Entertainment » Culture

What’s In A Name :: Empowerment or Insult?

by Scott Stiffler
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Jul 28, 2008

What's in a word?

When people refer to gay men as "cocksuckers," what are the chances they're complimenting our skills versus reducing our existence to a sex act? When Isaiah Washington called T.R. Knight a "faggot" on the set of "Grey's Anatomy," was it just an honest error by an unprejudiced straight man who mistook his fellow thespian for a bundle of sticks? When homophobes shout "queer" at Pride parade marchers -- just as some fairy flits by with a "We're Here, We're Queer" sign, which party gets a free pass?

Even if they leave our bones intact, can names hurt us just as much as sticks and stones? And, if so, does the LGBT community need to join the Religious Right in a sensitivity training course? Probably not; although that would certainly be fun to watch!


Homosexuality: A Pejorative Term Not Just For Doctors Anymore

"The word homosexual was coined in 1869 by a Hungarian writer named Karoly Benkert. It was a clumsy synthesis of the Greek prefix meaning same and Latin suffix meaning sex." explains Dr. Herb Gingold (a psychologist in private practice).

"Very early on, it became a term of stigma that was used pejoratively." In doing so, conversation shifted from the behavior and worth of the individual to the matter of orientation. "The word homosexuality connotes bias by giving it a very clinical focus -- as if being gay was only about sex." says Geoffrey Steinberg, a licensed clinical psychologist. (For more on Dr. Steinberg, visit his website).

As a medical term, Steinberg reminds us how it was a psychiatric diagnosis used to "pathologize gay men and lesbians" until 1973. That’s the year when the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. Today, we’ve still not recovered from homosexuality’s 104-year run as a "narrow term of bias that ignores the identity, culture and relationships of the LGBT community in favor of this focus on sexual behavior."

The lingering power that "homosexuality" has to stigmatize our community has not gone unnoticed, or unused, by the Religious Right. From homosexual, it’s a short trip to the charged phrase "homosexual agenda" -- which, when invoked by the right, becomes a potent fundraising and public relations tool. To that end, many religious and conservative groups have mounted an aggressive stealth campaign to replace the word "gay" with "homosexual." In doing so, they’re able to forever link the gay community to a term that implies psychological defect while raising the specter of a sinister plot on the part of LGBTs to give the entire world a lavender makeover.

The AFA (American Family Association) was recently caught in an embarrassing gaffe when it was "exposed for their practice of altering legitimate mainstream news stories on their website in an effort to label us with a clinical, outdated word." observes Rashad Robinson, senior director of media programs for GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation).

Robinson is referring to a software program that takes stories from mainstream news sources and automatically replaces every use of the word "gay" with "homosexual." The asleep-at-the-wheel editors at AFA didn’t notice that a reference to Olympic athlete Tyson Gay was changed into "Tyson Homosexual." Of the numerous instances in the story where Gay’s name was replaced, by far the most unintentionally humorous was: "It means a lot to me, the 25 year old homosexual said. I’m glad my body could do it because now I know I have it in me."

Robinson views this incident as one that "highlights the insidious nature of this practice. It’s incredibly unfortunate that they would use this type of software to try to promote their agenda."

For Gingold, it’s a strategy born of desperation: "The Radical Right realizes it’s losing what it likes to call the culture war." he observes. "As we’ve shifted towards tolerance and acceptance, they need to maintain this armament in their arsenal. They’re working in a frenzied way to repathologize homosexuality."

That strategy would be considerably less insidious were it not for the fact that, according to Robinson, "The Associated Press, the New York Times and Reuters all have style guides that call for journalists not to use the word homosexual because it is a pejorative term." Credit GLAAD in part for making this happen (they encouraged the AP to adopt this policy and others quickly followed suit). Since their inception, GLAAD has been a consistent, vocal and effective voice in the effort to "educate the mainstream media in telling our stories in a fair, accurate and inclusive way that reflects the diversity of our community."

Pictured: Tyson Gay, or is it Homosexual?


Reclaiming Invectives

Does an oppressed minority have the right to use a word that’s being employed by others as a means to oppress that very same minority? Is reclaiming hate speech an act of empowerment, or just an excuse? For Benjamin Finzel (senior VP at Flesishman-Hillard and Global Co-Chair, FH Out Front), it all boils down to sorting out the content of one’s speech from its intended effect. Finzel: "Intent is subjective, based on who is using the term and your supposition about what you think they might mean. Context is more objective because you can see how the word is being used."

If the intent is one of empowerment, Gingold sees that as a case where one is clearly "taking over a pejorative word can to give you power over it." That doesn’t mean, however, that others can use it without consequence: "Individuals not in that group have to be very careful about using pejorative words that way."

