It’s time for the Holocaust Museum to stop calling gays “homosexuals”

It’s not entirely the Holocaust Museum’s fault.

In the old days, we called gays “homosexuals.”  We also called blacks “colored” or “negro.” And we called Asians “orientals.”

Then times changed, and words that once were acceptable no longer were.  The words either developed a negative connotation, or had one already, and as society lost its prejudice, it lost the corresponding vocabulary of prejudice as well.  And in fact, even “black” is increasingly giving way to “African-American.” Language changes.

And that’s why it’s time for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and its Web site to stop using the word “homosexual” when it means to say “gay.”  Their Web site might have been accurate years ago. Now it’s outdated — and worse, risks doing harm.

While the word “homosexuality” is sometimes difficult to find a synonym for — even I use it — the word “homosexual” is archaic to the point of almost being a joke in the gay community.  For example, you might find a gay person jokingly referring to the “homosexual agenda,” but you wouldn’t find a gay person talking about the swank “homosexual bar” they visited in New York City after going to see that new “homosexual movie” with the “homosexual couple” that lives upstairs.

You’re as likely to find a gay person using those phrases as you are them talking about “homosexual marriage.”

The NYT took an interesting look at the change, from neutral to negative, in the word “homosexual” over the last few decades. Also, GLAAD, the lead gay anti-defamation group, has weighed in on the topic as well, basically agreeing with me — more on that below, but here’s a quick quote from GLAAD:

Please use “gay” or “lesbian” to describe people attracted to members of the same sex. Because of the clinical history of the word “homosexual,” it is aggressively used by anti-gay extremists to suggest that gay people are somehow diseased or psychologically/emotionally disordered – notions discredited by the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association in the 1970s. Please avoid using “homosexual” except in direct quotes.

If you look at the Holocaust Museum’s Web page devoted to the special exhibit about gays and the Holocaust, you’ll find 3 references to “homosexuality” (which is fine), and 11 references to “homosexuals” (which is not fine), including the abominable title — “Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals.” There are also 4 references to the word “gay.”

From the

From the Holocaust Museum page about the special exhibit concerning gays and the Holocaust.

Now, it is true that the use of the word “gay” as a noun is relatively new.  Such as, referring to “gays.”  And I suspect that many of the references to “homosexuals” in the Holocaust Museum Web site reflect that concern.  Such as this example:

After taking power in 1933, the Nazis persecuted homosexuals as part of their so-called moral crusade to racially and culturally purify Germany. This persecution ranged from dissolution of homosexual organizations to internment of thousands of individuals in concentration camps.

Gays in Nazi Germany were considered a threat to German purity. The Nazis arrested 100,000 men, with 10,000 to 15,000 sent to concentration camps to die.

Gays in Nazi Germany were considered a threat to German purity. The Nazis arrested 100,000 men, 10,000 to 15,000 of whom were sent to concentration camps to die.

Except that even if you felt that “the Nazis persecuted gays as part of their so-called moral crusade,” there’s no such excuse for “homosexual organizations.”  “Gay organizations” works fine.  (And, instead of “the Nazis persecuted homosexuals,” you could write “the Nazis persecuted gays and lesbians,” or just “gays” or “gay men” if they kept the focus to men.  And in fact, there are references to “gay men” in the same piece I cite above.)

And the Holocaust Museum’s general Web page about gays and the Holocaust is even worse.  It references “homosexual” or “homosexuals” 39 times, while mentioning “gays” once.

People are biased against the word “homosexual”

Who does like the word “homosexual”?  Religious right anti- civil rights activists. Why?  Because the word now has a negative connotation, whereas the word “gay” does not.

Don’t believe me?  I’d written before about a CBS poll on ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  The poll numbers changed wildly when you changed the question from “homosexual” to “gay.” Here’s CBS:

In the poll, 59 percent say they now support allowing “homosexuals” to serve in the U.S. military, including 34 percent who say they strongly favor that. Ten percent say they somewhat oppose it and 19 percent say they strongly oppose it.

But the numbers differ when the question is changed to whether Americans support “gay men and lesbians” serving in the military. When the question is asked that way, 70 percent of Americans say they support gay men and lesbians serving in the military, including 19 percent who say they somewhat favor it. Seven percent somewhat oppose it, and 12 percent strongly oppose it.

When it comes to whether Americans support allowing gays to serve openly, there is also a difference based on the term used. When referred to as “homosexuals,” 44 percent favor allowing them to serve openly. When referred to as “gay men and lesbians,” the percentage rises to 58 percent.

To summarize the results:

Do you support “gay men and lesbians” serving in the military? 70%
Do you support “homosexuals” serving in the military: 59%

Do you support “gay men and lesbians” OPENLY serving in the military? 58%
Do you support “homosexuals” OPENLY serving in the military? 44%

That one word dropped us 14 points in the polls.

And that’s why I have a problem with the word “homosexual.”

GLAAD, the lead gay anti-defamation group, has weighed in as well, against the word “homosexual.”  They basically agree with me, and offer some alternatives:

Offensive: “homosexual” (n. or adj.)
Preferred: “gay” (adj.); “gay man” or “lesbian” (n.); “gay person/people”
Please use “gay” or “lesbian” to describe people attracted to members of the same sex. Because of the clinical history of the word “homosexual,” it is aggressively used by anti-gay extremists to suggest that gay people are somehow diseased or psychologically/emotionally disordered – notions discredited by the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association in the 1970s. Please avoid using “homosexual” except in direct quotes. Please also avoid using “homosexual” as a style variation simply to avoid repeated use of the word “gay.” The Associ­ated Press, The New York Times and The Washington Post restrict use of the term “homosexual” (see AP, New York Times & Washington Post Style).

