Gay and Lesbian or Homosexual? What’s in a Word?

Together with the New York Times, CBS has released the results of their latest poll in which they attempt to gauge support for repealing the military gay ban ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ Interestingly, they found that more people support letting gays and lesbians serve in the military than support homosexuals. What? It seems that, at least in the minds of some respondents, words, and the emotions evoked by those words, really can make a difference. Here’s a brief summary of the CBS poll (click here for the full article):

In the poll, 59 percent say they now support allowing “homosexuals” to serve in the U.S. military, including 34 percent who say they strongly favor that. Ten percent say they somewhat oppose it and 19 percent say they strongly oppose it.

But the numbers differ when the question is changed to whether Americans support “gay men and lesbians” serving in the military. When the question is asked that way, 70 percent of Americans say they support gay men and lesbians serving in the military, including 19 percent who say they somewhat favor it. Seven percent somewhat oppose it, and 12 percent strongly oppose it…

(This poll was conducted among a random sample of 1,084 adults nationwide, interviewed by telephone February 5-10, 2010. Phone numbers were dialed from random digit dial samples of both standard land-line and cell phones. The error due to sampling for results based on the entire sample could be plus or minus three percentage points. The error for subgroups is higher.)

The poll also found a similar trend when asking whether “gays and lesbians” should serve openly in the military as opposed to asking whether “homosexuals” should serve openly in the military, with a difference of 58 percent to 44 percent showing support respectively. The article notes that, regardless of the term, support for gay and lesbian people in the military has risen since 1993 when the ban on openly gay service members was introduced, although support has waned when compared to data they gathered the past year.

The distinction between “gay and lesbian” and “homosexual” has also been highlighted in an ABC/Washington Post poll, in which there were several questions regarding gay rights, including a couple that also attempted to measure support for repealing the military anti-gay policy ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’

The results of the poll suggest a higher rate of support than the New York Times poll, with nearly three quarters of the people questioned saying that they favor the inclusion of homosexual” service personnel.

However, the ABC poll also details that in past surveys they have sometimes used the terms “gay and lesbian” rather than “homosexual” to ask those same questions. Is this just semantics or could this lead to an important difference? ABC and the Washington Post thought it was worth making a note of, so this may at least indicate that the terms are no longer thought of as completely synonymous.

Here’s a bit of detail on the interesting demographics demonstrated in the ABC poll from the Washington Post’s summary:

The poll also reveals several sharp demographic divides. Men (65 percent) and seniors (69 percent) are far less likely than are women (84 percent) and young adults (81 percent under age 30) to say that gays should be allowed to serve if they have disclosed their sexual orientation. Knowing a gay person makes a big difference: Among those who say they have a gay friend or family member, 81 percent support allowing gay people to serve openly, compared with 66 percent who say they do not know someone who is gay.

The poll was conducted by telephone Feb. 4-8 among a random national sample of 1,004 adults, including users of both conventional and cellular phones. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points.

I notice that in the summary, the Washington Post have mostly used the words “gay” and “gays.” Other than the age and political leanings of the writer, which may play a role in word choice, is there a meaningful difference between the terms “homosexual” and “gay and lesbian” for the wider population? Well, from my perspective as a gay rights advocate, I think there is a subtle bit of psychology going on here, but to see it properly I think you might have to take it to contrasting extremes.

In the course of blogging about LGBT related news stories and political developments, I read through hundreds of articles from dozens of websites. Some of the sites I regularly go to are pro-gay and tend to only use the terms “gay and lesbian” or the familiar “LGBT,” and variations thereof.

Other sites that I visit are, however, decidedly less supportive, and although there is the often heard term “the gay agenda” banded about, more prevalent are terms like “the radical homosexual movement,” “the homosexual political movement,” “the pro-homosexual lobby,” “the homosexual extremists” and, my personal favorite, ” the radical homosexualists” [sic]. 

To my mind, the word “homosexual” has a very clinical cadence to it, and the emotions it seems to invoke appear to stem from the not too distant past when homosexuality was still thought of as an affliction and a mental disorder. There’s also an inherently androcentric core to the word “homosexual.” Of course, it can be used to refer to both gay and lesbian people, but I’d wager that the word “homosexual” is mostly used in reference to gay men, especially when utilized by social and religious conservatives. Moreover, it probably carries notions of sex and, by extension, anal sex or sodomy, which is usually one of the central pillars of disgust threaded throughout most prejudiced material.

Interestingly, Wayne Besen over at Truth Wins Out comments on the first CBS/New York Times poll with a slightly different take. He draws our attention to the recent touting of the term “Same-Sex Attraction” or “SSA” by groups such as the American Family Association and The National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). In his commentary on the issue, Besen writes:

We should not help our enemies by adopting their language, which is specifically designed and employed to portray us as freaks with a problem that needs to be fixed. SSA — much like STD — sounds like you have a disease that can be cured by running to the local doctor for a shot the pharmacy for a prescription or the shrink for a session.

