I was in the fifth grade when I first heard the word ‘homosexual.’
One day at school I was sitting around with a group of my friends at the lunch table, listening to one of the girls telling about a fight she’d gotten into at home with her younger sister. She said she called her younger sister a ‘homo,’ and all of my friends laughed.
I had no idea what she meant, so when I got home from school that afternoon, I asked my mom.
Standing over the stove preparing dinner, my mom answered calmly, but seriously. She told me that the word ‘homo’ was short for homosexual and that the word referred to a man who liked other men in a way that he was supposed to like women. Like a girlfriend. Or women who liked other women in a way that they were only supposed to like men. Like a boyfriend. I remember her telling me about the first time she’d ever heard of anyone like that – in her abnormal psychology class at the University of North Texas.
I never dreamed that word would be used to describe me someday. Neither did my mom.
Because the word had already taken on a negative connotation. There was something wrong with “those” people. In so many words, my mom had said so.
Besides the ugly slurs that I heard growing up in reference to someone who was attracted to the same sex, the only word I ever heard to describe someone “like that,” was ‘homosexual.’ And that was usually in conjunction with a joke or making fun of someone.
Or on very rare occasions when I heard the word at church, in a sermon or in a Bible class. Nothing the least bit redemptive was ever said in association with the word, ‘homosexual.’ The word, ‘homosexual’ or ‘homosexuality’ didn’t appear in a translation of scripture, to my knowledge, though, until the New International Version came out with a translation of the New Testament in 1973, and then the full Bible in 1978. It’s interesting to me that in the same year the word was included in scripture, it was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association.
For those of us who remember the older meaning of the word, and all the negative connotations associated with it decades ago, the term, ‘homosexual,’ still carries a lot of baggage. Personally I don’t like it because it has such a clinical feel, and in the world in which I grew up, it was used only to refer to people who were also considered an “abomination.”
In addition to all the negative connotations already mentioned, some people find the word offensive because of the emphasis it places on sexual activity, when our sexual orientation includes so much more.
It’s especially offensive when it’s used in a way that separates or alienates people according to a difference, such as making reference “to the ‘homosexuals.’”
When I’m talking to fellow Christians in a CenterPeace gathering, at a Peacemakers Workshop, for instance, where the purpose is to help church leaders better understand the LGBTQ community, I’ll sometimes use the terms, ‘homosexual’ and ‘homosexuality.’ Because that’s the verbage that Christians are most familiar with, and I want to use language that speaks to my audience. That’s why I used the terminology in my memoir, Loves God, Likes Girls. I was writing to a predominantly Christian audience that wasn’t necessarily familiar with more contemporary language.
But I wouldn’t use those terms anywhere else.
Over the years I’ve asked LGBTQ friends and acquaintances to share their feelings about the “H” word. Some listen for the word as an indicator of how familiar or comfortable a person is in talking about LGBTQ issues, knowing if the person makes reference to ‘homosexuality,’ they’re probably less aware of more contemporary language. I’ve found younger LGBTQ individuals to not necessarily be offended by the word, but it’s just not common vernacular for them.
And then there are those of us who find the word deeply offensive.
It’s been used for so long in a derogatory manner that it’s insulting to many of us. So if we want to open conversation, using this terminology would shut it down in many circles before we ever got started.
What if instead, we simply asked how people felt about the language we’ve used? What if we asked what terminology someone preferred? What if we asked what the word meant to them?
At the very least we may start a really interesting and engaging conversation.
We may deepen a relationship.
We may begin to heal a lot of hurt.
So what thoughts/feelings does the word “homosexual” conjure up for you?