Negro.”  The white man she is talking to, not wanting to appear bigoted, pretends that he has no idea what she means, forcing her to use the new term “Black.”

But “homosexual” didn’t change easily. Even though gay people yelled, picketed, conducted sit-ins, and so on, it took until 1985 for the New York Times to agree to substitute gay for homosexual.  In 1976, in the Doonesbury comic strip, Joannie’s law school classmate says “I’m gay,” and she doesn’t understand.

The American Psychiatric Association removed gay people from their list of dangerous psychotics in 1973, but refused to call them “gay” until 1997.  About 20% of scholarly articles today still have “homosexual” rather than “gay” in their titles.  In newspapers and magazines, “gay” tends to win out in titles, but in the articles “homosexual” pops in as if it an exact synonym.

Every time I tell students that the word "gay" is appropriate and the word “homosexual” old-fashioned and bigoted, they are astonished.  They tell me, “But every other teacher I have ever had in my life said ‘homosexual’ was good and 'gay' was bad.”   They then trot out a gay friend who says “I have no problem with homosexual.” I ask if they are aware of the century of oppression centered on that word.  They are not.  They think of “gay” as bigoted!