Prop 8, Gays, Homosexuals, and What is In a Name

Like many, I was glued to the blogosphere waiting for the decision in Perry v. Schwarzenegger yesterday, the Prop 8 decision. One seemingly superficial issue I have been interested in is how the court would refer to the class to which the plaintiffs belonged: as “gay” men and women or homosexuals?

I actually first started thinking about this a few months ago. A wonderful midwest law school in a smaller city invited me to a conference and arranged to have a student pick me up at the airport. This was unusually gracious, and I appreciated it, but a funny thing happened on the ride. I asked the student about the city, and what it was like to live there, etc. The student at one point said to me: “Oh, and we have a really vibrant homosexual community.”

I was a little amused that he focused on this element of the city, though perhaps something I said had primed him, or this was just a testament to the perceived role of gays in the rise of the creative classes and a city’s hipness factor. What surprised me the most, though, was actually his language — his use of the term “homosexual” in a positive way. My own anecdotal experience is that people use the term “homosexual” when they want to ascribe negative connotations, and “gay” when they want a more neutral or positive ones. A quick (and very unscientific) google search of the terms “homosexual marriage” and “gay marriage” this morning seems to confirm this.

On this view it is unsurprising, then, that Judge Walker in the Perry opinion repeatedly refers to the plaintiffs and their group as “gays and lesbians”.  What is more surprising is that I expected I would find a split in usage between Justice Kennedy and Scalia’s majority and dissenting opinions in Lawrence v. Texas, with “homosexual” being dominant in the Scalia’s opinion.  Interestingly, both opinions use “homosexual.”

So here are a few questions I am thinking about: Was my initial instinct that which term to use reflects a political valence correct? Does it instead reflect something else? Geography (think of the student driving me)? Age? A change in time over which term is more acceptable, a little bit like the way the term “handicapped” has given way to “disabled” to “people with disabilities”?  Is the usage of “homosexual” by people who do not want to expand rights for the group a subtle attempt to bring the “sex” (in the intercourse sense) back into people’s minds?  Which word do you use in the classroom? Would Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual students be offended by the term “homosexual,” and if so, is that a good reason not to use it?

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5 Responses

  1. Rob Carlson says:

    It’s clinical vs. familiar terminology. The student who picked you up might have known of the scene and been happy it was in his neighborhood, but didn’t consider himself to have any direct link to it.

    I’ve noticed that people I know will use “gay” if they feel connected to the community, and “homosexual” if they don’t, regardless of whether their feelings are positive or negative. Connection in this case doesn’t mean being a part of it, but having friends or acquaintances who also use the “insider” terms in casual conversation.

    A geeky analogy:

    “I have a co-worker in another department who happens to be an amateur radio operator. It seems like a great hobby.”

    “My ham buddies are always talking to each other on their rigs. It’s like they’ve got nothing better to do!”

    The “amateur radio” and “ham” communities are the same thing, but only someone who realizes that those people are comfortable being referred as “hams” will use the less clinical term.

  2. Ben says:

    I agree with Rob’s point, and add that for me it’s about having “sex” in the word. A lot of the uphill battle for me in explaining what it means to be a gay person to those who are disconnected (and perhaps innocently/unintentionally ignorant as a result) is in countering stereotypes, particularly that we’re all sex-fueled maniacs. The obvious example in the textbooks is Bowers, in which White was *obsessed* with the idea of gay sex to the total exclusion of anything else.

    Sex, obviously, is a part of the relationship and the dividing line at issue here is sexual attraction. But holding hands isn’t about sex, and having dinner together isn’t about sex, and helping your kids with their homework isn’t about sex, and sitting next to your partner in intensive care isn’t about sex. In talking with people it is important for me to be able communicate that there are non-sex elements to a gay relationship. Sometimes this is honestly a surprise.

    And so maybe that forms a second but related point, that it’s about the conduct/status divide — i.e. that gay people engage in homosexual conduct (but also do other things). The reason you see “homosexual” more in a negative light is that it is easier to be negative about gay people if you think that all they’re about is having sex / conduct. But if it is a status that encompasses more things (all aspects of a relationship) and some of those things overlap with straight relationships, it is perhaps harder to be negative about gays.

  3. Bruce Boyden says:

    Re: the opinions, I think there might be some confusion about whether “gay” and “straight” are still colloquial terms, or whether they are used so widely (e.g., “gay rights”) as to be acceptable for formal writing. My sense is that usage is still in flux.

  4. For my part, it’s because I read a lot of old literature, and “gay” doesn’t mean “homosexual” to me. (I even tend to think of “fagots” as bundles of sticks.”)

    And to some extent the “iron law of euphemism” applies. Why bother with euphemisms if they’re just going to get used up, anyway?

  5. pvc dresses says:

    I just can’t imagine why anyone’s sexual orientation is of interest to the government. There is something like a .001% difference in the genetic makeup of a male and a female human being. In the entire history of the human race we are approximately 99.9% genetically similar to every other human who has ever lived. Why does sex or orientation have to make any difference regarding love? And is the government going to regulate love in the future?