Friday, 12 June 2009

Word Geek's guide to homosexual gay vocabulary and usage.

In my new job, we have to talk about sex and sexuality, and we have to be politically correct. It's a real balancing act at the best of times, but when it comes to talking about .... well ... what I want to talk about, it's a minefield.

This was brought to my attention when a colleague was trying to write a report on homophobia in schools. He wanted to say 'homosexuality' but had been told that 'homosexual' and therefore 'homosexuality' is considered offensive because it is the medical term for the 'condition' of being gay and our employers wanted it removed, newspeak style, from all documents. "What am I going to put then?" ranted my colleague (who is himself gay) "'gayness'? That's less offensive, is it?"

Now, as with most political correctness, the intention here is honourable. Someone somewhere has caught on to the fact that it's generally homophobic groups who use words like homosexual, and wanted to distance themselves from that. But they haven't thought about the practical implications. It's difficult though, for people who are not part of a persecuted minority, to navigate how to best indicate that they are not prejudiced against this group. So, as a public service, I'd like to provide a guide.

Homosexual (noun): Try to avoid calling gay people 'homosexuals'. It's not a BAD word as such, but when it's used as a label it just feels a bit... off.

Homosexual (adjective): This is slightly better, but where possible, use gay as the preferred adjective. If you must use it, use it to refer to the physical, not cultural, aspects of homosexuality. So 'homosexual feelings' is ok. 'homosexual poetry' is not.

Homosexuality: As seen above, homosexuality is causing problems. (The word, not the phenomenon!)Yes, it's a medical word. Yes, it's obviously link to homosexual, which can be offensive, but there is no other word in the language doing the same job and, as such, it . cannot be removed. Which in turn makes removing 'homosexual' problematic.

Heterosexual/ity: This is fine, apparently. This is the same double standard which has led to students in UK schools referring to 'chalkboards' instead of blackboards, but not calling whiteboards 'penboards'. The implication ends up being that 'black' and 'homosexual' have shame attached to them but 'heterosexual' and 'white' do not.

Queer (noun): No.

Queer (adjective): This is a fantastic, all inclusive word, reclaimed from being a horribly offensive homophobic slur, and widely used in America to describe all things unstraight. In the UK, however, it has more of a history of just meaning peculiar/eccentric, and has not been embraced in the same way. Americans in the UK should use it with caution as they may be misinterpreted. I think it's fab, though.

Gay (noun): This, like homosexual, is frowned upon. 'Gays' has homophobic connotations.

Gay (adjective): This is fine (as long, obviously, as you're not using it to mean crap) but can be misleading, as some people use it to refer to men, and some use it to refer to men and women.

Lesbian (noun): Unlike 'gay', this is fine. Who the hell knows why. Maybe because 'Lesbian Woman' sounds redundant. Some people prefer to say 'gay woman', which suits me too.

Lesbian (adjective): Also fine.

Bisexual/ity (adjective and noun): Again, fine, making a bit of a mockery of the fact that homosexual isn't. The abbreviation 'Bi' is often preferred.

LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans): It's clunky, it's irritating, and it keeps picking up a random Q (for 'questioning'). But it's inclusive and a safe bet for official documents. Roughly equivalent to the American 'queer'.

I'll probably think of some more later, but that's all for now.

x WG


  1. :)
    A couple of friends had asked me for a "cheat sheet," so I can send this to them ;)

  2. I'm glad I found your blog. I think I will enjoy it immensely.

  3. i thought the Q stood for Queer, as in "rejects the labels but isn't straight, either". of course, the last i heard, the full, complete and totally inclusive version of that acronym was LBBTQQIA, or LGBT2QIA. where one Q is Questioning, one Q is genderQueer, I is Intersex, and A is Asexual. i may have gotten some of the extended terms wrong. i thought there was another A in there for Ally somewhere. *sigh*

    the intersection of queer sexuality and word nerdiness in your blog makes my brain smile. thanks.

    i took my glasses off to go to bed about an hour ago. if i misspelled, it's because i can't totally make out my own typing. i'm really going to bed now.

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  5. I think the reason 'lesbian' is OK as both a noun and an adjective may stem from its original meaning: of or pertaining to the island of Lesbos. This worked as an adjective and a noun, so somebody from Lesbos (for example Sappho, the original lesbian icon and the reason for the change of meaning) was not only Lesbian but also A Lesbian.

    Another point - am I the only person who doesn't like the term 'bisexual'? I don't mind it being used, so I agree with you there - I just think it's a horrible word.

  6. Thanks . . . almost used queer as a noun. And I didn't even capitalize it. I'm going to stay away from nouns in general.

  7. o ffs. no to all of this. gay means "happy". no one thinks homosexual is a medical stigma anymore. If gay can mean homosexual as well, then it shows that language MOVES ON. It's not inclusive to give everything a bracket, to constantly and openly DIVIDE -- I know that's how it is done for us, and I'm supposed to be thrilled, but I was perfectly fine with "The Gay Day Parade". If you consider yourself gay or supportive of the community for whatever reason.