NYT On The Decline Of The “H” Word

The New York Times yesterday explored the vanishing use of the word “homosexual” by almost everybody except anti-gay groups.

Consider the following phrases: homosexual community, homosexual activist, homosexual marriage. Substitute the word “gay” in any of those cases, and the terms suddenly become far less loaded, so that the ring of disapproval and judgment evaporates. Some gay rights advocates have declared the term off limits. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, or Glaad, has put “homosexual” on its list of offensive terms and in 2006 persuaded The Associated Press, whose stylebook is the widely used by many news organizations, to restrict use of the word.

George P. Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, has looked at the way the term is used by those who try to portray gays and lesbians as deviant. What is most telling about substituting it for gay or lesbian are the images that homosexual tends to activate in the brain, he said. “Gay doesn’t use the word sex,” he said. “Lesbian doesn’t use the word sex. Homosexual does.” “It also contains ‘homo,’ which is an old derogatory,” he added. “They want to have that idea there. They want to say this is not normal sex, this is not normal family, it’s going against God.”

Back in the 90s when some of our people began to reclaim “queer,” I understood why so many others in our community objected. The visceral unease that some experience when hearing or seeing the word “queer” – even in a benign, supportive or celebratory context – may never fade for those of us whose most vivid playground memories are the vicious-by-design games of “smear the queer.” Still, I relished the fuck-you-ness of taking “queer” back and I defiantly wore my Queer Nation t-shirt until it disintegrated into gay-friendly cotton molecules.

Similarly, I do get why many consider “homosexual” to be cold, clinical, and reductive. But so too is “heterosexual” – and straight people certainly don’t instinctively flinch at the term. For many people, the 20th century (ish) reappropriation of “gay” continues to carry an inherent, even subliminal, subtext of happiness – of a carefree life unburdened by shame or guilt or regret. And that’s both wonderful and exactly why our enemies impotently flail against its usage.

I don’t disagree with those who complain that “homosexual” can be, often deliberately, a crude reduction of all-that-we-are to merely who-puts-what-where. But it cannot be denied that the epiphany that led us all to take our first tentative steps on the yellow brick road was based in our acceptance that society’s who-puts-what-where edict doesn’t work for us. “Homosexual” may feel like a linguistic anachronism, but to my mind that word is merely the foundation upon which we build our culture. It’s our starting point. I don’t like giving the haters the satisfaction of watching us try to bury “homosexual.” I wish we wouldn’t do it.