Via Dennis Lewis on Facebook, a link to a Huffington Post piece “Social Conservatives Will Defeat The Gay Agenda By Inventing New Words” (by Jason Linkins, April 11). What’s being proposed is not lexical innovation but a shift in the terms to be used in the domain of homosexuality, substituting other existing terms for those used by gay people (especially the term gay itself)  — a shift referred to as rebranding by some social conservatives.

From Linkins’s posting:

For as long as I can remember, social conservatives have been at war with the “gay agenda” — whatever that is. Probably just the notion that members of the LGBT community are actual human beings, or something.

Over time, however, they’ve been losing this fight. As it stands, a majority of Americans “say it should be legal for gays and lesbians to marry,” according to a recent poll from ABC News and the Washington Post. Even self-styled opponents of gay marriage are meeting gay people for the first time in their lives and realizing that they aren’t monsters. And Republicans are starting to edge toward favoring this position, themselves…

So, social conservatives are asking themselves, how do we reverse these trends? … why not just start using some different words? Here’s Sofia Resnick of the American Independent, reporting on this cunning new stratagem:

The first step for Christian conservatives to win the war against the gay movement is to rebrand the terms, said a few panelists at this weekend’s The Awakening conference at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.

“‘Gay’ is a left-wing socio-political construct designed to create grounds for fundamental rights [based on] whimsical capricious desires,” said Ryan Sorba, chairman of the Young Conservatives of California. “Gay identity does not exist.”

So the trick here is to invent a new term that steals away from the positive connotations of the word “gay,” I guess…

Sorba proposed alternatives to the word “gay,” [flag *] which received approval by a unanimous show of hands by the 40-some audience members:

– “Same-sex attraction”
– “Same-sex intercourse”
– “Sodomy”
– “Unnatural vice”

Later in the discussion, it was suggested that gays should also be referred to as “anti-Christian.”

Of course, these new terms are rife with semantic difficulties. “Same-sex attraction” and “same-sex intercourse” are basically clinical descriptors that aren’t loaded with negative connotations. “Sodomy” is a term that … catches most of your skilled heterosexuals up into the same net. “Anti-Christian” may as well be a term for everything this group already stridently opposes. And I, for one, am only too curious to find out what a room of social conservatives considers to be a “natural vice.” [flag **]

But hey, this group is in desperate need of some sort of game-changer, because they’re all still talking about their beef with homosexuality in the same way they have for decades. “If you had all the facts, you wouldn’t choose to be gay,” said Greg Quinlan, an “ex-gay” who serves as the president of Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays & Gays … [flag ***]

The full American Independent article, with a video of the full commentary from Sorba, is here.


*A frequent feature of proposals to replace disliked terms by others is that the suggested replacements aren’t of the same syntactic category as the term to be replaced, so that it’s hard to see how to use the replacements in sentences. As here: gay is an adjective (or a noun referring to a gay person), but most of the proposed replacements — same-sex attraction, same-sex intercourse, sodomy, unnatural vice — are nouns (referring to abstractions or to actions), and can’t be slotted in for gay in expressions like gay peoplegay mengay politics, gay organizations, or even gay agenda. Anti-Christian is indeed an adjective, but it’s ludicrous as a substitute for gay, even if you believe, counterfactually, that gay people are generally anti-Christian and anti-Christians are generally gay. The exercise seems not to be about altering language but about dissing homosexuality and homosexuals.

** Natural vice actually makes some sense in the world view of these speakers, where there are many vices — greed, sloth, gluttony, pride, anger — but only one that is unnatural, in the sense of “against nature”.

*** The speakers run through all the usual anti-gay characterizations of homosexuality: it’s a (bad) choice, a sin, immoral acts, a lifestyle that leads to death, a submission to pleasure (“hedonism repackaged”, in the words of Matt Barber, a dean at Liberty University; “whimsical capricious desires” above), etc.

Now to rebranding. From OED3 (September 2004) on the verb rebrand in its 20th-century (chiefly marketing) sense, based on the verb brand (‘to apply a trade mark or brand to (a product); to promote (a product or service) on the basis of a brand name or design’):

trans. Chiefly Marketing. To apply a new brand identity, name, logo, etc., to (a product, service, or company). In extended use: to change radically the presentation of. Also intr.

[first cite] 1900    Times 31 Aug. 6/4,   I am informed that over 4,000,000lb. of tinned meats were shipped from the United States to England, and there rebranded ‘Shamrock’ and shipped to this colony.

[most recent cite, in an extended sense involving the assignment of labels to people] 2002    Press (Christchurch, N.Z.) 9 Mar. 15/7   Examples of the phenomenon dubbed ‘up-titling’ include a receptionist rebranded as head of verbal telecommunications and a window cleaner given the impressive designation of optical illuminator enhancer.

In these usages, someone has a right to brand and rebrand things. If gay people choose to call themselves queer in public spaces, as many have, that’s their right; for many purposes, the branding privileges reside in them. If medical and legal authorities choose to refer to gay people as homosexuals in their technical contexts, that’s their right; for those purposes, the branding privileges reside in them. (In both cases, others can object and can reject the usages for themselves, but they can’t impose their preferred usages on the people with branding rights.)

If anti-gay activists choose to refer to gay people as sodomites or anti-Christians or whatever, amongst themselves, others might be appalled or enraged, but the activists are entitled to talk any way they want; but they have no branding rights. Their talk of rebranding is an attempt to assume authority over labeling in a social arena wider than anti-Christian circles.


One Response to “Rebranding”

  1. Ben Zimmer Says:

    It was an aversion to the word “gay” that led a Christian news site to rebrand Tyson Gay as Tyson Homosexual.

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