Offensive: “homosexual relations/relationship,” “homosexual couple,” “homosexual sex,” etc.
Preferred: “relationship” (or “sexual relationship”), “couple” (or, if necessary, “gay couple”), “sex,” etc.
Identifying a same-sex couple as “a homosexual couple,” characterizing their relationship as “a homosexual relationship,” or identifying their intimacy as “homosexual sex” is extremely offensive and should be avoided. These constructions are frequently used by anti-gay extremists to denigrate gay people, couples and relationships.

It’s not just a personal peeve. It’s a word that in today’s English (at least in America) does damage to the civil rights of gays.  And, while many have used the outdated term in recent years, including the Washington Post and the BBC (the BBC went so far as to refer to “practising homosexuals,” a term that doesn’t even really make sense), no one should be more sensitive to the use of language to reinforce bias than the Holocaust Museum.

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Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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121 Responses to “It’s time for the Holocaust Museum to stop calling gays “homosexuals””

  1. why_not_now says:

    Gay community is an oxymoron. Homosexuality crosses all races, religions, etc.

    Not a community.

  2. why_not_now says:

    I take gay as a stereotype, homosexual is simply a definition like heterosexual.

    This is NOT an issue.

  3. franks_television says:

    This is a flawed experiment. More than just the word “homosexual” was variable. Needed to be phrased:

    Do you support gay men and lesbian women serving in the military?
    Do you support homosexual men and women serving in the military?


    Do you support gays and lesbians serving in the military?
    Do you support homosexuals serving in the military?

  4. corsair82 says:

    I agree to the extent that we let some fairly obnoxious and ill-intentioned people claim what was once meant to be a benign, clinical word. It is no longer benign, if indeed it ever was. The polling swing shows it is definitely pejorative to a significant chunk of the population. Which means that its use in media and communications cannot honestly be viewed as neutral once these facts are known. Organizations that seek a neutral or positive portrayal of LGBT subject matter and people should thus avoid the use of this term. John is correct, in the end. Much as neither of us wants him to be; the anti-gays had the power to turn a clinical word describing us into a perjorative, and so they did in order to pursue their bigoted agenda.

  5. corsair82 says:

    Actually, in Jim Crow days and prior the word “Negro” was used near-universally in scientific circles as using the word “colored” was considered informal.

  6. NoBigGovDuh says:

    Homosexual is a proper scientific term. Negro was not.

  7. 4th Turning says:

    Sorry to go so far back with this but it’s just too rich-heard today in intro tor radiolab.
    Impt. post anyway hairs get split these days.

    The American Family Association thinks, apparently, that the word “gay” is ambiguous, and so they prefer the word “homosexual” (clearly, they’re never having to worry aboutcounting units in headlines).
    Which would be all right as long as they had a little care in the use of their spellchecker, which they’re told to replace the word “gay” with “homosexual” in their use of their nice cleaned-up version of the news.
    But they didn’t.
    And so.. there’s been an athletics competition in which the athlete that you and I know as Tyson Gay – he’s a sprinter – won.
    But over on AFA that led to the headline “Homosexual eases into 100 final at Olympic trials”.
    OUCH. We should state that we have no knowledge of Tyson Gay’s sexual orientation, but that we seriously don’t think that headline’s correct.

  8. Blueflash says:

    The word ‘homosexual’ reeks of pathology and that is indeed why bigots much prefer it to the word ‘gay’ and that it has a seemingly neutral contrasting term ‘heterosexual’ does nothing to change people’s visceral reaction to the word, connotations of psychological sickness and moral depravity do inevitably come immediately to mind. Too bad, though, that if we use the more colloquial word ‘gay’ its colloquial opposite, ‘straight’, also suggests that we gays are deviant; analogizing the physical characteristic of straightness to moral probity seems to be a universal of human language. The vocabulary we’re stuck with quite simply sucks and constantly works in favor of prejudice and I haven’t even mentioned the term ‘sexual orientation’, which relentlessly suggests to people’s minds that when gays are being discussed – and when else does anyone refer to sexual orientation? – it’s all about what people do in bed, love having little to do with it in our case. My awkward solution is generally to use the words ‘gay’ and ‘heterosexual’, ‘homosexual’ only when it’s in very clear contrast to ‘heterosexual’, ‘same-sex love’ instead of ‘homosexuality’ and ‘sexual/romantic orienation’ instead of ‘sexual orientation’.

  9. bpollen says:

    By the same token, henceforth we will not use the word “heterosexual.” We must now use the term “not-gay.” Because I have heard people use the word “straight” used in a derogatory manner, that is right out too.

    I’ve heard a lot of people use the word “gay” when they denigrate… (The kids don’t usually say “that’s so homosexual!”)

    I guess that it seems rather arbitrary that heterosexual and bisexual are hunky-dory but homosexual is taboo because some people sneer when they use the word.

  10. The_Fixer says:

    The advent of using the word “gay” as a code word is false. It was never a code word.

    Umm, never say never. I remember seeing at least two sources that stated the word was used as a code word in the settings I described above. I realize that is not a definitive answer, but I never claimed to say that it was. It is one possibility for it coming into modern usage as having the meaning that it does.

    In researching this, I also saw what you cite above and regard it as accurate as far as origination goes. However, we can’t discount that in the 1920s to the 1950s, the word was also used as a code word in specific social situations. Words fall into and out of usage, and change meaning, relatively quickly. I would not discount the possibility of it being a code word in a time period where gay people were not to be seen or heard in “polite company”.

  11. Indigo says:

    “The only safe language is a dead language,” my high school Latin teacher used to say. English is far from dead, as you point out.

  12. JamesR says:

    Thank you very much, again, for the Edward Carpenter link – my knowledge of history – real history – is like a Swiss cheese in some places. How amazing. Wonderful to see that someone lived out the Maurice theme, publicly, even if EM Forester couldn’t quite or hadn’t found the right ‘rougher type’ to settle down with LOL

    LOVE the concept of civilisation as a disease!

