Alex Blaze

"Homosexual" vs. "Gay and lesbian"

Filed By Alex Blaze | December 17, 2010 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: ABC, CBS, gays in the military, lesbian, LGBT people, military, polling, Washington Post

Back in February there was a CBS poll on DADT that asked some people if they were OK with "homosexuals" serving in the military and other people if they werepolling station OK with "gay men and lesbians" serving in the military. There was a discrepancy between the results for either half and it became a big LGBT-blogosphere meme that the word "homosexual" is so terrible that it makes people change their opinions on political matters. At the time, I was the only person I know of who remarked that that particular poll was probably a fluke, that polls from different sources at around the same time period used different words and ended up with results inconsistent with the hypothesis that the word "homosexual" decreases support for gay rights.

Now there's a new Washington Post/ABC poll out on DADT that asked two different questions, but for half the people they asked about "homosexuals" and the other half they asked about "gays and lesbians." Here's what the Washington Post had to say about that:

The survey asked "gays and lesbians" or "homosexuals," presenting each term to random half-samples of respondents. Both versions of the questions yielded similar results.

So similar they didn't even release separate results.

Now will there be blog posts everywhere about this, about how homosexuals and gay and lesbian are all value-neutral, or at least value-equivalent, terms? Will this poll get much publicity as the poll that showed a big difference between those terms? I doubt it, and I'm someone who doesn't particularly like the word "homosexual."

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I think if it's a verbal poll and you say "Ho-mo-sex-u-al" slow enough it may make a difference.

Something tells me you're practicing just the right sultry voice to ask that question just right....

I think the difference is in acceptance by the individual who chooses which word to use. "Homosexual" as an adjective seems to be neutral in circumstances where I see or hear it. But used as a noun, the word "homosexual" denotes a clinical and dehumanizing aspect that is favored by those who are fearful and ignorant. Those most comfortable and accepting use "gay"—and, in the straight community, it often encompasses all people who are LGBT.

An interesting side note: as I spoke about my activism efforts with an acquaintance I know to be supportive, she couldn't bring herself to say "gay and lesbian" in her normal voice. Her volume dropped to a murmur and resumed to normal for the rest of her sentence. Hmm. We've got to get people comfortable saying the words if we're going to get them to vote for equality.

"Those most comfortable and accepting use "gay"—and, in the straight community, it often encompasses all people who are LGBT."

Good point. However, I'm not a proponent of this usage whatsoever. "Gay" has become mainstream media's overused catchall for "any sexualities that are non-heteronormative" (e.g. gay bullying, gay marriage, gay rights, gay politics, gay porn, gay sex, gay prom, gay pride, and I have a list of about 35 more tasteless misnomers I've collected from the past few years of irresponsible and prejudicial journalism). Needless to say, it is remarkably insulting and degrading for people who are not gay to be repeatedly misclassified as "gay" purely out of convenience and sheer ignorance.


I don't think it's convenience nearly so much as ignorance, Randall. If we don't talk about it and make the distinctions the norm, the straight community will continue in their ignorance to make the sweeping generalizations. That's why we need to keep talking about it, using the proper terminology, educating those around us. Ignorance does not equal malice. When someone makes the generalization, tell them why it needs to change. If you speak kindly and with respect, most will listen.

Thank you, that is certainly a valid point. Naivety on the part of those who are not LGBT or allies is entirely understandable and arguably excusable as well.

However, just to clarify, my objection is when publications, campaigns, and special interest groups that cater specifically to the LGBT cause (and thus should be both knowledgable of and accountable for the terminology used), consistently promote "gay" as the overarching term for all sexualities. These oversights have occurred everywhere from the It Gets Better Project to GLAAD to the Human Rights Campaign to, and countless other sites.

I don't think it is excusable, particularly when it is blatant. I have documented literally hundreds of Tweets, press releases, blogs, etc. that attempt give the impression of inclusiveness, while nonetheless remaining unequivocally biased in favor of "gay". It sends the wrong message, and only exacerbates the ongoing marginalization and denigration of other sexualities.

In the past, I used to share links on Facebook to objectionable articles and then follow through professionally with the authors in question. However, lately misuses of the term "gay" have become so prevalent it's just too infeasible :( In the case of some of the more egregious and disturbing errors, it is frankly rather difficult to fathom that the bias is not intentional.


I like homosexual. It's descriptive. Gay has come to mean a lifestyle I don't identify with.

I've seen several polls showing that the terms "homosexual" and "gay and lesbian" yield different results. The size of the difference varies. Polls showing "similar" results still show a difference, just one that is small or isn't statistically significant.

In one Gallup poll question about DADT, the difference was around 20%. I would be very careful about dismissing the potential harm done by the clinical word "homosexual." There's a reason why hate groups like the so-called Family Research Council say "homosexual" incessantly.

I've only seen two polls that asked each word to half the respondents. Do you have links to the others? I'd like to read them since LGBT polling is one of my favorite things to read about.

I think you're referring to the CBS poll above, which had a large spread between the two. Gallup has been using "gay and lesbian" or "gay" for years.

i think the context in which we hear "gay and lesbian" and "homosexual" also tinges them and give them different connotations. When I think of, or even say "ho-mo-sex-ual" i think of the voices of right wing hyper-christian bigots because they use it the most, often putting emphasis on the "sex". Conversely, friendlier or at least neutral sources use "gay and lesbian", which makes them sound like people rather than creatures or something.

Well, well, well. This is exactly how we (women of TS and intersex history) feel when we're labeled "transgender" by the homozzzexual community.

Clearly, someone should poll that.

C'mon. You knew it was coming. It had to.

I have nothing to base this on but my own instincts, but I feel 'gay and lesbian' is friendlier and less isolating than 'homosexual'.
'Homosexual' seems a much more clinical term and clinical terms conjure up subconcious images of sickness, of germs, of quarantine, infection, etc.. (And yes; I realize I'm opening myself up to tons of Freudian analysis here :) But I honestly think a more in-depth study of the issue would reveal more clearly that using the term 'gay and lesbian' yields more favorable polling responses. It would make for an interesting graduate thesis, no?

This article is remarkably timely as the Associated Press just revised one of their most contentious journalism policies.

Whereas "homosexuality" for decades was cited as the only proper means of reporting on gay and lesbian issues, the AP now adheres to GLAAD's media style guidelines: "Homosexual" is a disparaging and dehumanizing term, and should always be avoided, because of its clinical association with sexual practices and in effect, the subordination of romantic attraction.

Okay, now for the irony:

There has never been any attempt by GLAAD to further pressure the AP to logically replace bisexual with "bi". Supposedly for bisexual people (who are so often mischaracterized as unfaithful and promiscuous and "just experimenting," in great part because of the negative connotations of the medical term), there is no analogous recourse. Or else, it is just another instance of bisexual invisibility -- hence a non-issue.