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Homosexual or Gay?
Why are people called homosexual or gay?
The terms heterosexual and homosexual or same sex are rarely used in everyday speech. More often people use slang words or terms, which can be abusive. Throughout the last century the terms used to describe gay people and that gay people used to describe themselves, have changed. These changes are important in telling us a lot about how lesbian and gay people lived their lives and felt about themselves as well as social reactions to them.
'Homosexual', 'gay', 'lesbian', 'straight' - what do they mean?
The term 'homosexual' is not nowadays sex specific. It was first used by Victorian scientists who regarded same-sex attraction and sexual behaviour as symptoms of mental disorders or moral deficiency.1 Homosexual men and women decided to use the term 'gay' in order to distance themselves from being labelled as somehow abnormal or ill. In fact, some people find the term 'homosexual' insulting and abusive and object to its use.2
Generally, the terms 'gay' and 'lesbian' are seen as being less laden with negative implications than 'homosexual'. The term 'gay' is used to describe both homosexual men and lesbian women but has become particularly associated with homosexual men. Its derivation is unclear but may come from the nineteenth century French slang for a homosexual man 'gaie'. Throughout the last century it has been used as a sort of code word between homosexual men.
However, in the late fifties and sixties it came into everyday use in association with the struggle for gay rights. In this context the word 'gay' came to represent, as it does now, a word with no negative connotations but associated with a positive and proud sense of identity. Nowadays, the term 'lesbian' is used in relation to homosexual women and is derived from Lesbos, the name of the Greek island on which the lesbian poet Sappho lived in antiquity. In the past homosexual women have been called 'Sapphist' (again after Sappho).3 'Straight' is used to describe heterosexual people and is an equivalent term to 'gay'.4
'I don't mind so much what people call me as what they mean by it. I have been called a dizzy queen by some friends, and that's all right. But, mostly with people who are seriously prejudiced it's about how they say it - they say 'gay' like it's a curse not something to be proud of.' Mark, 19
Choosing the right words
Choosing which term to use and how to use it can be troubling. If a person is describing themselves they can be anxious about the reaction they might get. If a person is talking about someone else, or the issue in general, they can feel anxious about causing offence or saying the wrong thing.
'I think that everyone is OK with the term 'gay' nowadays. It says something about lifestyle and identity as well as sexual behaviour which homosexual doesn't seem to do. I describe myself as 'straight' so I would use the word 'gay' in the classroom. Anyway it's what the kids would say. But they do need to be clear about what all the terms mean otherwise telling off for being homophobic doesn't make any sense to them. They say; 'it's just a word sir'.' Teacher
Some men and women generally describe themselves as either 'gay' or 'straight'. Using these words gets away from the negative overtones of terminology like 'homosexual' or 'heterosexual' which for these people can feel too "medical". However, words like 'homosexual' and 'heterosexual' can have advantages in other contexts. Communication is a complex affair in which not only what words are used matters but also who is saying them, about whom and in what context.
For example, in school the term 'gay' is used a lot as an insult, and is not a word with positive overtones. A person called 'gay' by homophobic bullies in school might find it abusive because of the way it is said but the same person might happily call themselves 'gay' when they are with friends.
How do you define homosexuality?
Although it would appear to be simple, on closer examination defining homosexuality is more complex. Young people writing to magazine problem pages seem to define homosexuality using three criteria:
- having sexual feelings towards other people of the same sex
- sexual behaviour with people of the same sex
- and describing oneself as homosexual (identity)
It can be helpful to think of these elements of a person's sexuality in a visual way. It is possible to conceive of sexual feelings, identity and behaviour as three circles which overlap to varying degrees depending on the individual.
Sexual feelings and behaviour
Thinking first of sexual feelings and behaviour we can imagine a situation in which two different people might be represented by the diagrams below. In the first diagram the circles overlap about halfway. This person might be attracted to people of the same sex without acting on it - equally they might be having sex with people of the same sex but feeling like most of their sexual feelings are directed to people of the opposite sex. In the second diagram this person's sexual feelings and behaviour go together so that they feel attracted to people of the same sex and have sex with people of the same sex.
Sexual feelings and identity
In the next situation, thinking of sexual feelings and identity, we can imagine how different people might be represented by these diagrams below. The first represents a person who is attracted to people of the same sex but does not always choose to call themselves gay. In the second diagram this person's sexual feelings and how they describe themselves are completely related.
Thinking of these diagrams it is clear that they could apply equally to defining homosexual or heterosexual behaviour. They also show that defining sexuality depends very much on the individual in question, their sexual feelings, behaviour and how they describe themselves. There is a wide spectrum of potential relationships between the three elements. In other words it can be helpful to think of a spectrum of experience from exclusively homosexual to exclusively heterosexual with many people in between. Sometimes people who feel equally attracted to men and women and have sex with both, choose to place themselves in between and call themselves bisexual.
The main points to bear in mind when defining heterosexuality or homosexuality are:
- The three main factors are sexual attraction, sexual behaviour and identity. For most people the factors go together in a congruent way. So people tend to behave sexually in line with their sexual feelings, i.e. People tend to be sexually active with people they are attracted to.
- However, sexual identity and behaviour may be quite fluid over a period of time and they may not always coincide with each other as people's feelings change. For example, a person may have at some point in their life a partner of the opposite sex and then later on someone of the same sex.
- Applying labels to people is not necessarily a good or accurate way of describing them. There may be phases in a person's life when their sexual feelings and behaviour are very clearly homosexual or heterosexual. However, at other times, labelling them as heterosexual or homosexual does not fit exactly with their sexual behaviour or feelings.
Falling back on simple dichotomising definitions of homosexuality and heterosexuality can be appealing because it keeps the distinctions between them clear. Some common beliefs involve doing precisely this by showing homosexuality as a kind of reflection of heterosexuality. For example:
- Believing that some occupations and interests are more attractive and more suitable for heterosexual and others more attractive and suitable for homosexual people. For example, regarding sports as predominantly heterosexual and performing arts as homosexual.
- Assuming that when two lesbian women or two gay men are in a sexual relationship they will adopt roles which are traditionally masculine and feminine.
- Believing that lesbian and gay people can be identified by the way they look and talk. Thinking, for example, that gay men look more effeminate than straight men and lesbian women look more masculine than straight women.
Any examination of homosexuality inevitably brings into the open implicit assumptions about what heterosexuality is. Stereotypes of heterosexuality and homosexuality and the rigid boundaries between them can be explored by asking questions like:
- Do a homosexual couple in love and a heterosexual couple in love experience the same feelings?
- If a person who calls themselves heterosexual has sex with someone of the same sex are they heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual?
- 1. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2006), 'Homosexuality'.
- 2. Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, 'GLAAD media reference guide: offensive terminology to avoid'.
- 3. Rupp L. (2009), 'Sapphistries: a global history of love between women'.
- 4. Gender Equity Resource Center, 'LGBT resources - definition of terms'.