    I read Judy Grahn’s book on language “Another mother Tongue” early in my coming out and it was very eye opening, but never encountered “Templar” I suppose it was also related to the punishment they got and that their reputation got (It’s not nice to hide money from the Church!) ((To this day)) Oddly this is an excellent summary: – makes me wonder if in only a few hundred years this site will recount our story as well

  13. BeccaM says:

    Gee, be the pedant already.

  14. kurtsteinbach says:

    No, the word gay originally meant happy. It is from the French word Gie, which means happy. English gets most of its latinate words from French during the Middle English period of Chaucer. Yes, I am an English teach, a History teacher, and an ESL teacher. I have studied the Holocaust and the History of English. I have B.A.s in History and English.The advent of using the word “gay” as a code word is false. It was never a code word. You can look up the origin of the word gay online. There are centuries old connections between the Spanish and French words for happy and words that refer to gay men (LGBTQ)….

  15. kurtsteinbach says:

    Let’s just hope the anti-LGBT, religious wrong do not repopularize the early modern, enlightenment expression, “Dandy,” which resulted in Yankee Doodle Dandy, a derogatory British word for Americans…. The Dandy Club was a 1700s gay men’s club in London….

  16. kurtsteinbach says:

    As an ESL teacher, I can tell you all English speakers, native and non-native (2nd language learners), scare the hell out of dictionary-writers. To be an English Dictionary writer nowadays is to be constantly on the edge of sanity…. We keep inventing words, and it drives them up the wall. I kind of enjoy it….

  17. kurtsteinbach says:

    As a history and English teacher, I give this letter an A+. Mazel Tov and Bravo. One suggestion would be to start a petition of support and circulate asking people to sign onto this letter in support…..

  18. kurtsteinbach says:

    See my response post above. You just described both Nazis, Neo-Nazis, Klansmen, the Religious Right, and the anti-LGBTQ movements in one short statement. They are addressing and referring to the same echoes with the past, as well. That;s why you see the term “homosexual,” at both their Museum exhibits, their online exhibits, and in their non-exhibits. Of course, I could be wrong….

  19. kurtsteinbach says:

    I thought females who transitioned into males were trans, too…. I am “straight,” so forgive me if I get the terminology wrong. As a History and English teacher, I strive for accuracy in language…. As for Holocaust Museums, especially Holocaust Memorial Museums, they are aiming to be forboding in their use of language. They want to be thought provoking, even upsetting at times. If you can go through the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and not be upset, see a shrink. They want to convey that sense of the museum containing a portion of the history of evil in their website. They know, I hope, that the anti-LGBT and Religious Right use language like “homosexual.” So did the Nazis. They want people to make that connection. Being Jewish myself, and having been to this particular museum, among others, they are being subtle, to an extent. I know my own community, and it is something we do., like “Jewish time,” which is defined as fashionably late + 15 minutes. In the spirit of full honesty and disclosure, I should also point out, as I am sure Donnie Sterling and Sheldon Adelson have made you aware of, as embarrassing as it is to admit, the Jewish community in America and around the world has its own Right Wing elements. Some of them undoubtedly work at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. They are a minority in the Jewish Community, but they exist nonetheless. They don’t all wear distinctive clothing either….

  20. Gregory Peterson says:

    I was using “other-sex relationships” to mean heterosexual relationships.

  21. Rich says:

    Jim, I tend to agree with you and I’m in the same age group, although certainly not conservative, I am not offended by the word homosexual. Yes, it is more formal than gay, but not necessarily negative.

  22. Rich says:

    John, I usually like reading your opinions, and typically I’m in agreement, but not this time. Although I always use the word gay, as do most people, I really don’t believe that homosexual is always intended to be negative. Straight people are also called heterosexuals, bi’s are actually bisexuals, and gays are homosexual. It is a neutral term. When you look in a dictionary, the definition is “an attraction to people of the same sex”.
    It is only becoming negative because we are allowing it to become so. We should not let the Christian Right dictate how we think or tell us which words to use. In the 70’s the words “faggot” and “queer” were considered universally negative, but radical queer groups took those words and used them against oppressors. Let’s not be afraid of words.
    Gay is a perfectly acceptable term and the one most commonly used in everyday speech, but it is really more of a slang term. I also have to admit that I’m sometimes annoyed by the use of LGBT, and its ever increasing number of letters (LGBTQ, LGBTI, LGBTQI). It actually comes off as rather silly.
    I remember, that, when Tammy Baldwin was elected to the Senate, I read an article describing her as the first “LGBT” person in the senate. While she is a member of the LGBT community, she herself is not “LGBT”. She could rightfully be described as lesbian or gay (who knows maybe bi), but she is not trans, so the description is inaccurate.
    The word homosexual is more often used to describe same sex attraction than it is used to describe a person, but it can be used either way. I realize language is constantly evolving and, to some, homosexual is a negative, but I don’t believe it has to be.
    This was a thought provoking article and I hope you keep giving us food for thought. I just don’t completely agree on this issue.
    Sorry for posting as a guest, but I recently deleted my Google account and haven’t had the opportunity to re-register with Disqus.

  23. Francois says:

    The NBA had a big ad campaign that said its wrong to call people gay.

  24. Sam_Handwich says:

    the holocaust museum is a creepy place to begin with. i went there a few years ago, couldn’t wait to get the hell out.

  25. BeccaM says:

    I like the ‘Daughters of Bilitis.’ ;-)

  26. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    Everybody should see the movie “Bringing Up Baby”. One reason to watch it is it’s funny, but it is also the first time that the word gay is used to mean someone who doesn’t fit gender norms.

  27. emjayay says:

    Or you could also go with “friends of Dorothy.”

  28. emjayay says:

    Much like Obamacare vs. ACA or Obamacare vs. KyNect.

  29. Jade says:

    “Cutesie” is a perfect way to describe it.

  30. The_Fixer says:

    There is no definitve answer for where the term “gay” came from, or what the original intent behind the word was.

