Labels: homosexual

For some considerable time, I’ve been collecting attitudes about labels in the domain of sexuality, gender identity, and sexual practices. (Some discussion in passing in my recent posting on alphabet soup in this domain.) Now, thanks to the reversal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, these labels are in the news.

On NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday on the 29th, a story from host Scott Simon and Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman about procedures for the reversal, including a handbook for commanders with answers to frequently asked questions, including one bit about labels:

Bowman: They say do not use the term homosexuality, ’cause that has negative connotations. They suggest using gay or lesbian, for example.

(Let’s edit that by replacing homosexuality by homosexual, to make the term parallel to gay and lesbian.)

Here, distilled from discussion of this passage on ADS-L, are the objections that have been raised to the label homosexual:

(1) The term originated, as an adjective, in a medical context, in translations of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, from which it spread to non-technical contexts. So it has a “clinical” tone to it that suggests disease to many people.

(2) For the noun use, which developed a bit later than the adjective use, OED2 notes that

In non-technical contexts it is often taken to mean a male homosexual, a female one being termed a lesbian.

As a result, some people object to the term as being insufficiently inclusive.

(3) From “How To Write An Anti-Gay Tract In Fifteen Easy Steps” (here; hat tip to Ann Burlingham):

Talk about sex as though it were the only thing that matters to gays and lesbians. Not love, not relationships, not commitment, not families – just sex.

To reinforce this point, anti-gay writers make extensive use of the
term “homosexual” throughout their tracts. By constantly emphasizing “homosexual” instead of using the terms “gay” or “lesbian”, the sexual component of gays and lesbians are emphasized above all other aspects of their lives. And the more you portray gays and lesbians as sex-obsessed homosexuals, maybe your readers won’t notice the irony of your tract being obsessed with the sex lives of supposedly “sex-obsessed” people.

That is, the label homosexual tends to focus (in some people’s minds) on sexual practices as opposed to sexual orientation. (And the label has come to be associated in some people’s mind with anti-gay rhetoric, which makes it objectionable to gays and lesbians.)


The difference between homosexuals and gay men and lesbians can have stunning consequences, as in a CBS News/New York Times poll about the DADT policy, reported on by Mark Liberman on Language Log back in April 2010 (here). The shift from the first labeling to the second in survey questions produced a large shift in favor of the group in question. For example, consider

responses to the question “Do you favor or oppose ___ being allowed to serve openly?” Changing the description from “homosexuals” to “gay men and lesbians” swung opinion in favor from 44% to 58%, and opinion in opposition from 42% to 28%



One Response to “Labels: homosexual”

  1. Associations and connotations « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] here). Here's a section of the handout that pursues a theme from my posting "Labels: homosexual" (here) on associations and connotations of labels. (I will eventually post a link to the whole […]

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: