Friday, August 7, 2009

Terminology - Gay & Homosexual

I hate to post something like this so late in the game. But it needs to be done. Words are extremely important . Over time it seems the connotative can overpower and replace the denotative. With something that is very emotionally charged this can lead to muddled denotation. With the word "gay" this is certainly the case.

According to the dictionary, gay means a homosexual. When and how this happened is for another post. "Homosexual" according to is: "(noun) sexual desire or behavior directed toward a person or persons of one's own sex." I balk at this in general since it links sex with sexual behavior. You can have a homosexual high-five, two people of the same sex giving a high five. It completely removes the idea of one having a sex without having to have sex. I also balk at this when being applied to a person for the following reasons: 1) There are folks who have homosexual encounters without being particularly attracted to people of the same sex. 2) There are folks who have infrequent or minimal same sex attraction. It can mitigate the gradation in sexual orientation. 3) The word homosexual wasn't even coined until the late 19th century by psychiatrists. (Interesting to note is the word heterosexuality originally denoted the desire to have sex with the opposite sex without family life.) Prior to that point sodomite or pervert was given. Nevertheless, when understood properly this is a good definition to describe non-personal behaviors or inclinations. I would be inclined to state that a person is a homosexual only when either inclinations and/or behaviors are predominant. If someone is homosexual by predominance in behaviors - regardless of inclinations - the term "active" is best applied in conjunction for clarity. Behaviors or inclinations that are directly related to sexual acts with people of the same sex are homosexual too.

The problem is that the word "gay", more so than "homosexual", seems to carry connotations and thus restrictions or non-existent implications. For whatever reason there ARE "gay" subcultures, and predominant "gay" subcultures at that. Sometimes when the word is used it is meant that the person it is applied to chooses to act on their un-chosen same sex attraction (SSA). Or even simply that they have many of the mannerisms or preferences associated with the term. When it is used in the pejorative sense this is especially clear.

An even deeper issue is how "gay" fits into the English language. English in general is odd in that we say "I am hungry;" we speak as if it is a state of being, as opposed to other languages which say "I have hunger," something that is possessed. English has no way of conveying depth or duration of a state of being without being verbose. The closest we get is in the distinction between titles and general nouns. We say "I am hungry" or "I am tired", not "I am a hungry" or "I am a tired". It's as if we are saying we share in this universal nature of hunger or tiredness or sloppiness or whatever. This can lead to some level of identity conflation when it comes to other things we say we are. For this reason, along with what was mentioned earlier about the frequently concurrent mannerisms and preferences, it is easy for the word to conjure a huge chunk of identity in the person whom it is being applied to. If so-and-so says "Bobby is gay," one cannot help but think back to earlier interactions with Bobby and recall aspects of his personality and preferences that somehow are now linked to his sexual preferences. It's easy to get trapped and have it consume one's entire identity, which is why I am uncomfortable saying "I'm gay". Since it seems identity issues are at least correlated to same sex attraction, it is also another reason to be cautious.

Many people who believe in reparative therapy or even just the immorality of homosexual acts avoid using this term for those reasons. It's kind of funny now that I think about it. One of the aforementioned arguments against using the word gay is that it connotes or even denotes aspects of one's identity and personality that aren't necessarily true or at least desirable. But if there is genuine correlation between the term and one's preferences, temperament and mannerisms, wouldn't that aid in the argument that homosexual inclinations are largely developed by implicating these other aspects as precursors or exacerbating factors?

Also I feel that many who oppose using the term gay are doing so for more subtle reasons, primarily out of an anxiety to not endorse anything they cannot condone. I can't help feel when I use the term that I am somehow conceding to an agenda, that they have succeeded in warping language. That somehow by using the term "gay" I am legitimizing certain aspects of it that I can't agree with. And when applying it to myself I can somehow communicate that I condone the behaviors that are immoral or even practice them myself. However, these people fail to see that CULTURES define words, not necessarily intellectuals who can make clear distinctions. Even if an agenda pushed for a term, if it is adopted we need to respect how context defines things.

If "gay" is simply understood by the culture to mean: "One who has predominant same sex attraction," then I'm gay. Nevertheless it is next to impossible to weed out associations. Then again, there are campy stereotypically gay preferences and mannerisms that I do have. So if "gay" were to mean: "Someone who has predominant SSA and more than likely associated mannerisms and preferences" I would still fall into that category. If "gay" means to most people: "I experience predominant SSA, I participate in homosexual behavior and have many of the correlated preferences and mannerisms" I would STILL fall into that category. However if it meant: "I experience same sex attraction, I participate in and CONDONE homosexual behavior and have many of the correlated preferences and mannerisms," only then I would have a problem with it.

When I am confronted with all of the additional words I need to use to articulate myself and other nouns without using the word "gay" I am faced with a daunting task. Additionally, I risk alienating my audience. While I am not one for dumbing down my vocabulary, I do appreciate the effort to relate to people with words that show I can empathize with them. In the end it comes down to two primary dangers: First is the social, somehow by saying "gay" I am conveying that I condone immoral behaviors and false ideas. Or even just that I agree with something I don't, simple miscommunication. Second is the danger of it consuming my identity or overshadowing the identity of other nouns which I apply it to, especially people. In which case I view the word much like the term "sinner". It is something that I am and will be until I die. There is even a nature to being a sinner that is immediately connotatively suggested. The danger is letting that become the focus. If I avoid applying the word entirely to me I can fall into pride. If I use it to much I can fall into despair. Likewise if I use the word "gay" too much it can overshadow my personality and usurp my identity. For the purpose of this blog "gay" will mean not only "a person who experiences predominant SSA", but also "those preferences, personality traits and mannerisms associated with SSA and homosexual behavior". Context will largely communicate which is which.

Thus, there is gay culture. Even if there is segregation and even polar opposites it doesn't stop it from existing. Pink and pleather can be gay, but so can cowboy outfits. Light is a particle and a wave. Denying that light exists isn't going to solve it. It is a difficulty, not a doubt. A thousand difficulties do not make one doubt. Fortunately there are terms to describe the differences, i.e., pink and pleather = fem or queen (which is a fem guy) and butch. I plan to do a post talking about all the subcultures someday.

With that being said, the only final argument against using gay as a term that denotes associative things (for lack of a better word) with homosexuality is that it can extend or validate that with which is associated. This can lead to excessive suspicion, which in turn can lead to legit homophobia and loss of that which is good and not explicitly or more fundamentally tied with homosexuality. All of us have something we like, do, think about etc... that can be considered "gay" in this sense. A good way to avoid this is to systematically bring up all that which is seen as gay which shouldn't be. Which really is the purpose of this blog. To point out how we are all gay, but not all gay and that one can be gay without being gay ultimately so we can all be gay.
In all of these instances gay meant something different. And that's ok, I'm not going to stop using the word because some people may not be able to distinguish its meaning based on context, but I will make an effort to make sure what I mean by it is clear.

For simplicity's sake, in this blog the word gay can mean:
1) A person who is homosexual (according to definition above)
2) A person who condones homosexuality and is homosexual ("pro-gay homosexual" is best)
3) Behaviors or inclinations directly related to homosexuality
5) Those mannerisms and preferences that are culturally or indirectly associated with being homosexual
5) Being happy

There are many uses of the word gay which one can be without belonging to the others, too (with the exception of two).


Magdalen said...

I hate the semantic games we need to play with this topic. I love the nuanced potential meanings of the word "gay" that you bring out...

Usually my distinction is to use "gay" for someone who's embraced a homosexual lifestyle. I try not to use it for those who are struggling or confused or anything like that - but the alternative words or phrases are so frustratingly cumbersome! Do you have any suggestions?

Theophilus said...

Perhaps ego-dystonic homosexual? Just kidding. Actually, "non-active gay" I think says it all in the case of one who has predominant SSA, but does not endorse or try to practice the behaviors. It's a little less cumbersome.

Monica said...

I love this post. Every time I read it, which I've done more times than I'll admit, I feel like I learn something or am compelled to meditate on something new.

While I have never experienced any kind of same sex attraction nor engaged in any homosexual sexual activity, I'd like to offer a few unsure thoughts on the subject. "Gay" has so often become understood as dichotomous with "straight" in today's world, just as being "homosexual" is dichotomous with being "heterosexual." Given that "straight" means so much more than who one is sexually active with, (sexually active being used very broadly), and instead describes the slightest inclination to be sexually active with the opposite sex, you might be forced to think of "gay" in the same way in order to fully address the needs of your readers. Also, we live in a labeling culture, such that anyone who expresses confusion or struggle will likely have the label thrust upon him/her if he/she wasn't already unconsciously motivated by society to thrust the label on him/herself. Understanding "gay" in your blog first and foremost as the inclination may help you in your blog and in possible ministry help those struggling not to fall into action. Your using "gay," and hopefully inspiring others to do so as well, to mean inclination instead of action will allow you to address something that is morally neutral before it becomes something morally sinful. Essentially, it may allow you to give a weak swimmer a life jacket before swimming instead of letting the weak swimmer at least begin to submerge and then sending out a life boat. Defining "gay" as the inclination towards homosexual activity rather than embracing or engaging in that activity, maybe even regardless of attraction, might give those who are struggling a sense of peace. "I am not as a person sinful in the Catholic Church. Living my life unchastely is sinful, but my identity itself (thrust upon me by society) is not inherently sinful. Thus I do not need to run away from the Church."

I guess I'm arguing that you're fighting a tough battle and as long as society will call somebody with same sex attraction "gay," you might be able to better address their struggles if you do too.

Then again, I might be crazy. Forgive me if I am.