TV & Radio
Meanwhile: Homolexicology: Is a lesbian a gay?
By William Safire The New York Times
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 6, 2005
WASHINGTON In an article about a referendum coming to a vote in Maine this week, The Associated Press reports that opponents of broadened civil rights protections for homosexual men and women claim that such legislation, already signed into law by the governor, would "grant a new status to gay men and lesbians that could open the door to same-sex marriage."
Meanwhile, Marc Lacey of The New York Times reports from Nairobi, Kenya, that in a referendum revamping that nation's constitution, "there has been disagreement on whether the language opposing discrimination would protect gay men and lesbians, who are scorned here."
Apparently, in writing about people who are homosexual, the word gay no longer covers both men and women. It seems to me that the usage is now the specifically inclusive gay men and lesbians whether the distinction is useful or not.
Why is gay no longer encompassing enough? "Historically, gay represented both homosexual men and women and technically still does," says Chris Crain, editor of the gay weeklies The Washington Blade and The New York Blade, "but a number of gay women felt that gay was too male-associated and pressed to have lesbians separately identified so they weren't lost in the gay-male image." That led to such names as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. (The Washington Blade began in 1969 as The Gay Blade, a play on an old expression about a gallant.)
Diane Anderson-Minshall, executive editor of Curve, a lesbian magazine in San Francisco, agrees that the one-word adjective was expanded to set homosexual women apart: "When, in the queer world, you say 'the gay community,' the majority of the time that conjures up San Francisco's largely male Castro District, or West Hollywood or 'Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,' so interjecting the word lesbian into the mix is a necessary reminder that we - gay women - are not simply a subset of that larger male world but rather our own distinct community of individuals." The editor freely uses "queer," formerly a slur, to include not only lesbians but "bisexual women and lesbian-identified transgender women." This leads to the initialese LGBT, standing for "Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender," as well as its gay-first GLBT.
The reader will note my careful use of the word homosexual as an adjective modifying a noun like man rather than as a noun itself.
That's for two reasons: first, because the prefix homo is from the Greek homos, "the same," in this case denoting a "same sex" relationship, not to be confused with the Latin homo, "man," as in homo sapiens, the current species of human being.
Another reason for the wincing at homosexual, especially as a noun, is the emphasis that the word places on sexuality, while gay and lesbian also may range across cultural and social attitudes (but watch out for that no-no lifestyle). An American Psychological Association report notes that homosexual "has been associated in the past with deviance, mental illness and criminal behavior," which has led to a "negative stereotype." As that connotation wears off, I expect that the noun - a Standard English synonym for the now widely used "same-sex" - will make a comeback.
We know where lesbian (no longer capitalized) comes from: the Greek island Lesbos, "after the alleged practice of Sappho" as the OED carefully puts it, home of the poet (formerly poetess) who made the place famous. The word gay, which originally meant "lighthearted" as in "her heart was young and gay," was British slang for "a loose woman" in 1825, turning into "a homosexual boy" in 1935 and gaining that meaning in U.S. slang in the 1950s.