“Homosexual” has been used both as a noun and an adjective. The Association of LGBTQ Journalists, also known as the NLGJA, says this about “homosexual”:
As a noun, a person attracted to members of the same sex. As an adjective, of or relating to sexual and affectional attraction to a member of the same sex. Use only in medical contexts or in reference to sexual activity.
GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide says the word is considered “outdated,” “derogatory,” and “offensive.”
Why is it considered “derogatory” and “offensive”?
There are a few perspectives on that. GLAAD, in its listing of terms to avoid, says:
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.
Tell me more about the history of the word “homosexual.”
Many attribute the term to Karl-Maria Kertbeny, who was referred to in a 2014 New York Times article as “a Hungarian journalist who wrote passionately in opposition to Germany’s anti-sodomy laws in the 19th century.” According to the BBC, Kertbeny coined the term in the late 1860s, along with the term “heterosexual.” Within the following decade or so, Kertbeny used “homosexual” in a book chapter arguing for the decriminalization of homosexuality. Gustav Jager, that book’s editor, did not publish Kertbeny’s chapter, but used it in an 1880 book instead. As for Kertbeny, he had continued to campaigned for the rights of people we would now refer to as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
It sounds like Kertbeny didn’t intend for the word “homosexual” to have negative connotations. But GLAAD said the word had been used by “anti-gay extremists to suggest that gay people are somehow diseased”?
Right. So, Jager and Kertbeny are not seen as responsible for the word’s negative connotation. According to the BBC, the next time the word was published was in 1889, when a psychiatrist named Richard von Krafft-Ebing included “homosexual” and “heterosexual” in a catalog of sexual disorders, “Psychopathia Sexualis.” The words began to catch on, and as of 1934, Merriam-Webster defined “heterosexuality” as “manifestation of sexual passion for one of the opposite sex; normal sexuality.”
The implication being that homosexuality was not normal?
It sure seems easy to read it that way. According to Psychology Today, The American Psychiatric Association had long treated homosexuality as a mental disorder. The APA formally classified it as such in 1968, only to remove it from the American classification of mental disorders in 1973 after APA members took a vote.
So, did “homosexual” become less stigmatized after that?
No, not really, and that’s in part because others had adopted the word as a pejorative, particularly religious groups and politicians. In an article for The Week, Nicholas Subtirelu explained how he decided to study data on how often words like “homosexual,” “gay,” and “lesbian” were used by US senators and representatives. He found that “homosexual” was not as commonly used as “gay,” but that “homosexual” was a term often used by politicians who vocally opposed homosexuality and gay rights. Especially when compared to politicians who used “gay” or “lesbian” and tended to support gay rights. And that, Subtirelu said, could explain why gay people might have associated the word with people who oppose them:
The offense that some gay men and women take to the term “homosexual” can be explained in part by its association with anti-gay stances heard especially in the 1990s and 2000s, not only in Congress but also on talk radio, at church, and around the dinner table. The subtle but close association between anti-gay politics and the term “homosexual” means that when they hear “homosexual” some gays and lesbians hear opposition to their struggle for equal treatment under the law and homophobic conspiracy theories about immoral and corrupt “homosexual agendas.” It’s no wonder they’re offended.
I suppose I never noticed the connection between one’s views on LGBTQ rights and whether they used “gay” or “homosexual.”
You are likely not alone. It turns out there’s more research on this topic. Matthew Motta, who at the time was a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota, wrote an essay for The Washington Post in 2017 about how he and his colleagues studied the ways rhetoric could shape opinion on LGBTQ rights. They included an experiment in a nationwide survey, randomly assigned half of the survey respondents to answer policy questions about “homosexual” rights. The other half was asked similar questions, but about about “gay” rights.
The word “homosexual” was associated with a lower rate of support for LGBTQ rights, but with a caveat, Motta explained:
This effect is conditioned by a few factors. One of them is survey respondents’ levels of authoritarianism. Authoritarianism, in this context, is a psychological preference for order, sensitivity to in-group/out-group distinctions, and preferences for moral traditionalism. We also examined the interaction between authoritarianism and two other factors: people’s religious preferences and social context.
That caveat is important consider when reading the results:
Overall, our research suggests that the terms “gay” and “homosexual” can be used strategically to sway public opinion among certain large and politically relevant groups. Highly authoritarian born-again Christians make up 21 percent of the U.S. voting-age population. Highly authoritarian people who do not personally know someone with same-sex attractions comprise 23 percent of the American voting-age population.
Wow. So, “homosexual” is such a loaded word because of its historical connotations and who has used it?
There are differing views on how that specific word came to be the word of choice for people wanting to talk of gays and lesbians disparagingly. For the aforementioned 2014 article for The New York Times, writer Jeremy W. Peters talked with George P. Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, about why people would use “homosexual” instead of “gay” or “lesbian”:
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.”
So the argument here is that the use of “sex” in the word is what led to it being used negatively?
That’s the argument, but not everyone agrees. Writer J. Bryan Lowder responded to the New York Times article with his own article, published by Slate. Lowder, gay himself, said he agreed with Peters’ initial definition: “a little outdated and clinical, perhaps, but innocuous enough.” Lowder pushed back against the idea that the use of “sex” in “homosexual” was meant to imply a distaste for people of the same sex having sex with each other:
One of my main struggles as a homosexual has been challenging the tendency of many straight people to treat my partner and me as “roommates” or “good friends,” when, in fact, we have sex. Gay sex. Regularly. If homosexual can help remind them of that important, definitional, politically crucial fact with less effort on my part, I say it’s a plus, not a minus.
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