The Origins and Continuing Evolution of Identity Terminology
The following is a question and response posted on our “PFLAG-All” email list that is very informative regarding the origins and continuing evolution of terminology used by individuals to identify themself and/or others:
I have become increasingly aware of an awkward feeling whenever I use the term homosexual, heterosexual, gay, Lesbian, transgender, straight, etc. It is unavoidable in my class because these are the terms that we have to use and it seems that they have been so institutionalized as to have become acceptable by all who use them.
Are you aware, or can you ask someone who would be aware if there is some movement afoot to change our vocabulary to excise these sexually based terms ? It seems to describe someone’s personhood by what is done in private is so crazy and is frankly repugnant to me. I hate labels but it seems we are stuck with them unless or until we demand change. We don’t call women who have had abortions, “aborters”, or people who eat meat, carnivores (except in a nutritional definition perhaps) as their primary description, then why should we define individuals by what they do sexually?”
I know a lot of young people are refusing to label themselves. What do you think about this? What kind of terminology is being used by those that don’t want “labels”? Are there any thoughts from National about a change in these labels that we all use?
Thank you in advance for your thoughts on this.
Becky – PFLAG Central Oregon
First, it seems like same-sex attractions and behaviors existed long before we had any names for them, much less “homosexual.” Importantly, those attractions or behaviors did NOT constitute identities (as your questioner points out is the problem today). That is, the fact that one “did” homosexual behavior (or heterosexual behavior) didn’t make one A Homosexual or A Heterosexual, any more than doing any other form of behavior defined one’s identity (as the question points out). It was an act, a behavior, maybe even a sin – but it was not an identity. No one presumed that this defined who one IS or that it characterized any deep-seated core of personality. It might be illegal, immoral, sick … and like theft, it could be punished by law, shamed by the church, and thought perverse. But it was an illegal, immoral, or perverse ACT, not an identity.
This changed around the late 18th and early 19th century, when the “sexology” movement was born. The terminology around sexual orientation derives from this “movement” to define and classify various forms of sexual identity. Freud (among others) had begun to emphasize the role of sexuality in personality, and so it seemed important to define “who” people were in part by defining their sexuality. It took some time for the terms to evolve to anything like their current usage, but basically, there was “normal” sexuality (which wasn’t even named, because it was simply understood to be the “real” sexuality, whereas all others needed names and explanations), and then there were various deviations or perversions. In that context, “homosexuality” (gradually) came to mean a sexual attraction to members of one’s own sex. As these terms evolved, so did their meanings. They came to describe not an act, but an identity. So, rather than being an adjective (a homosexual act), homosexual became a noun (“A homosexual”) and referred to the person rather than the behavior. Interestingly, it was some time later that the same thing happened to “heterosexual,” because heterosexuality was taken as so normative that it simply needed no name and no explanation — which, I would suggest, is still the case.
So, that’s historically how sexuality (i.e., sexual attraction and behavior) got all embedded in the terminology. Then … as homosexuality in particular came to be viewed by the medical profession as a perversion, it was “medicalized” — that is, it came to be viewed as a disease that could be diagnosed and, it was hoped, “cured.” [By the way, Freud himself was not of this mind. He neither felt that homosexuality was a sickness that should be cured, nor did he believe it was possible to change it. It was his (mostly American) successors who added that chapter to the story.]
In the face of this pathologization of homosexuality, the term “heterosexuality” became the crucial foil or contrast against which this perversion could be named and vilified. So, ironically, the NOUNS “heterosexuality” and “A heterosexual” actually emerged later and (largely) as a form of contrast against the nouns “homosexuality” and “A homosexual.”
The term “homosexuality” then became the medical/psychiatric diagnosis for this particular “personality disorder” (This is important: psychiatrists are medical doctors, and it was psychiatry that really bought into this medical model … psychologists and others followed later, but it was the medical profession that set up the system. The DSM, the diagnostic manual used by all mental health professionals, is published by the American Psychiatric Association – and it is that manual that pathologized homosexuality until … that’s another story).