Many people would say that we shouldn’t get caught up with labels, and to an extent I do agree with that. But look at how SSA has been packaged to sound like a mental disorder. The message behind that is clear: Homosexuals are diseased, mentally unstable and in need of treatment. Similarly, the word “homosexual” still seems to carry that same tone of affliction with it.

The real proof of this subtle distinction, I think, is to be found in the “ex-gay” movement. Wayne Besen himself has been fighting the lies of the “conversion therapy” advocates for years. They believe that you can cure homosexuality. That issue aside, notice that they don’t call themselves the “ex-homosexual movement.” It doesn’t sound quite as warm and fuzzy, does it?
Earlier in the week, I wrote about how Parents and Friends of Gays and Ex-Gays (PFOX) are pushing their ex-gay material into schools. This is an excerpt from their website, which is typical of their fliers and published material too (emphasis mine):

PFOX is not a therapeutic or counseling organization. PFOX supports families, advocates for the ex-gay community, and educates the public on sexual orientation. Each year thousands of men, women and teens with unwanted same-sex attractions make the personal decision to leave homosexuality. However, there are those who refuse to respect that decision. Consequently, formerly gay persons are reviled simply because they dare to exist! Without PFOX, ex-gays would have no voice in a hostile environment…

This text is so ripe with the distinction between “gay” and “homosexual” it’s almost as though there’s a science to how it was written. Notice that the bad old gays have SSA and it is inferred that they have chosen to give in to their “homosexuality,” while those that PFOX are trying to court are in fact referred to as “gay” so that they can, in turn, become “ex-gay?”

This is fascinating to me because the subtle distinction of terms seems to be pervasive and firmly ingrained, and, while I’m not quite convinced that the CBS poll indicates this phenomenon outright, it does at least open the door to this wider discussion.

So what do you think? Should we pay closer attention to the words we’re using, and perhaps even more importantly, the words that others are using about us? Do you think words really have the power to effect the way we feel about a certain group of people? Or do you think that labels aren’t as important as the CBS poll suggests, as it is, after all, just one poll? Have your say below.

Photo used under the Creative Commons Attribution License, with thanks to brainchildvn.


Bill T.
Bill T6 years ago

I have always used the term "Queer". It is inclusive of everyone in the LGBTQ well as other traditionally oppressed groups who are sympathetic to our community.

Nicole C.
Past Member 7 years ago

"homosexual, gay, lesbian, transgendered they CANNOT reproduce and sustain the human race."
@SL Gays and lesbians can and do reproduce and lots of trans people can and do as well.

sheila l7 years ago

homosexual, gay, lesbian, transgendered they CANNOT reproduce and sustain the human race.
They biologically adapted through nature as nature did not wipe out homosexuality.

sheila l7 years ago

Gays have the right to serve in teh mililtary and many have been doing so for a very long time.
We should honor all those who serve, irregardless of sexualitiy.

I personally can respect all; I don't want anyone in my face shoving their agenda upon me though.

Desiree C.
Desiree s8 years ago

i think everyone should just get over it.. words or not. being gay is no ones business.. & if you're serving this country, ready to put your life on the line.. then you deserve more respect than "just being a homosexual." if you're worthy enough to defend the U.S.A then your sexuality shouldn't matter.. so tired of this issue.

gays aren't going anywhere..
we are here to stay.
so get used to it.

Nicole C.
Past Member 8 years ago

I use several labels depending on the audience I am talking to. I used to use pan-sexual since I am attracted to more than two genders but since most people don't know what that means, I use bisexual when talking to the general population. When I am talking to people in the LGBTQ community, friends, and family, I call myself queer.

I do think wording matters in how people perceive things. I call myself a feminist and lots of people think of the stereotype of "man hating, bra burning, porn hater". If I say I support woman's rights or woman's equality, no one thinks twice. Though I refuse to not use the word feminist regardless of what people think.

Etta Delforge
Etta Delforge8 years ago

I oppose the word queer because it implies that there is something wrong with being GLBT. Gay can be for both a man and a woman, and the word itself has a good connotation, or at least it used to.

Erica B.
Erica Bearss8 years ago

Oh, and sweetheart...I can get a girl in my bed a hell of a lot faster than you.

If thats your baby in the picture, I pity your child.

Erica B.
Erica Bearss8 years ago

Completely pathetic, dear.

Erica B.
Erica Bearss8 years ago

Thomas, I believe your as stupid as they come. Wait, I think ".says" tops it off. So quit trying to come off like your some perfect creation. You are no better than some one who is gay, or a lesbian. Oh, and for your information honey... the only reason a majority of homosexuals have a high suicide rate is because self centered 'people' like you seem to find it a highly difficult task to get over yourselves.