Why are people called homosexual or gay?
The terms heterosexual and homosexual are rarely used in everyday speech. More often people use slang words or terms, which can be abusive. Throughout the last century the terms used to describe gay people and that gay people used to describe themselves, have changed. These changes are important in telling us a lot about how lesbian and gay people lived their lives and felt about themselves as well as social reactions to them.
'Homosexual', 'gay', 'lesbian', 'straight' - what do they mean?
The term 'homosexual' is not nowadays sex specific. It was first used by Victorian scientists who regarded same-sex attraction and sexual behavior as symptoms of mental disorders or moral deficiency.1 Homosexual men and women decided to use the term 'gay' in order to distance themselves from being labelled as somehow abnormal or ill. In fact, some people find the term 'homosexual' insulting and abusive and object to its use.
Generally, the terms 'gay' and 'lesbian' are seen as being less laden with negative implications than 'homosexual'. The term 'gay' is used to describe both homosexual men and lesbian women but has become particularly associated with homosexual men. Its derivation is unclear but may come from the nineteenth century French slang for a homosexual man 'gaie'. Throughout the last century it has been used as a sort of code word between homosexual men.
However, in the late fifties and sixties it came into everyday use in association with the struggle for gay rights. In this context the word 'gay' came to represent, as it does now, a word with no negative connotations but associated with a positive and proud sense of identity. Nowadays, the term 'lesbian' is used in relation to homosexual women and is derived from Lesbos, the name of the Greek island on which the lesbian poet Sappho lived in antiquity. In the past homosexual women have been called 'Sapphist' (again after Sappho). 'Straight' is used to describe heterosexual people and is an equivalent term to 'gay'
'I don't mind so much what people call me as what they mean by it. I have been called a dizzy queen by some friends, and that's all right. But, mostly with people who are seriously prejudiced it's about how they say it - they say 'gay' like it's a curse not something to be proud of.' Mark,