    But the most sensible one is what Becca mentions below. I remember reading many years ago that it was used as a code word in mixed settings, starting in the 1930s or 1940s. If a guy was interested in another guy and he wasn’t quite sure if it was safe to openly ask him out, he would say something like “I’m feeling quite gay tonight.” If the other guy responded with “So am I”, or words to that effect, they both knew that there was a mutual interest and the conversation could advance. If not, then the questioner would move on.

    I wrote about this once, and in the process of researching it, I discovered that other explanations (such as it being an acronym for “Good As You”) did not match the timeline when the word first came into common usage (the mid-late 1960s). I think this is the most plausible explanation, based on that research. But again, this is not definitive and wish someone had the actual answer and had the info to back it up.

  31. Jade says:

    “Cutesie” is a perfect way to put it.

  32. Jade says:

    That definition of Queer, in my opinion, waters the word down to basically nothing. I’m not trying to be antagonistic, but if the word defines the majority of the population, then it definitely shouldn’t be used to define our community.

  33. The_Fixer says:

    Yes, I think that it is necessary to modernize terminology in museum literature, exhibits and presentations. The purpose of a museum is to make history relatable to modern people. Using antiquated terminology makes it harder to do so.

  34. The_Fixer says:

    I think it depends on who is using the word “homosexual” and how it is used.

    In a clinical or scientific setting, it is permissible and precise.

    If an anti-gay zealot is using it, then we know that, as Strepsi says below, it is meant to stress the “sex” part of it. It is meant to be derogatory in that sense.

    I don’t go around telling people that I am “homosexual”, and I don’t “come out as homosexual”. I tell people that I’m gay, and come out as gay.

    As far as the Holocaust museum is concerned, I think we have gotten it “straight”. Look at the media’s coverage of people who have come out, and the marriage equality issue. It’s framed as gay people coming out, and “gay marriage.”

    “Homosexual” in casual conversation outside of a clinical or scientific setting is a dated term. I think it would be wose for the museum to change it.

  35. ComradeRutherford says:

    Just you wait, ‘Enry ‘Iggins!!!

  36. ComradeRutherford says:

    But seriously folks:

    “To summarize the results:Do you support “gay men and lesbians” serving in the military? 70%
    Do you support “homosexuals” serving in the military: 59%

    Do you support “gay men and lesbians” OPENLY serving in the military? 58%
    Do you support “homosexuals” OPENLY serving in the military? 44%

    That one word dropped us 14 points in the polls.”

    One syllable word to describe that: wow.

  37. ComradeRutherford says:



  38. dcinsider says:

    Excellent point John.

  39. Not yet 50, and I dislike “queer” too. Too many memories of “smear the queer.” It was definitely used in a derogatory sense in the 70s and 80s schoolyards.

  40. SFExPat says:

    Oh, I am with you there! I prefer “Queer” also but there are so many ppl (perhaps mostly oldsters like me — 60+) for whom it is such a derogatory term that I doubt it will ever stick around except among the edgier of us.
    In some company I do use it and quite liberally. In other company I stick with the alphabet soup (tho’ I spell it “GBLT” and call it “giblet”; that’s my irreverent streak coming out). In most mixed company, “gay” suffices, and even my lesbian friends haven’t minded.

  41. SFExPat says:

    I do indeed, and I like the double entendre of it too, but I am glad it went. It’s too “cutesie” to my mind; I prefer we are taken more seriously, unless of course we are deliberately in some sort of performance mode. Thanks for the memory!

  42. I know! They immediately leap to the butt-sex, and then talk about how disgusting it is. Even if the story is about lesbians! You’ve got to wonder why their minds go there if they are so very heterosexual.

  43. Houndentenor says:

    Gay is a term with political connotations. Considering the significance of the gay rights movement in Berlin in the 1920s that was eradicated by the Nazis, refusing to use the term gay is especially disconcerting. I’ll assume that no harm was intended. More likely they were trying to placate everyone and in our minefield of a culture these days trying to please everyone means angering quite a few. It can’t be done. Individuals and groups should be called whatever they like. If someone doesn’t like that, then they need to examine their own bigotry.

  44. Houndentenor says:

    I prefer same-sex and gender-discordant.

  45. Gregory Peterson says:

    I often use “same-sex” and “other-sex” as in “same-sex relationships,” “other-sex relationships.”

  46. Gregory Peterson says:

    I would go further and capitalize Gay when used as a noun referring a community or a person who is part of the Gay community.

  47. caphillprof says:

    Homosexual in print may look harmless but the harm is often conveyed in the pronunciation and it is that often disparaging pronunciation that is conveyed in the printed word echoing down the decades. Homo (slight pause) SSSEX ual! (Sibilant S).

  48. Jim says:

    I remember when Michael Huffington, Arianna’s ex, was nudged out of the closet and he claimed he was a Homosexual, not Gay. He wanted to make the distinction because he was an old money, conservative Republican.

  49. Jim says:

    I guess because I’m an old fart, 60, that I really don’t mind homosexual as a descriptive term. At least, I don’t think it’s derogatory. I guess Queer is a more inclusive term for LGBT, but I could never get over the bad connotations of it’s past in my mind. Gay always meant male homosexual to me, but now Lesbians use it too. How do you expect the Museum to get it “straight” if we can’t?

  50. Strepsi says:

    I was going to say that — this is a conflation that ends up on all sides (but particularly the bigots) that they ONLY think about gay men, and lesbians don;t exist.

    Lesbians were distinct from gay men in that they wore a black triangle, along with the mentally ill. But we all went into the ovens together.

  51. Strepsi says:

    I prefer to use Queer, because it involves straight people too — probably a majority of the population — because it includes ALL anal, sex toys, and masturbation.

  52. Strepsi says:

    Great article! One quibble with GLAAD: I don’t think “homosexual” is used by anti-gay religious people because of the clinical disorder association, I think it’s because it has the word “sexual” in it.

