Thursday, July 05, 2007

What's In a Name?

Given this year's drama over at Grey's Anatomy where one person (a straight person) called another person (a gay person) the "f" word, people have been talking about the power of words, what they mean, and how different words with the same meaning has extraordinary power. Just listen to Isaiah Washington's public service announcement. He explains it well, even if he can't always follow his own advice.

I am about to post a story from AmericaBlog about one gay person's opinion, "Stop Calling Me a Homosexual!" Well, he doesn't shout like that but that's the theme of the post. And, for the most part, I agree with the author. What's in a name you say? I mean, doesn't 'homosexual' mean 'gay'? Well, it does and it doesn't. The nuance is important and the article explains it quite eloquently.

The basic core idea is that using this term stigmatizes and clinicalizes a gay or lesbian person, it dehumanizes the person, it makes it easier to condemn him or her by depreciating the human element. Unlike the 'gay' term, homosexual makes some folks cringe because in the very word itself "homo" and "sex" are two terms that most folks don't talk about it public conversation. The term gay takes the sex out of the description and reminds us that the person in question is more than a sexual person. A gay or lesbian is a person who laughs, learns, has responsibilities, can be angry, joyful, or just themselves. A gay person isn't all about "sex" anymore than a heterosexual person is all about sex with members of the opposite sex.

Over a hundred years ago, there was a sociologist and mystic named Edward Carpenter, who termed the word homogenic when he tried to take the 'sex' out of homo-sex-ual. He did so to explain that men and women, men and men, and women and women all have homogenic relationships. Think about the guys who play poker on Friday nights; they are not meeting to have sex but they enjoy one another's company. Think of the Tupperwear or tea parties your mother used to attend with other housewives; they weren't meeting for sex, they were enjoying one another's fellowship. Our lives are about more than just sex--as are your lives. The term homosexual then, while at one time was a descriptive term, now has a lot of baggage and often anti-gay positions attached to it.

This article explains this well; so I'll stop typing and let you read it.

Dear Washington Post, please stop calling me a "homosexual"

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 help 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.

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