Drenner, like many others, emphasized that the Religious Right prefers to use “homosexual,” presumably because, unlike the word “gay,” the word emphasizes sexuality; and that when the Right uses “homosexual,” it is in a negative context.

I understand these objections, that gay people’s lives are about more than sex; we have families, careers, etc.; and that the use of the word “gay” instead of “homosexual” reinforces this notion because it doesn’t have “sexual” in it. Also, I’ve been told, heterosexuals respond better to “gay” in poll data.

Well, isn’t this surrendering the idea that to be homosexual is somehow problematic, so that we should have to change the subject?

And further, isn’t this allowing them to dictate the terms of the debate by forcing us to find a word that makes them more comfortable?

The word “homosexual” is not negative; it’s descriptive. But when we imbue it with pride, we make it a positive word.

Indeed, there are plenty of words that are unacceptable and that intrinsically describe people who are homosexual with a negative connotation. I grew up and experienced bullying in South Florida, so I know most of those words in at least three languages.

But let’s be clear. “Homosexual” isn’t one of those negative words. And as important as Rep. Drenner’s call was to me, I think we do ourselves a disservice in the long view when we surrender the word to the Religious Right.

There is another word that to some has a negative connotation that has been used as a close approximation of “gay,” and that’s “queer.”

How did we give “queer” its own letter in one of the more inclusive versions of our community acronym (LGBTQI), but “homosexual” is still on the banned words list?

I had a lengthy conversation one time with a representative from GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) about how “homosexual” does not appear in their style manual, and how they had convinced the Associated Press to stop using “homosexual,” as if convincing the AP of something were some credential.

Well, I have to ask, which part of the word are they opposed to? Is it the homo? Or is it the sexual?

Because we already use the prefix “homo” when we use the word “homophobic.” If GLAAD wants to be consistent, they would adopt “gayphobic and lesbianphobic.”

And we already use the suffix “sexual” when we use the word “bisexuals,” who, after all, make up a significant proportion of our community acronym, as the B in LGBTQI.

So, in fact, it’s okay to be homo and it’s perfectly all right to be sexual, according to GLAAD, but never both. It’s never okay to put the two together.

Wow. Isn’t that exactly what the Religious Right wants us to think? And haven’t we let them win when we surrender a word to them?

I think we need to use the correct, accurate word for what we’re trying to describe. The variable is sexual orientation, not gayness.

When we lobby the legislature and Congress for equal protections, do we ask, for example, that individuals be protected from job discrimination on the basis of race, class, gender, sex, religion, nationality, disability status, and gayness? Or do we ask for these protections from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation? It is the latter.

And what are the categories of sexual orientation? In alphabetical order: bisexual, heterosexual, homosexual.

The word “gay” is, as it were, okay, too. I think the gay community and the gay institutions and the gay publications have a right to be as gay as we want.

But I think generally, when people hear the word “homosexual” they think of someone’s sexual orientation, a demographic variable. When they think of gayness, they conjure an entire community, an entire culture, a way of life.

I think that homosexual is a subset of gay, that gay includes homosexual but so much more. That to say you’re homosexual is to say, for example, that you’re a man who is attracted to other men; whereas to say you’re gay is akin to saying you’re a member of a community, kind of like the Rotary Club except with a rights movement.

Finally, there’s another word that concerns me, and that’s the word “straight.”

To me, this is the word most insidious and the most damaging, especially when gay and homosexual people use it unproblematically to describe heterosexuals.

If heterosexual people are “straight,” it implies that anyone who is not heterosexual is not straight, and is therefore crooked, curved, or perhaps circuitous. It’s outrageous.

It’s self-betrayal, especially when GLAAD forbids putting “homo” and “sexual” together, but sees nothing wrong with the heterosexuals being straight. Am I the only one who sees this problem?

On a final note, I know that sex and sexual orientation are both socially constructed categories. I could say much more about the writings of Michel Foucault and how there’s a fundamental problem regarding our society’s need to label everyone and to put everyone in boxes.

And I agree we should work towards the day that is post-sexual orientation.

But as long as we feel the need as a society to categorize people into sexual orientations and believe those categories are meaningful, then let’s use the appropriate words.

Using the word “gay” instead of “homosexual” — in an attempt to distract from sexual orientation — is fundamentally flawed as long as we as a society continue to use words that categorize people into sexual orientations.

 


Matthew Cardinale is news editor of Atlanta Progressive News. He can be reached through its website at www.atlantaprogressivenews.com

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