    They think we have a sexual behavior problem — or in Biblical terms, a Lust problem — and that we are sex-crazed sinners. Which is, of course, a classic case of projection.

    Because have you noticed that when they see two men professing romantic love the FIRST thing that pops into all fundie’s minds is penises entering anuses?

  53. Jade says:

    Do you (or anyone else) remember the term “LesBiGay”? It’s kind of horrible, isn’t it? It came and went very quickly. We tried.

  54. Jade says:

    When labeling myself, I prefer “bisexual,” but I’ve used “queer” and “gay” in the past. But when I talk about all of us, I use “LGBT” or “gays and lesbians.” I know that to many, “bisexual” sounds very ’80s, but I think it’s a beautiful (and accurate) word.

  55. Indigo says:

    You’re welcome. The word has loads of pseudo-Masonic and post-Catholic resonance that I remember from the early Mattachine Days but like Edward Carpenter, it has faded away. I used to love the expression ‘Uranian [].’ Edward Carpenter [] should reign as our gay chief Cultural Hero but nowadays he’s not even a proper ghost, due to the urge to reinvent the Wheel of Diction every five to seven years.

  56. JamesR says:

    Whoa – I used to like ‘Uranian’ best but now “Templar” is my new fave THANKS!

  57. JamesR says:

    Is there a difference, for example, in saying “Senator Lindsey Graham is a gay man” and “Senator Lindsey Graham is a homosexual man?” There is. One where the former is not true and the latter is probably true. These distinctions have meaning. The Nazis did not distinguish between the closet and the street, they wanted to extinguish the lot. In this context the scientific, even if anachronistic and currently otherwise implicitly homophobic word(s) are more accurate. The fact that it seems clinical, objective, inhuman and possibly dated is part of the lesson. That a museum seems dated is a bit of an oxymoron n’est-ce pas?

    “Practicing homosexual” can go though.

  58. dougsa says:

    But why is this? Will the word gay eventually meet this fate and move from positive to negative while it’s replaced by something new that we will expect everyone to use?

  59. MyrddinWilt says:

    Its an interesting point.

    Reading through the comments it is apparent that people use the terms bisexual and heterosexual as adjectives but homosexual is almost always a noun.

    I think its the noun-ing that is offensive. I am not defined entirely or even mainly by my sexuality. Say that I am straight and its fine. But call me *a* straight… I think its obvious someone is making a nasty point.

    More generally I think it was the NAZIs who thought of ‘the Jews’ as opposed to ‘people who happen to be Jewish’. And the same sort of concern is raised when people are talking about ‘Catholics’ or ‘Blacks’. The language invites us to enter into the mindset of the bigots who think in these terms, that the most important thing about a person is what ethnic or religious group a person belongs to or what type of people they sleep with.

    Now granted, if we have a group making bigoted attacks against a group then members of the group being targeted have a natural inclination to say that they are a member of the group and that it is nothing to be ashamed of. So given the circumstances I applaud my Latino friends who have responded to the recent anti-Latino bigotry from the Republican party / Fox News by saying they are proud to be Latinos. But I am not about to go round telling people I am ‘proud to be white’ because there really isn’t a mainstream political movement being built around hatred of white folks.

    So I am not particularly happy with ‘Gays’ as a substitute for Homosexuals as we are back to nouning people, ‘gay men’ would be better and rather more accurate since the NAZI persecution of lesbians was very different. It might seem clumsy but it is actually fewer letters and syllables than homosexual.

    The problem is actually worse when it comes to people of Jewish ancestry persecuted by the NAZIs as the NAZI definition was genealogical and many of the people who were persecuted didn’t consider themselves to be ‘Jews’ or ‘Jewish’ at all.

  60. 2karmanot says:

    Thank you John. I’ve been saying it for years. I glad, finally, to see a movement to put the word in the dust bin of history.

  61. ryp says:

    This may say more about your own inability to shake negative stereotypes commonly related to the term when you were first aware of your sexuality than anything else. I’m roughly your age and recall that “homo” was a favored epithet among those entering puberty in the early 1970s. Perhaps “homosexual” has become an antiquated term along the lines of “colored” or “negro”, but I’ve noticed that the NAACP and the UNCF still use those terms in their names, so they can’t have that much sting.

    Maybe “people of homosex” will gain currency in the future.

  62. John30013 says:

    Actually, the “homo” in “homosexual” is from the Greek, meaning “same” (“hetero” being the Greek word for “different”). “Homo” the genus comes from Latin, meaning “man”.

  63. holoh says:

    Typical liberal hypocrisy. Tolerance for your speech about deviant sexual behavior, but no tolerance for any speech that doesn’t agree with that. Banned, LOL.

  64. Louis says:

    Another minor angle here is that “Homo” happens to be the genus of our species, as in Homo sapiens. Hence, “homosexual” attaches directly to who we are in name, whereas “bisexual” and “heterosexual” does not. Minor point. Gay and lesbian are pretty neutral, I’ll have to agree that these are the best currently defining terms.

    “Ho-mo” just doesn’t work, sounds fascistic which is why you might see it stay in print. Gay is a much more pleasant term.

  65. Plisko says:

    I agree that some words are better than others. I just think we are in a zone where it is a matter of context and emotional intent, not words. Some people still say “blacks” some say “negroes” some say “African Americans” and some say “[email protected]#&er” to each other meaning “friend” , even when they are white. If they are saying it in good faith and good emotional intent, then I don’t know that there is a problem.

    I know plenty of ways that the word “gay” is used in a very awful street vernacular or redneck vernacular. It too is a word with baggage. If I was looking for a more sanitized word for a more academic or museum like context I would probably also choose homosexual, if anything because it sounds more academic (I don’t know the actual origin of the term). I would not mean it as anything more than the choice of a formal type of word over a vernacular word.

    Is there no merit to this approach?

