The NYT just ran a piece on the apparent disfavor the word now has among some homosexuals. I have a pretty good guide to figuring out what to do with such a question which is to check out what GLAAD is saying and believe the opposite. As a writer, there are few things that piss me off more than being told which words I can and cannot use. Fuck that shit. (See? It’s good to have a blog.)
The impulse, sigh, is political:
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.
But I like the term “homo”! I use it all the time – about myself and others, although I also often use “fag” as well. The gay thought-police would be aghast, but the intent is what matters. Mine is mostly benign. Mostly. But mainly, one great legacy of the gay community has been our love of freedom, especially of speech. For centuries and decades, the right to free speech was our only truly secure constitutional right. We were always about enlarging what was sayable, rather than restricting it. Banning “homosexual” also reeks of insecurity. We are not so tender we cannot handle a clinical, neutral term, or even a slur or the re-appropriation of a slur. “Queer” was one such reclamation, although that’s much more pointed than “homosexual” and certainly doesn’t reflect how I feel about my orientation. There’s nothing queer about being horny and falling in love or lust or getting married. They’re among the most common activities known to humankind. But I sure don’t mind others using it – and more and more heteros want to call themselves “queer” too. But my main objection to getting rid of “homosexual” is that we would lose a not-too-easily replaced non-euphemism.
While the Times article notes that “scholars expect the use of the term to eventually fall away entirely,” it doesn’t really consider the problems that loss could cause. It’s worth noting that gay has contested meanings as well, and by my definition of that word—which, very generally, has far more to do with a historically and geographically specific constellation of aesthetic tastes, artistic styles and modes of relating than with genitals—there are far fewer gay people around these days than there are homosexuals.
AE Housman: “Homosexuals”? Who is responsible for this barbarity?
Chamberlain: What’s wrong with it?
AE Housman: It’s half Greek and half Latin!
Chamberlain: That sounds about right.
When I wrote Virtually Normal, I had to decide on a unifying adjective. “Homosexual” seemed to me to be a way of reaching those who would read and hear the term as an indicator that I was not rigging the argument with pro-gay rhetoric. I’m fine with “gay”, and use it all the time. But persuasion is best done on neutral ground. Maybe the word has become less neutral since 1995. But I cannot think of a better one.
Still, while I’m at it, there is a “word” that seems to me worth retiring. Not by fiat, just by trying to avoid or ignore it. It’s the unpronounceable p.c. acronym: LGBT. God I hate that “word”. It describes no single person; it cannot be spoken easily; it reeks of bullshit. No one started using that word of their own accord as a way to describe herself. It was created by leftists who believe that all oppressed groups are primarily defined by their oppression and that the very different lives and identities of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender are somehow all one. I know it’s an effort at inclusion. I appreciate the good intent. And if it had any wit or originality, instead of sounding like a town in Croatia, I could live with it. But it doesn’t.
So fuck that shit.