The "H" Word

Earlier this month, two leading national newspapers published editorials that, besides being smart, incisive and adding substance to issues often mired down in inane stereotypes, left a number of people, myself included, feeling a bit queasy. And in both cases, the queasiness was because of a word.

The editorials made strong cases for respect and inclusion, and for rejecting the outdated prejudices that continue to plague the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. But at the same time, they evoked an outdated stereotype. Both editorials referred to gay people as "homosexuals," usage that was all the more surprising for being out of step with each paper's style guidelines.

The New York Times, whose editorial questioned the anti-gay writings and advocacy of President Bush's surgeon general nominee, says in its style manual:

gay (adj.) is preferred to homosexual in references to social or cultural identity and political or legal issues: gay literature. Use homosexual in specific references to sexual activity and to psychological or clinical orientation...

The Washington Post -- which noted in its editorial that Massachusetts has not been flattened by a falling sky since inviting committed gay and lesbian couples to participate in the traditions and institution of marriage -- has style guidelines that make the underlying reason for such a rule even clearer:

Gay is generally preferred to homosexual. Homosexual should be reserved for a clinical or biological context. Be wary of using homosexual as a noun. In certain contexts, it can be seen as a slur.

So why would the Post close its editorial with a reference to "loving and committed relationships of homosexuals," or the Times refer to "disturbing indications that [Surgeon General nominee Dr. James Holsinger] is prejudiced against homosexuals"?

The answer is probably rather mundane. Some reporters and editors find themselves searching for synonyms to avoid repeating the word "gay," not realizing that the replacement they most often reach for is, indeed, viewed by many as a slur. And whether they were reaching for a synonym or just using the "H-word" spontaneously, these writers probably didn't even think of referring to the related entries in their stylebooks, because the idea that this word might have derogatory implications simply may not have occurred to them.

During my eight years here at the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), one of the more frequent conversations I've had with journalists has been about the word "homosexual" and its deeply problematic connotations (not the least of which is the fact that its continued use does nothing to curb -- and more than a little to encourage -- the vulgar slur made up of its first four letters). Until the 1970s, "homosexual" was a label associated with a "psychological disturbance." Back then, gay people were misdiagnosed as suffering from a psychiatric disorder and often forced into cruel, inhumane treatments intended to "cure" them.

Thankfully, our understanding of human attraction and relationships has advanced significantly since then. But even today, anti-gay activists tenaciously cling to the archaic term "homosexual" and endorse the ludicrous, and harmful, malpractice of trying to turn gay people straight -- all part of a desperate effort to convince the public that happy, fulfilled gay people and their loving, committed relationships do not and ought not exist.

You can see it in the public statements of people like Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle, who, in a revealing moment, recently was quoted in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel as saying, "I don't use the word 'gay.' I use the word 'homosexual.' Most of them aren't gay. They're unhappy."

You can see it with the American Family Association, an anti-gay group that spends a lot of time and money demonizing our community. The AFA was recently caught purging uses of the word "gay" from Associated Press stories, replacing them with variations on the word "homosexual" that violated the AP's style guidelines (which are similar to the Times' and the Post's), and then republishing them.

But the anti-gays' fixation with the term "homosexual" isn't just about perpetuating myths and denigrating gay people. It's also about concocting a sense of discomfort about gays and lesbians by exploiting a cultural reticence to talk about sex. After all, if gay people can be reduced to mere sex objects, it makes it that much easier for those who would prefer a world in which we did not exist to short-circuit people's ability to understand our lives and our families.

Throughout my life, I have known couples whose love and devotion was palpable. The way they would look at each other, complete each other's sentences and tend to each other's unseen needs would bear witness to the powerful connection they shared; a connection that brought together two people and created an enduring bond embodying love, dedication, responsibility, mutual care and sacrifice -- a commitment greater than the sum of its parts.

So why would anyone think it acceptable to use language that reduces gay people and our loving, committed relationships to "just sex"? Do we treat people who aren't gay in such a disrespectful, condescending way? Do we trivialize the richness and the depth of the commitment they share?

The word "homosexual" belongs to a bygone era, much like the "F-word" whose high-profile usage by Ann Coulter, Isaiah Washington and others was decisively condemned earlier this year. Both words send a message that gay people are less than you. Less than human. Just plain less than. And in so doing, they erode the mutual respect we all hunger for and the dignity we all deserve.