  66. caphillprof says:

    To me the term homosexual refers to swishy young men walking Russian greyhounds through Georgetown in the 50s and 60s and were themselves never quite comfortable with the term gay or the liberation that occurred

  67. Moderator4 says:

    And you are banned, holoh. Go elsewhere with your “redneck buddies.”

  68. taikan says:

    One of the interesting questions this article raises, perhaps without meaning to do so, is to what extent we should “modernize” monuments and/or displays in museums and other public institutions when one generation no longer deems suitable a term that the generation which erected the monument or created the displays deemed appropriate. For example, what does the author think the Holocaust Museum (or any other public institution) should do if, twenty or thirty years from now, the terms “gay” and “lesbian” no longer are deemed acceptable by those who currently accept those terms when applied to themselves?

    It also raises the question of which term to use when those within a particular group to which the term applies differ regarding which term is appropriate (e.g., “Mexican-American” or “Chicano”).

  69. taikan says:

    Perhaps it sounds like “negro” to you because “negroid” is the term used by physical and forensic anthropologists to describe one of the three racial groups into which they generally classify humans (the other two being caucasoid and mongoloid), just as homosexual is the clinical term for those who prefer sex partners of the same gender.

  70. Elijah Shalis says:

    I know many Lesbians that do not like being called gay.

  71. Tysalpha says:

    I @named them in my tweet, as I’m sure others did. They’ve seen it. Hopefully everyone realizes this is a good institution–they just need to refresh the copy on those webpages.

  72. I don’t use the term but I don’t think its pejorative. Its scientific. Penis isn’t cock or dick its the precise word for the male sexual organ. Homosexual is a term like heterosexual or bisexual. My 2 cents

  73. Monophylos Fortikos says:

    Good job you’re nothing dear *kiss*

  74. SFExPat says:

    John, et al. — what would we term “bisexuals” then? Not being argumentative here, I prefer “gay/lesbian” also, but what about us ppl who do/have indeed go/gone both ways? “Straight” is sort of an anti-gay term, in that it implies we are “bent” (which is I believe a European(?) term for gay ppl), and “bent” sounds sorta derogatory also.
    Words, words, words. “I’m so sick of words …” (from “My Fair Lady”, of course…)

  75. GarySFBCN says:

    For me, it depends upon the context. Used in studies or in history books, I’m not at all offended, plus it is complementary to ‘heterosexual.’

  76. DRoseDARs says:

    People are biased against the word “Jews” so what would you have the museum use instead? I’m supposed to give a shit that bigoted assholes are abusing a benign word? They abuse oxygen too, shall we hold our breath to show our offense?

  77. And now I’ve got the usual naysayers on Twitter claiming that of course they use the term all the time, and they’re gay! No gay person uses the term in the way I described above: homosexual bar, homosexual marriage, homosexual rights, homosexual rights group, homosexual adoption, homosexual member of congress, openly-homosexual. I could go on. Never, ever, has any of the naysayers, who claim to use the word all the time, ever been able to come up with an example that isn’t clinical.

  78. So we can call you asshole?

  79. I suspect they’ll see it. We’ve got a large enough readership that I was assuming this was the easiest way to get the mesage to someone over there that mattered.

  80. Gay covers 3 groups, and if trans people were systematically rounded up, then you say “gay and transgender,” or “gay men and transgender people.”

  81. Really? I see the word “homosexual” and tend to think: creep, cretin, lech, guy with psych issues, and more. I absolutely hear that word and cringe, and think of bad people. I’m not sure why we should discount the possibility that straight people, especially those in the middle, might think the same.

  82. And the nazis may not have targeted LGBT, but they may have gone after gay men. And I don’t think the abbreviation lgbt works anyway, it’s a wonderul way to “in” ourselves to lots of folks who have no idea what it means. If everyone was targeted, then mention them by name.

  83. If they rounded up lesbians too, then you add the word “lesbian.” Like you said, it’s not exactly a tough fix :)

  84. I like that term, I’ve heard it used by jewish drag queens.

  85. it might be, hadn’t heard that. Though the issue is how it’s perceived today of course.

  86. I think gay as a noun is still up for grabs, I’m not sure where I am on it, though I do use it sometimes.

  87. hoIoh says:

    I am on the religious right and my word of choice is gay. As in, “damn that dude is fucking gay” or “that shirt looks gay as hell”. When my redneck buddies and I get drunk, shoot our guns and ride our 4-wheelers every weekend (no, I’m not kidding), we refer to anyone who does something half-assed or like a pussy as “gay”.

    I suggest you pick a new word as we hijacked “gay” to be used negatively long ago. Of course, we’ll just keep hijacking your words, so you better get a list ready.

  88. hoIoh says:

    I am EXTREMELY offended by the terms: homosexual, gay, flamer, fruit, cock-gobbler, fudge-packer, butt-pirate, peter-puffer, sausage-jockey, turd-burglar, shit-stabber, and poo-pusher. Please stop using any terms to describe fags as they offend me greatly.

    Give me a break. If you don’t want to be called something, don’t announce to the world that you are something.

  89. Yes, and the context here is possibly the most famous Holocaust Museum in the world, if not one of the most prestigious, using a word for a minority that actively harms them, as proven by the CBS poll. So yes context does matter. And I can’t think of anything more important than changing the way, at a very basic level, the manner in which people of think of us as a people. Republicans tend to agree with me, about the importance of words and messaging. And that’s why they’re often so very good at it. Just because 54 genders are absurd doesn’t mean that every concern about every word usage is absurd, otherwise we’d all be calling blacks negroes. Do you? :)

  90. Max_1 says:


  91. I think it’s more than that. The word “homosexual’ has a negative connotation for me. Perhaps it’s because the right has twisted it subtly. But the word, even in a clinical setting, sounds like negro to me.

  92. Hue-Man says:

    I searched the website of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (opening Sept/14) and came up with this mixed-up usage in an item about the second same-sex marriage in Canada in 1974.

