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Gays and Lesbians or Homosexuals?

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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.

Interestingly, the word "homosexual," which is a hybrid of the Greek word homos ("same") and the Latin word sexualis (sexual), did not come into existence until the late nineteenth century. Before then, those who engaged in same-sex sex were variously referred to as sodomites or buggerers. Such terms, however, did not imply either same-sex sex or a particular type of person. Rather, they applied to any person who engaged in oral or anal sex, without regard to whether the participants were of the same or the opposite sex.

Moreover, until the nineteenth century it was generally assumed that any person could yield to the temptation to engage in same-sex behavior, just as any person might, in the right circumstances, engage in theft. It wasn't until less than two centuries ago that these terms, like the word homosexual, came to refer to a particular type of person and came to focus specifically on same-sex rather than opposite-sex conduct.

So, what's in a name? Does a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Is "colored" the same as African-American? Is "spic" the same as Hispanic, "dago" the same as Italian-American, "hymie" the same as Jew, "redskin" the same as Native-American, "mick" the same as Irish-American? Do words affect beliefs and politics?

What this poll leads me to think is that the word "homosexual," though once thought to be a neutral term like "colored" or "crippled" or "retarded," should now slip out of our responsible public discourse. For 15% of Americans -- or some forty million of us -- the very use of this word apparently triggers deeply emotional and hostile responses, responses that apparently can be softened or even avoided entirely simply by substituting the less fearsome phrase "gay men or lesbians."

When we hear religious leaders or politicians referring to "homosexuals in the military," "homosexual marriage," or "special rights for homosexuals," we must recognize what they are doing. Especially for the 15% of Americans who react so viscerally to the term "homosexual," they are trying to chew their way into the worst parts of our psyches in order to manipulate our beliefs and values and make us worse people than we really are.

Speaking of politics, it is noteworthy that virtually every ballot initiative, referendum and constitutional amendment voted on in the United States in the past decade concerning equal rights for gays and lesbians has been decided by a margin of well under 15%. It may well be that all those electoral defeats were due to the continuing acceptability of the word "homosexual." Strangely, had everyone spoken of "gays and lesbians" rather than "homosexuals," the results might have been different.

If this seems implausible, I ask you to consider, at the risk of being heavy-handed, the following advice from the greatest propagandist of the twentieth century: "The art of propaganda consists precisely in being able to awaken the imagination of the public through an appeal to their feelings, in finding the appropriate psychological form that will arrest the attention. . . . The broad masses of the people are [ruled] by sentiment rather than by sober reasoning. . . . Such being the case, all effective propaganda must be confined to a few bare essentials and those must be expressed as far as possible in stereotyped formulas. These slogans should be persistently repeated. . . ."Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf.

It's time for those forty million Americans to think a bit harder.