Gay Linguistics

I am apparently a member of the gay community.  I guess my invite to the Labor Day community barbeque got lost in the mail.

But then I forgot:  We are no longer called the “gay community,” but rather the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community.  No, scratch that—I believe the moniker is now LGBTQ (“questioning”) or, in some circles, LGBTQIA (“intersex” and “asexual”).

Nothing to make you feel included like being reduced to an initial.

Gay rights has been called the final frontier in the quest for civil equality in the United States.  A major raison d’être for its recent breakthroughs, I am convinced, is the way it has learned and successfully exploited a most fundamental rule of politics:  He who controls the language, controls the debate.

The argument about abortion, after all, is nothing if not a competition over defining terms:  One side would have it be a fight of “pro-abortion” versus “pro-life,” while the other prefers, simply, “pro-choice” versus “anti-choice.”

So it has gone with gay civil rights.

We might begin with the word “gay” itself.  As Frank Bruni chronicled in the New York Times, the prime time speakers at this month’s Democratic National Convention referred to (and boasted about) gay issues with unprecedented ubiquity, all the while shielding them in euphemism and indirection.

The repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”—the Obama administration’s signature achievement on the subject thus far—was defined, with near-perfect synchronicity, as a matter of not gauging soldiers’ military aptitude based on “who they love.”  Same-sex marriage was alluded to along similar lines, with “love” as the buzzword of choice.

Republicans, for their part, have become no less queasy about using “gay” for their own purposes, shrouding the marriage question, as ever, in terms such as “traditional family values” and the like.  Long gone are the days of Pat Buchanan pounding his fist and tarring Bill Clinton and Al Gore as “the most pro-lesbian and pro-gay ticket in history,” which, in 1992, they surely were.

On same-sex marriage—the gay rights initiative to beat the band—the movement has achieved its most significant linguistic coup:  “Marriage equality.”  Not unlike the anti-abortion cohort that coined the term “pro-life,” gay rights activists have made a most savvy attempt to frame the debate as a matter of a fundamental founding American principle—in this case, the business about all men being created equal.  With those ends in mind, “changing the definition of marriage” suddenly sounds a lot less sinister to the average skeptic.

“Marriage equality” is the turn-of-phrase that appears in this year’s Democratic Party Platform—the first such platform to endorse the practice, whatever its name.  It is the term all politicians who support the cause have been trained to employ, just as they have adopted the aforementioned alphabet soup approach in referring to the “community” itself.  Again, the word “gay” has been all but whitewashed from the conversation.

As successful as this linguistic re-calibrating has been, it nonetheless rather rubs me the wrong way.  Precisely because language is so important in public discourse, there is something shady afoot when one side of a debate makes an effort to hide its very nature behind unnecessary jargon—particularly a group that lays so much stock in the concept of “pride.”

Why, for instance, is the most prolific gay rights group in the country called the Human Rights Campaign?  Do they fear a diminishing of support and influence if they made it clear, in the title, what they actually stand for?

Why is a straight man’s significant other his “girlfriend” while a gay man’s significant other is his “partner”?  Why is a straight woman’s spouse her “husband” while a gay woman’s spouse is her “spouse”?  If we want to be treated exactly like everyone else, why do we allow this rhetorical distinction to persist?

Words matter, as a certain president once said.  So long as the movement goes on, I would advise that it conduct itself with the greatest possible intellectual honesty and forthrightness, which means saying what it means in language that clarifies, rather than distorts or conceals.  Trust that the force of the argument itself is sufficient to win the hearts and minds of those whom we need and desire to join the cause.

Have a little backbone.  A victory without integrity is not a victory at all.


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