    “Vogel and North, however, felt that a wedding ceremony would bring media attention and help educate the public about homosexual relationships. At the time, many believed that gays could not fall in love or have long-term meaningful relationships in the same way as heterosexuals. By getting married, Vogel and North wanted to challenge this misconception and show that marriage need not only exist between a man and a woman.”

    The French version is gay-free. “MM. Vogel et North, par contre, pensaient qu’un mariage allait attirer l’attention des médias et contribuer à renseigner le public sur les relations homosexuelles. À l’époque, beaucoup pensaient que les homosexuels ne pouvaient être amoureux ou entretenir des relations significatives à long terme, comme le faisaient les hétérosexuels.”

    I’ll leave it to the editor-class but “gay relationships” doesn’t have the same feeling here as “heterosexual relationships.” Less inclusive while less descriptive. And this from someone who really dislikes the word “homosexual” partly from childhood taunts of “homo” and “fag” and partly from the public’s negative reaction to the word.

    I would hope that major institutions think about their usage of words without imposing an outright ban.

  93. Houndentenor says:

    It’s not the use of “homosexual” that is a problem. It’s a clinical term and has a proper usage. It’s the right’s refusal to use the term “gay” for political reasons that has associated “homosexual” with bigotry. Without that it would be a neutral and scientific term.

  94. Yalma Cuder-Zicci says:

    Yes, of course. But in your link, they are called “lesbians”, not “homosexuals” or even “homosexual women”. They have their own distinct word. There is no effort to make the word denoting lesbians be a catchall word to cover gay men, bisexual people, or trans people. That same site should use “gay men” when specifically talking about gay men.

  95. Plisko says:

    Wait. Does this mean “fag” is making a comeback too? “gay” and “fag” we the most used pejoratives in high school when I was growing up. “homosexual” was more of a clinical term like “penis”. I dont know how it now has a negative connotation while “gay” is now not negative.

    I was instructed that “queer” is the appropriate term for hyper political correct hair splitters. I personally subscribe to the idea that it is the emotional intent behind words that make them either appropriate or inappropriate, negative or positive. This sort of hairsplitting does not account for that. I also think you have bigger fish to fry.

  96. emjayay says:

    Maybe but no one thinks that currently, except for teenagers and I’m not sure they are using “gay” in that way so much anymore.

  97. BeccaM says:

    As a Bi woman married to another woman, I personally prefer the shorthand of just saying I’m gay.

    In one of the online games I’ve been playing, some guy began hitting on me. After dropping a few veiled hints that I wasn’t interested, and his failing to get the message, I finally ended up saying, “Sorry, but I’m gay and so is my wife.”

    It got the job done.

  98. emjayay says:

    I’m pretty sure we have gone down this road at great length in the past….but anyway:

    In the Queer Nation period we reclaimed the pejorative “queer” as a more inclusive and provocative term than gay, which seemed like a men-only reference. It sort of worked, and we have Queer Studies etc., but to me at this point the term seems a little bit anachronistic in itself and living in the 80’s. We’re still here, we’re still queer, but they are getting over it. When Ellen/the Ellen character came out on TV, she said “I’m gay” and to me this was the beginning of including men and women under that term like “queer” tried to. Besides, with LGBT I think we have added more than enough letters to that one already. So: gay.

    With the Holocaust Museum stuff, the use of “homosexual” should go. The term “gay” seems a little anachronistic in the other direction and representing a more current concept of who we are. It’s like when Paul Ryan says “….tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working…” or Newt Gingrich says “food stamp president” there’s a certain racial picture I’m thinking most people get in their heads, even if those guys claim it’s not what they were thinking. It’s how words work.

    But I don’t have anything better, so: gay.

  99. BeccaM says:

    So were lesbians, to a smaller extent. Not as severely as gay men, but it turned out that among the Nazis, misogyny and sexism were a bit of a shield — but it also meant many women were forced out of professional careers and told to go home and get pregnant with Aryan babies.

  100. Yalma Cuder-Zicci says:

    Just like the odious usage of the adjective “illegal” as a noun, I’ve never liked the adjective “homosexual” used as a noun either. But I don’t think the Holocaust Museum should use “gay” as a noun. They should say “gay men”, since men were the specific targets.

  101. BeccaM says:

    No, historically it was a term we came up with ourselves, back when we needed a code-word language to avoid being arrested.

  102. ARP says:

    Forgive my ignorance, but isn’t the historical root of the term “gay” somewhat pejorative as well? Didn’t they just mash a synonym for happy into some stereotypes? Or, do I have the historical context wrong?

  103. chris10858 says:

    Note to the UHMM: Anti-semites, white supremacists and the KKK also like to use the term ‘homosexual’. Does the UHMM want to be grouped in with those folks?

  104. chris10858 says:

    How about they just use the Yiddish term of ‘fagelah’? LOL

    Good article by John and I agree the word ‘homosexual’ definitely needs to be eliminated wherever we seem any group or persons use the term. As John mentioned, gay is much more accepted by American society. It’s like changing the term gay marriage to marriage equality. It can make a huge difference in getting the American populace to come on board with full equality.

    Nevertheless, the comments here, as usual, digress into using the LGBTIAXYZMNOP acronym for everyone and everything. We need to try to stop taking back words like “queer” or “homosexual”. Throughout my teen years and 20s, I heard those terms used in the perjorative from family members, church members and others in the community. I myself never want to hear anyone ever use those terms again.

    As for the Holocaust itself, while lesbians were persecuted during that period, it was primarily gay men who suffered so severely at the hands of the Nazis. I just read an article about this on the UHMM website and in fact, even on their site, they use the term “homosexual men and lesbians”. So, their website isn’t even consistent.

  105. GarySFBCN says:

    sorry, but given recent experiences with ‘trans’, no institution should develop and use a word or phrase without prior engagement with LGBT groups.

