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.