Jump to 1969, Stonewall and the birth of the “gay rights movement,” and then to 1973 when “homosexuality” was “declassified” (i.e., no longer described as a medical condition, although the process was not quite that simple) in the DSM, and the gradual growth of consciousness by gay (then lesbian and gay … then lesbian, gay, and bisexual … then lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people. Part of this growth of consciousness was a growing dislike for the term “homosexual” – especially used as a noun (“The homosexual is …”), but also used as an adjective “Homosexual groups rallied” or “homosexual marriage”). There were/are two major reasons for this discomfort: (1) the term has a long history as a medical label; using it recalls and to some degree recreates the view of LGB people and their lives as sick (“T” is a different set of issues in this context); and (2) as your questioner notes, the term seems to focus on sexuality rather than on the broad nature of people’s full identity. So, LGB people have vociferously resisted the use of the term homosexual (especially those in younger generations and those with some political consciousness.
There are still some LGB folks, mostly older or sort of out of the mainstream of LGB community, who use the term). [By the way, the conservative right, including but not limited to the religious right, intentionally uses the word “homosexual” — precisely, some would argue, for these 2 very reasons: to pathologize and sexualize LGB people.]
However, even in that segment of the movement that rejects the use of “homosexual,” we still use ‘bisexual’ and ‘heterosexual.’ I have always thought that this is a problem, especially for reason (2). The word “straight” used for people who identify as heterosexual might answer part of this problem, except that some non-LGB people are offended by it (because it can imply boring, conventional, etc.) and some LGB people don’t like the implication that they are “bent” (whereas others LOVE this implication). We currently have no other widely-used word for bisexual.
But here is the beauty of language as a living thing — and of the iconoclastic tendencies of youth. New words are evolving to address these problems (temporarily, to be sur; these will undoubtedly be seen as problematic down the road). The first, and still the most widely-used and well-liked by many, is ‘queer.’ An old pejorative, it has been reclaimed, and in its broadest sense covers everyone who doesn’t live by standard, traditional rules of sexuality and gender. It can even include ‘straight’ people who don’t feel that the traditional category fits their full identity [although homophobia/transphobia being what they are, few straight folks are comfortable identifying as queer; the ones I know are few and far between.]. ‘Queer’ is also used by a lot of adults, especially younger folks and those who are politically active. It is pretty standard fair now among youth, who are developmentally prone to avoid labels anyhow, and who see a movement that gives them huge flexibility in naming who they are. Lots of older LGB(T) folks dislike it, though, because it evokes that long history of ‘queer’ being used so pejoratively.
As the questioner mentions, it’s true that lots of youth reject categories and labels. That’s partly a developmental phenomenon (adolescence is all about rejecting the identity handed to you by others and trying out new ones); and, especially for queer kids, it’s partly historical (they have the benefit of a now-40-year-old movement that supports their right to define themselves in ways that are not in keeping with the dominant scripts they learned as kids). Some use terms like “spectrum” or “fluid” to denote their flexibility or fluidity in matters of sexuality and gender; “ambisexual” is sometimes used to refer to sexuality that changes (‘ambi’ meaning moving or traveling, as in ambulation); “polyamory” refers to the possibility of having multiple lovers, of whatever sex. And there are more. To apply the old boxes, others might call these kids ‘straight,’ ‘lesbian,’ ‘gay,’ ‘bisexual,’ ‘questioning,’ ‘experimenting,’ ‘confused,’ etc. The youth would say that they are just who they are and that the available labels just don’t fit the breadth and fluidity of their identities. That may all change as they get older, but they open possibilities that we can all learn from.
As for terms National might use … lots of these terms are sort of proprietary – that is, it’s OK for me to call myself queer, but it is uncomfortable for others to presume to do that (unless they have ‘permission’ from queer folks. To understand this, consider the use of terms among members of communities of color that would be offensive were I, a white woman, to use them). The list of initials is getting long, but they do have the advantage of eliminating the “sexual” part of these words, and they also have the advantage of honoring most of the currently-used terms: the core ones would be LGBTQQI (for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, and Intersexed) … and there are others … and they will keep changing. Flexibility is crucial – that, and a willingness to listen to the folks, that is, to LGBTQQI folks. One idea might be to invite queer kids to help craft your messages. See what they say, label it as theirs, and you can both honor their contribution and include their insights without fear of offense.
That was long!
Janis Bohan, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology, Emerita (retired)
Metropolitan State College of Denver
Author of “Psychology and Sexual Orientation: Coming to Terms,” published by Routledge Press; co-author (with Glenda Russell, Ph.D.) of “Conversations about Psychology and Sexual Orientation,” published by New York University Press…. and a bunch of articles and stuff.