  106. Tysalpha says:

    In the context of the holocaust, ‘gays’, ‘gay men’ or ‘gay men and lesbians’ may be fine. The problem of us not having a preferable inclusive term doesn’t justify using an offensive one.

  107. Indigo says:

    As my realtor of several years ago liked to say, “We know who we are.”

  108. Indigo says:

    I agree that it sounds patriarchal and I also agree that “gay” tends to reference men rather than the full spectrum of the community. That leaves us with clumsy expressions like “alternative sexuality” which might be accurate but are also unhandy to say.

  109. GarySFBCN says:

    It is replacing a gender neutral word (homosexual) with a word that has been primarily used to describe homosexual men (gay). I’m hoping that some lesbians chime in here.

    To me, it feels a bit patriarchal.

  110. Indigo says:

    I don’t know what the Holocaust Museum’s criteria are or how they come to their decisions. I’m guessing it’s a board and that it makes typical board decisions, compromises on the basis of shifting criteria that are not entirely accurate and are only rarely agreeable to all parties involved in the issue. That’s how board decisions are made in the absence of a strong leader. And as for strong leaders, I’m not persuaded that’s what’s needed in any situation. The bottom line is that only rarely do terminology and reality overlap, especially in the case of sexual orientation.

    We’re not new on the scene as gay people but we are new in terms of being a existing reality that demands acknowledgement. That’s scary for traditionalist boards of anything, to acknowledge the existence of what they don’t have social or mental filters to identify, apart from sleazy notions and dirty words, is an on-going challenge.

    The semiotics of gay identity is not settled, “homosexual” as a pseudo-scientific expression is entirely unacceptable, “sexual variant” is even less acceptable and as for the old-time therapist’s safe refuge in the term “invert” . . . well! That won’t do! Taking refuge in slang, from “gay” to “queer” to “nellie” to a remarkable list of Catholic insults (they’re good at that), and even the cop-out expression “Templar” (which seems to have disappeared into the mists of forgetfulness), I think we’re out in the middle of verbal quicksand here with nary a verbal life raft in sight.
    So what’s wrong with “gay”? It’s what we say these days. But then . . . we live our experience and theorize it only as an afterthought.

    We scare the dictionary-writers: we’re a living reality, we have fun, we’re fun to be around and what’s worse, we’re nice people. How do you label that?

  111. GarySFBCN says:

    OK, what word would you use to describe lesbians, gay men, trans, etc?

    I think you are mistaken If you believe that members of the ‘lesbian power elite’ are going to say ok to being called ‘gay’, because it smacks of patriarchy.

  112. 2patricius2 says:

    I have always hated the word homosexual. I am not sure why. Maybe because when I was first coming out 50 or more years ago, the only references to homosexuality I could find in text books were negative. And the only people who consistently use the word today are people who want to denigrate us by its use. The word itself is a combination of Greek and Latin terms, “sex” is part of the word, and those who use it to demean us, also try to reduce us and our very rich and complex lives and relationships to sexual activity. I much prefer the word gay, or LGBT or even queer. They are inclusive words, words that include sex but also include the whole range of what it means to be gay.

  113. jomicur says:

    Exactly. “Homosexual” is an obsolete clinical term, a remnant of the horrible time when gay people were believed to suffer from a mental disorder. There is simply no justification for using it anymore except in a strictly, and clearly defined, historical context. The fact that “homosexual” is the term of choice for the religious right says all that needs to be said about it.

  114. Tysalpha says:

    Disagree, Gary. It’s a website. Text online is living… their site manager can go in and do a global search and replace.

    And any new history books shouldn’t use the word either. Would we stand for “colored” to be used in a textbook? Or “retarded” for that matter? Perhaps only in the context of explaining the change in terminology over time.

  115. Rambie says:

    Agreed, it seems the most encompassing word to cover all the flavors. I mean, didn’t John have a rant a few months ago that even LGBT wasn’t good to use anymore because it leaves out Q A and other sectors?

    John, perhaps instead of surrendering, we should take-back-the-word homosexual. “Gay” used to be a pejorative too.

  116. JohnVisser says:

    Sent the following to the USHMM:

    Dear USHMM:

    I am respectfully writing to request that the USHMM recognize that the use of language is an integral part of persecution and propaganda, and that certain language usage continues to perpetuate discrimination in the 21st century regarding the LGBT community.

    The Museum’s use of the term “homosexual,” while clinically accurate, is offensive and carries a negative connotation. Anti-gay organizations across the world have helped to define the term homosexual as a pejorative. In the same context that the phrase “a Jew” can and often is derogatory as opposed to Jewish, homosexual in modern times is derogatory as opposed to gay.

    I sincerely believe no ill regard or harm is intended on the part of USHMM. However, in my opinion, as a national and world renowned museum whose intentions are education and the irradiation of discrimination, perhaps it is time for the USHMM to update its LGBT website and exhibit content to reflect modern language usage.

    Thank you for your consideration of this request.


    John Visser

  117. mikeyDe says:

    I don’t recoil at hearing the word homosexual but feel it’s inappropriate in contemporary situations. In historical contexts the museum should put quotes around the term to reflect how it was used by the Nazis at that time. Using the historical German terms could be powerful in some contexts. Using the term gay or LGBT in a historical context is jarring to my ears.

  118. GarySFBCN says:

    Unless we are going to push that every history book – including those who are supportive of us – I’d leave this alone.

    And who visits the Holocaust Museum and then thinks that there is harm done because they use the word homosexual?

    I don’t agree.

  119. Elijah Shalis says:

    The Holocaust Center in Michigan does as well. I thought Homosexual was the word that encompasses gays (men), lesbians (women), and bisexuals, transsexuals, etc.

  120. Bj Lincoln says:

    You make a great point. Maybe this piece should be forwarded to the museum.

  121. martin says:

    Anything that moves us away from the misconceptions of Sigmund Freud is ok my me.

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