Throughout my life, I’ve heard words referring to gay people tossed around as casual insults, often used as weapons against people who are not themselves gays or lesbians (see, for example, the use of “no homo“). It’s behavior like this that can make it difficult to know which words we should call each other.
Interestingly, while terms like faggot are pretty obviously hurtful, people may have considerably different perceptions of terms like homosexual. Jeremy Peters writes “To most ears, it probably sounds inoffensive. A little outdated and clinical, perhaps, but innocuous enough: homosexual”. Yet as Peters notes, some gays and lesbians find the term offensive. In fact, in 2006, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) listed it as an offensive term.
Why might some gay men and women feel hurt by the word homosexual? In trying to understand why words can offend us, many people look either to features of the words themselves (for example, how they sound or what other words or morphemes they might contain), or to their historic origins.
In the case of homosexual, we could say (as many have) that the inclusion of sex in the term causes us to think of sexual acts and not human beings. It also has an obvious connection to the truncated slur homo.
However, for me, these explanations are only partially satisfying. I have other questions like, if that’s why homosexual is cringe-worthy, then why doesn’t heterosexual make me feel a little icky too? Or, if homosexual is offensive because of the slur homo, then why is gay preferred? After all, gay is popularly used for all sorts of verbal cruelty, like when people use it to mean lame or stupid.
Another explanation is that the term homosexual has a history of being used to pathologize gays and lesbians. For example, the American Psychological Association listed attraction to the same sex as a psychological disorder until 1973.
I find this a compelling piece of historical context, but I don’t think historical usage fully explains contemporary feelings about the word homosexual. Also, there is earlier historical precedent for a positive association with the term. Peters writes, “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.”
While I think that explanations appealing to features of the word itself or to its earlier history are worth keeping in mind, I want to stress another explanation, one that I think is less commonly appreciated. Specifically, words often become associated with the political stances of the people who use them.
According to data I collected using CapitolWords.org from the Sunlight Foundation, the three terms, gay, homosexual and lesbian, are used differently by the two major US political parties (the Democrats and the Republicans).
For Democrats, gay and lesbian are both preferred over homosexual. Republicans also prefer gay over homosexual but rarely use lesbian. However, Republicans’ preference for gay is far weaker, and they use the word homosexual more than Democrats do. In addition, Republicans have not always avoided the word homosexual, as the plot below makes clear.
In 1996, Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and the Senate debated the Employment Nondiscrimination Act of 1996 (ENDA, which did not pass). These actions resulted in what was likely an unusual amount of discourse about gay men and women in both the Senate and the House that year (digitized data of the Congressional Record for earlier years is unfortunately not available).
In this data, 1996 is the peak year for use of homosexual, and Republicans even used it more than Democrats used gay and lesbian, as Congress discussed DOMA, which represented a major blow to equality for gay men and women, limiting the federal government’s view of marriage exclusively to heterosexual unions. Republicans’ frequent use of the term homosexual is likely associated with their anti-gay stance at the time. Almost all Republicans in both houses of Congress (with two exceptions) voted in favor of DOMA, and the vast majority of Senate Republicans opposed ENDA often in disgustingly homophobic floor speeches some of which are quoted in this article.
To be clear, most Democrats also voted in favor of DOMA, and President Clinton, a Democrat, signed it into law. However, Senate Democrats’ support for ENDA was greater than Republicans’. Also, eight years later, when a further extension of DOMA, the Marriage Protection Act of 2004, was debated, Democrats showed greater opposition. The vast majority of Democrats voted against the bill, while the vast majority of Republicans voted in favor of it. The plot shows that use of gay and lesbian by both parties spiked that year as did Republicans’ use of homosexual.
Thus, the stigma associated with homosexual is, in part, related to its use by those opposed to equal rights for gay men and women. Of course, the use of homosexual by those who hold anti-gay stances is not limited to Congress. According to Sociological Images, the conservative Christian organization the American Family Association used an automatic filter to change the word gay in Associated Press articles to homosexual, as demonstrated by the errors the filter created when individuals with the last name Gay had their names changed to Homosexual.
Let me be clear. I am talking about general tendencies and associations. Interestingly, among the most frequent users of homosexual in Congress are not only anti-gay politicians like Steve King and Louie Gohmert but also Barney Frank who is himself gay. Frank, however, is also one of the most frequent users of the word gay.
Thus, the use of homosexual tends to come along with anti-gay stances (though not exclusively). This association helps to reproduce the stigma of the term and is likely a factor in many gays’ and lesbians’ objection to the term. In other words, when they hear homosexual, they hear anti-gay politics, opposition to their struggle for equal treatment under the law, and homophobic conspiracy theories about ‘homosexual agendas’ that allegedly undermine the very fabric of our nation’s moral decency and apple pie or whatever.
Some notes on methods
I performed searches for the each parties’ yearly use of gay, gays, homosexual, and homosexuals in the Congressional record as a percentage of the total words used by the party. I later added the two plural and singular form percentages, and then converted these summed percentages into words per million words, a common practice in corpus linguistics for dealing with relatively infrequent words in large corpora.