So too, he cautions, should members of the oppressed minority in question -- whose use of words like queer "can be both an attempt to take back the term or a representation of internalized homophobia." As an example, Gingold cites gay men who, in a campy way, have often referred to themselved as girls. When heterosexual men do that, it’s usually insulting." Those not on the receiving end of such word are "being too smart for their own good when they say well, we’re using an accepted term." says Finzel.
Incredulous haters often defend themselves by asking, "How are we being anti-gay or negative? I think that’s code. The term homosexual has become adopted by organizations and communities that are anti-gay who are are slyly denigrating us as a group of people."

"You have to look at the fact that there are words our community has reclaimed, like the word queer. Says Cathy Renna, managing partner of Renna Communications. As a longtime (former) staff member of GLAAD, she recalls the challenges of working with journalists to use the word gay instead of homosexual. Why? "It wasn’t just that we like it better. It was the fact that homosexuality describes in individual’s behavior, and gay and lesbian describes a person’s culture."

For Ken Sherrill, a Professor of Political Science at Hunter College who was New York’s first openly gay elected official (district leader) from 1977 to 1985, intent and context can both be trumped by the very word itself. Asked about queer, for example, Sherrill, age 65, offers a generational perspective: "I think a lot of people in my pre-Stonewall generation are uncomfortable with members of our community using the word queer because it’s a reminder of very ugly times and experiences." Still, Steinberg counters that "It’s important to allow people to define and identify themselves as they want. This is an internal debate amongst subsets of the gay community -- but that debate is a very different story than the use of language by an outside group as an attack against gay people in a way to control and oppress."

Image: A demonstrator outside the Massachusetts State House during a pro-gay marriage rally.

"The F Word"

It seems reasonable for LGBTs to proclaim themselves as gay and reclaim words like queer; but do we really have a case for casually tossing about terms which have yet to be effectively used as agents of empowerment? What about the word "faggot" which was, as Renna reminds us, The last word Matthew Shepard heard."

Its use in any context "fosters a climate where it becomes OK to hate. Even when I hear gay men using it about other gay men, it’s often given to mean that he is stereotypically gay or feminine; a negative connotation."

Gingold offers his take on being uncomfortable with certain terms even when given permission by the group they refer to. While he’s working at a psychiatric facility for high school kids, "A group of black students said ’you can call us nigger.’ I said that knowing what this word has always meant, it’s impossible for me to use it in any." Gingold feels the same way about his versus the younger generation’s use of the word "faggot." To him, "It may refer to the sticks of wood used to burn people accused of homosexuality alive. It’s not a very cozy word.

When used by public figures, it becomes the stuff of headlines. No doubt Isaiah Washington lost his part on "Grey’s Anatomy" because of his use of the word in describing cast member T.R. Knight (who came out when the incident became public). And not to forget extreme comedian, oops, extreme columnist Ann Coulter calling John Edwards a "faggot," as recently as last week - another homophobic crack heard around the world. Even more odious are the actions of Religious Right activist Fred Phelps, who pickets the funerals of fallen Iraqi war veterans with signs that say "God Hates Fags."

The use of such words are, according to Robinson, "incredibly powerful.

Although there has been a movement to take back the word queer," (which GLAAD itself uses in certain programs targeted at youth), I would say that the "f-word" as it’s currently used in mainstream media or when it comes up in public space is not to empower advocate for our community. This word is being used to demean and degrade." Whether it’s in the mainstream media, schools or the workplace, "For us, the bottom line is that it shouldn’t be used. It’s often the last word someone hears before they’re harassed. This word holds power."

As a result of this no-tolerance approach, GLAAD has taken its share of heat from within the LGBT community as well as any number of conservative groups ready to pounce on what they interpret as an assault on free speech.

Renna: "When I was at GLAAD, our advocacy was criticized for somehow curtailing first amendment rights. The reality is that Eminem has the right to create a CD, but we have a right to speak up when we feel the content of the lyrics and music create the climate that breeds hate, prejudice and all the other negative implications of our community being the other."

But for Steinberg, the very notion that we’re engaged in debate about what we should call ourselves (as well as what were allowed to call someone else) is an opportunity to "reach an understanding that can be healing instead of further fracturing an already oppressed group. My hope would be that it’s an opportunity for dialogue as opposed to attempts to control."

For Finzel, the grey area between context and intent offers "few hard and fast rules; but there is this: exercise common sense in engaging our community and use terms that both you and your target audience feel are appropriate. If it sounds wrong, it probably is."


Scott Stiffler is a New York City based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy’s at The Palace. . .at Don’t Tell Mama"---a spoof of Liza Minnelli’s 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive.


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