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Poker, politics, philosophy
gays, homosexuals, and language 
8th-Aug-2007 11:14 am
I recently read a post from the The Volokh Conspiracy about whether homosexual is an offensive term, and gay should be used instead.

I think that the way to decide which to use is to look at how the terms are used and see if there's a difference in meaning. Certainly in casual conversation, almost nobody I talk to ever uses the word "homosexual". I've never heard any of our numerous gay friends say anything but "gay". Similarly, when you look at columns from conservatives who are anti-gay, they almost never say "gay" but always say "homosexual".

However, it could be that "gay" is the casual term, and "homosexual" is the formal term. Columns or speeches are inherently more formal than conversation, so you would expect a higher incidence of "homosexual" in columns or speeches regardless of a difference in meaning. The New York Times has a topics section on the matter called Times Topics: Homosexuality. "Homosexuality" is not quite the same as "homosexual", since there is no equivalent informal term ("gayness" not seeing much use), but it is so similar that by association it seems to make "homosexual" more palatable. Noted conservative gay columnist Andrew Sullivan seems to use both terms. Note that in the most formal writing, that of medical experts, "homosexual" has been (almost) entirely discarded as a description of behavior; the usage now is apparently "men who have sex with men" or "MSM", because medicine is interested in capturing behavior rather than outlook -- there are men who have sex with men who would not identify as gay, for instance.

Perhaps a small empirical study will help matters. If you search for phrases that are likely to be used by pro-gay or anti-gay groups, will you see a difference in distribution? Based on (notoriously inaccurate) query term counts in Y! search (or Google), I find the following:

  • "gay rights" beats "homosexual rights" by 30:1. This is probably colored by the gay rights movement, though, which made the phrase mainstream.
  • "homosexual agenda" beats "gay agenda" by almost 3:1. Tellingly, of the top 10 results for "homosexual agenda", 7 are from conservative anti-gay organizations, 2 are liberal responses to anti-gay organizations, and the last one is wikipedia. Several of the hits for "gay agenda", on the other hand, are gay-friendly travel sites on Y! (kind of odd, really, even if that's the name of the trip), whereas Google shows an assortment of antigay writings. Since the agenda terms seem to correlate with antigay writings, it seems that the right uses "homosexual" more frequently that "gay".
  • "gay marriage" beats "homosexual marriage" by 5.3:1
  • "gay friendly" is very common, but "homosexual friendly" has less than 1000 hits, and the top 10 are almost all antigay. The top 10 hits for "gay friendly" are all either pro gay or news articles.

It seems to me from this that there is indeed a difference in distribution between "gay" and "homosexual", which seems to suggest that the latter is much more heavily used by conservative writers, where "gay" is used by everyone.

There seems to be another dimension, though: for this speaker, there is a large difference in tone between the noun and adjective forms of the words. A statement about "homosexuals", or to a lesser extent "gays", seems to be to be more aggressive and more likely to be negative than a statement about "homosexual men". This is intensified if there's a definite determiner: "the homosexuals" is even more negative, and sounds like the sort of thing that would show up in a scare-mongering speech involving agendas and exhorting thoughts of the children. "The gays" is also likely to be used negatively than "gay men", which sounds very neutral to this liberal.

From all of this I conclude that "homosexual" is ambiguously antigay, especially as a noun, while "gay" is neutral-to-positive. There is some direct research to back this up. From an article on the New York Blade, which I gather is a gay interest newspaper:
Every May since 2001 a Gallup poll asked Americans “In general, do you think homosexuals should or should not have equal rights in terms of job opportunities?”

The yes responses are as follows: 2001: 85 percent; 2002 86 percent; 2003 88 percent; 2004: 89 percent; 2005: 90 percent/87 percent; and 2006: 89 percent.

Note the two percentages given in 2005. That year, Gallup asked half the respondents about equal rights for “gays and lesbians,” resulting in a 3 percent higher approval compared with the Galllup’s typical use of the term “homosexual.”

What is fascinating to me is that both terms once had very negative connotations: homosexuality was a psychological disorder for years, and for centuries, bible-thumpers have denounced homosexuality. However, "gay" was an epithet for a long time as well -- during my childhood, it was a common negative term which could be applied equally to wimpy boys, bad food, losing a game, or any undesirable object or event. It, along with "queer", seems to have been reclaimed by the gay community.
8th-Aug-2007 07:44 pm (UTC)
During my childhood, the only meaning I knew for "gay" was the second of these given in the Am. Heritage 4th:
1. Of, relating to, or having a sexual orientation to persons of the same sex.
2. Showing or characterized by cheerfulness and lighthearted excitement; merry.

For a while—I was a linguistic curmudgeon even long ago—I resented the usurpation of a basic monosyllabic adjective.

Recently—a few years?—a pejorative sense has become quite frequent: "Oh, that's so gay!"
8th-Aug-2007 08:39 pm (UTC)
2. Showing or characterized by cheerfulness and lighthearted excitement; merry.

You're showing your age.

Recently—a few years?—a pejorative sense has become quite frequent: "Oh, that's so gay!"

That's what I was alluding to at the end of my post. I started hearing that in the late 80's, with its peak in the 90's. It's been years since I've heard that now, but I probably hang with the wrong crowd these days.
8th-Aug-2007 09:59 pm (UTC)
Yeah, "gay" meaning "lame" or something is ubiquitous amongst subadult online gamers.
9th-Aug-2007 01:56 am (UTC)
That's so gay.
15th-Aug-2007 04:48 am (UTC)
> … ("gayness" not seeing much use) ….

That's because the correct word is "gaiety."

Gaily yours,
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