A recent CBS/New York Times poll found that 70 percent of Americans are in favor of gay men and lesbians serving in the military. Hooray for progress! Unfortunately, the same poll found that only 59 percent of Americans are in favor of homosexuals serving in the military. When pollsters were asked specifically about people of all sexual orientations being allowed to serve openly, support dropped to 58 percent for gay men and lesbians, 44 percent for homosexuals.
The obvious explanation — and the prevailing wisdom on Twitter — is that a lot of Americans must not be very swift. But here’s another one: Words mean things. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation lays out the difference between those two descriptions in their media reference guide:
The Associated Press, The New York Times and The Washington Post all restrict usage of the term “homosexual” — a word whose clinical history and pejorative connotations are routinely exploited by anti-gay extremists to suggest that lesbians and gay men are somehow diseased or psychologically/emotionally disordered, and which, as The Washington Post notes, “can be seen as a slur.”
So, you know how activists are always insisting that word choice matters, and some words carry a lot of extra baggage even if you don’t mean anything by them, and their use has a real cultural impact, even if you don’t notice it? And how whenever they do that, they’re widely dismissed as free speech-hating P.C. whiners who need to get a life? Yeah. Turns out they might be onto something.
Kate Harding is the co-author of "Lessons From the Fatosphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce With Your Body" and has been a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.More Kate Harding.