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Clarity about ‘the gay thing’

Sometimes, we say what we don’t really mean. ‘You look really tired’, for example, when we mean to be caring rather than disparaging of appearance. ‘I thought you were older than that!’ when we mean to applaud maturity rather than further disparage appearance.

And so it is with the gay thing. The accidental difference between what people are saying or writing, and their intended meaning, is becoming perplexingly polarized. It’s becoming an issue because respected news sources with style guides to guard the objectivity of their reporting are straying away from neutral. And this, in turn, is influencing what we consider to be untainted, unprejudiced language about what I’m technically going to call ‘the gay thing’.

The lexicon around neutral language when reporting or writing about lesbian and gay people can lead to misunderstanding. There are several words that sit outside the flagrantly offensive, but in a grey area. It’s not malice, but misunderstanding that causes people to use these murky terms. They don’t intend to insult, but they do intend to be unbiased. Clarity is lost with the terminology we think is clear and plain English. It’s not.

Here are some examples.

What people say: sexual preference
What they really mean: sexual orientation

I actually think that at least three quarters of people and organizations that use this term, are intending to mean something else. If you believe, as all the science available to us indicates, that being gay is attributed to nature and not nurture; that it’s genetic and not a choice, then this term is a common misuse.

My preference is for mocha rather than latte; mashed potato rather than boiled; Madonna rather than Kylie. My sexual orientation is not a casual preference or a choice, like choosing whether I want pizza or pasta. I don’t merely prefer men to women. It’s something innate.

Some gay people find it offensive when it’s suggested that their sexual orientation is a choice; it trivializes the discrimination they’ve had to overcome by suggesting that they’ve just been obstinate and could always have chosen another path. It can also load with ammunition the traditional enemies to equality who’ll argue any measures to accommodate someone’s picky preference are not high priority. 

Sexual orientation is clearer and less likely to lead to misunderstanding – without being overly fussy, it strongly insinuates that you’re born with an imaginary inner compass that points in a certain direction on the Kinsey Scale.

Even if you do believe nurture plays a part in sexual orientation, the term sexual preference could still be a misnomer. Some parts of our character are so deeply ingrained from the nurture of our early childhoods, that we have little conscious choice over how they manifest as adults. When deconstructed, the term ‘preference’ relating to sexuality seems, quite frankly, peculiar.

It’s particularly peculiar when it comes from progressive news outlets, such as the Guardian.

What people say: homosexual / homosexuals
What they really mean: gay / gay people

The Guardian, however, listens and learns as language moves on from where it once stigmatized. I write a monthly column for the Guardian’s ‘Mind your language’ section and I successfully challenged them to drop homosexual used as a noun from their official style guide. It has now been replaced with gay people.

Why did I do this? Calling gay people homosexuals is the cold, medical, dehumanizing language used when homosexuality was, until 1992, classified as a mental disorder. It’s like calling people ‘homo sapiens.’ It’s stuffy, it jars and, I argued, it can no longer be deemed to come from a neutral, objective place due to the word’s unsavoury history on medical statutes, such as those used to chemically castrate Alan Turing for being gay.

When working at gay equality charity Stonewall, I also perceived the term homosexualsto be used by enemies of equality in a very clever way; they weren’t using outright insulting language that could easily be called out, but instead this careful, distanced, clinical language that makes gay people seem like an alien breed, worthy of scientific experiment. The term’s insidiousness is its insult.

What people say: gay rights
What they really mean: equality

Fighting for gay rights all sounds very Harvey Milk and uplifting. But the term may not be as empowering as it seems. Introducing gay rights sounds like a long list of special, extra demands gay people insist on having while beating drums and shouting. When, in fact, what I believe the majority of people are really intending when they say gay rights is equality. Why is this important? Equality is measured, palatable, entirely reasonable and sensible, and more likely to be accepted by all classes, people on both the left and right of the political divide. It sounds less entitled. It’s also far harder to argue against.

Gay rights, in effect, insinuates gay people want to be treated specially and differently when in fact the opposite is true. We want to be treated the same. That’s why measures such as an equal age of consent use the vernacular of equality, as opposed to rights.

What people say: gay marriage
What they really mean: marriage

Before marriage finally became a legal reality for same-sex couples in Britain last year, much was written in the media about ‘gay marriage’ as if it were a separate institution, requiring that qualifying prefix. ‘The campaign for equal marriage’ would’ve been a more accurate descriptor of what lay behind the campaign, in a similar rationale to the significant semantics around ‘rights vs equality’. As a Facebook friend of mine posted at the time: “I’m just going to get on my gay bus with my gay girlfriend and then we’re going to the gay airport on a gay holiday” – the prefix feels superfluous on all these words, just as it does with marriage.

What people say: tolerance
What they really mean: acceptance

Another linguistic bugbear of mine. I tolerate mushrooms; I don’t really like them. I can tolerate the pain of getting a tattoo done, though I’d prefer to do without it. I tolerate people walking slowly and aimlessly in front of me – just – but I hardly welcome it. Yet, in many of the places I’ve heard ‘tolerance’ used as a synonym for open-mindedness, I’ve often felt that acceptance is the clearer term – gently implying warmth, but, in a very British way, keeping it understated and straightforward.

I accept, though, that not everyone will tolerate this.

A version of this blog post first appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Image Credit: “Mr. and Mr. Marriage Equality.” Photo by Purple Sherbert Photography. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

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