As the country becomes more accepting of the civil rights of its lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Americans, it is also beginning to reexamine its language used to demean us.
In last month’s New York Time’s article The Decline of the ‘H’ Word Jeremy Peters wrote that while the word ‘homosexual’ for the most part is ‘inoffensive,’ ‘outdated,’ and perhaps ‘innocuous,’ the word nonetheless is viewed by many in our LGBTI community as a pejorative term.
According to George P Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the UC, Berkeley, because many still associate the word ‘homosexual’ with sexual deviance, the preferred terms are ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’.
‘Gay doesn’t use the word sex,’ Lakoff said. ‘Lesbian doesn’t use the word sex. Homosexual does. It also contains “homo,” which is an old derogatory.’
I abhor the word ‘homosexual’ because it continues to be used by faith communities today to demean and denigrate LGB people – although the word never appeared in the Bible until its 1946 translation. And while there have always been words in the original Greek New Testament scriptures for same-sex activities no condemnations appear that it’s an abomination to God.
However, for many African Americans, the terms ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ are as offensive as the word ‘homosexual’.
For many African Americans, we use terms like ‘in the life’ – an identifier, a code, that derives from the Harlem Renaissance. Another is the term ‘same-gender loving’ that became popular in our LGBTI lexicon in the 1990s.
For many, terms like lesbian, ‘queer’ and ‘gay’ are not descriptors use to depict themselves because they uphold a white queer hegemony that many in the African American LGBTI community denounce.
They argue the terms strip African American LGBTI people of our particular history, struggle and spirituality that not only renders us invisible, but also renders us speechless.
Cleaning up homophobic language has extended beyond our borders.
Last year, and to the surprise of many across the globe, Mexico stepped forward to define and reduce homophobic hate speech. Two commonly used words – ‘punal’ and ‘maricones’ – were the main targets. Both words closely translate as ‘faggot’.
In a vote of 3-2, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled these two homophobic hateful slurs are not legally protected in the country’s constitution as freedom of speech.
The Supreme Court further ruled any citizen offended by these words now could seek redress by suing for moral damages.
‘Even though they are deeply rooted expressions in Mexican society, the fact is that the practices of the majority of society can’t validate the violations of basic right,’ the court wrote in support of its ruling.
But as most LGBTI Latinos know, these two homophobic epithets are so frequently and easily espoused throughout Latin American culture, many are not cognizant of their deleterious effect.
Case in point: Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar was suspended in September 2012 for three games for wearing eye-black displaying a homophobic slur written in Spanish during a game against the Boston Red Sox.
‘It didn’t have significance to the way that’s being interpreted right now,’ Escobar emphatically stated through a Spanish interpreter. ‘That’s not the significance that I put into it. That’s a word used often within teams. It’s a word without meaning, the way we use it.’
Escobar, a native of Cuba, contested the phrase is taken out of context because used in his culture it is not intended to be offensive; it’s merely used as banter in their friendly repartee.
The word is used frequently here, too.
Just last year, Alex Baldwin, hurling anti-gay epithets in a cussing tirade against the vulturous paparazzi on his heels spewed out the slur ‘cocksucking faggot’.
Although Baldwin emphatically refuted using the ‘F- word’ he didn’t deny using the word ‘cocksucking,’ claiming he simply had no clue that the word is a homophobic slur.
Homophobic epithets are so pervasive across our culture most good-hearted and well-intentioned heterosexual people like Baldwin are sadly unaware of the psychological and physical toll that these words have on LGBTI people. Too often these cavalierly used epithets go either unchecked or unchallenged as the hate speech that they are.
However, sometimes in our effort to clean up language we can go too far.
In 2012, the editors of The Associated Press Stylebook announced they were ‘discouraging’ use of the word ‘homophobia’. (The AP Stylebook is widely used in media use to standardize terms and general usage. Incidentally, Gay Star News has its own style guide to avoid precisely this kind of problem.)
AP’s online stylebook defines a phobia as an ‘irrational, uncontrollable fear, often a form of mental illness’ and said words such as ‘Islamophobia’ and ‘homophobia’ therefore should be expunged from political and social contexts.
The LGBTI community was in a kerfuffle about the AP change because the editors made their decision without consultation with the nation’s leading LGBTI organizations, leaders, activists and newspapers.
With an estimated 3,400 AP employees in bureaus around the globe, the AP’s suggestion could have had a tsunami-like effect on how the world comes to understand, be informed about or dismiss discrimination against LGBTI people.
The word ‘homophobia’ derives from the unique history of LGBTI people and our shared struggle for civil rights across the world. It has become part and parcel of a universal LGBTI lexicon that accurately reflects our reality.
The phenomenon of homophobia has power and unfortunately deleterious effects, but part of our liberation is in our strength to call out acts of homophobia. If the press eliminated use of the word, that would not only diminish people’s chances of understanding homophobia’s wide-ranging effects but would diminish the reach of LGBTI activists in our continued efforts to effect change.