Geof Stone on Language and Politics

Gays and Lesbians or Homosexuals?
Geoffrey R. Stone
The Huffington Post
February 14, 2010

A fascinating new CBS/New York Times poll reveals that attitudes about gays and lesbians serving in the military turn on how the question is asked. It turns out that 42% of Americans oppose allowing "homosexuals" to serve openly in the military, but only 28% oppose allowing "gay men and lesbians" to serve openly. Conversely, 58% of Americans favor allowing "gay men and lesbians" to serve openly in the military, but only 42% favor allowing "homosexuals" to serve openly. Apparently, some 15% of Americans don't know that "gay men and lesbians" are "homosexuals."

It's possible, of course, that those 15% are drawing a sharp distinction between sexual orientation and sexual conduct. On this view, "gay men and lesbians" are only inclined toward homosexual conduct, whereas "homosexuals" actually "do it." But this gives the befuddled 15% more credit than they're due. The subtlety of this distinction is not captured in any common definitions of the terms, both of which are generally held to embrace both same-sex attraction and same-sex conduct.

A more logical explanation has to do with the emotional connotations of the respective terms. "Homosexual" conjures up dark visions of filthy bodily acts that arouse deeply-rooted feelings of disgust and ancient fears of Sodom and Gomorrah and hell and damnation. "Gay men and lesbians," on the other hand, increasingly reminds us of people we know -- sons and daughters, cousins and classmates, nieces and nephews, coworkers and neighbors. It would appear that 15% of Americans cannot stomach the thought of homosexuals, but can tolerate and even try to understand gays and lesbians.

Geoffrey R. Stone