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?