The terms “homosexual” and “sexual orientation”

We need to be aware that the concepts “homosexual” and “sexual orientation” are modern, and perhaps Western.

I don’t feel that recognizing this has anything to do with essentialism versus social construction. One is not arguing the fact that people throughout history have been attracted to their own sex or the fact that this is not a conscious choice for them, but at least feels inborn. Instead it has to to with the linguistic and cultural concepts that different cultures offer, the patterns of behavior that can be referred to simply in a word or two, without complicated, esoteric explanations.

The Greeks and the Romans had different concepts for it than we do, and anyone “homosexual” in the modern sense must have had a difficult time explaining themselves — even to themselves.

Even in the 1950’s, when I grew up, the terms “homosexual” and “queer” had very different meanings than the roughly corresponding terms “gay” and “faggot” do today — and a main struggle in my life has been just figuring myself out. From what I read, young LGBT people today have related but different problems trying to fit themselves into the terminology.

We, for reasons I’ve never understood, tend to think of words as names: their main function is their denotation, the set of objects they name. Of course, they do also have a connotation — a set of subjective associations in the mind of the speaker and the listener — but that’s supposed to be irrelevant to their real function as names.

Instead, it’s clear that words have a function — they fit into patterns of behavior. For example, if I’m a clerk at a store checkout, I’m supposed to chirp, “Find everything okay?” I don’t just ask, “How are you?” Instead, I mouth, “How are you, today?” — as if the addition of “today” changed my meaning. If I mention an accident in which someone died, I don’t call it an “accident,” but automatically, with no change in meaning, a “tragic accident.” In their referential part too, words don’t refer just to single objects, but to patterns of activity in the world: an “office building” isn’t just a physical structure — it’s assumed that certain patterns of activity take place in it.

So, in the 1950s, the term “queer” was not only pejorative — it referred to a cluster of behaviors beyond just sexual orientation: behaviors that were also “strange,” “effeminate,” and “abnormal.” If you engaged in any of these activities, then you automatically engaged in all of them. In my impressionable pubescent mind it was an imperative to do all of them — or else none of them. But I knew I wasn’t abnormal, and I knew I had no interest in acting girlish — so, I argued, I therefore don’t really want other boys — as powerfully as it might seem otherwise based on my interest and behavior. There simply was no terminology in which my teenage self, just learning to cope with my own emotions, could understand it. Obviously, there had been some kind of mistake, something simple that just needed to be fixed. I embarked at 16 on a program to make myself respond to girls, in whom I had no previous interest. The result was a tragic accident.

It’s important to be non-ethnocentric about other historical periods and other cultures — not just because we ought to be historically accurate, but because our culture too is inevitably limited in the menu of conceptual choices it offers, and there must be people (including perhaps we ourselves) who are not well-served by it. The only possible remedies are objectivity and clarity of thought.

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1 Response to The terms “homosexual” and “sexual orientation”

  1. Do-Do says:

    I think the bulk of the word queer’s connotations have remained intact. Gay serves as the most commonly used slander among adolescents in this country. It not only serves to describe an effeminate and/or same-sex-inclined man, but it is also used as a blanket pejorative for virtually anything connected – be it through personal or cultural experience- to the perceivably negative. If a party is not happening, it’s “pretty gay.” When your parents take your car keys for the weekend – well, that, too, is “pretty gay.” Although I think we have a lot more venues today through which to define and express our selfness, I’m not sure if past generations of like-minded men and women had to deal with the daily connection of the word which nowadays describes their sexual preference (orientation, whatever you’d like to call it) with all things wrong, disappointing, upsetting, etc.

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