Q&A: What’s ‘queer’, why is ‘homosexual’ a slur and what’s being bisexual like?

A reader writes in:

I’d be grateful if you could clear some things up for me.

By all means.

What is ‘queer’? I’ve only ever been aware of it for the most part as a slur.

Queer‘ is a complex term with a complex set of related ideas – that’s what makes it a useful and powerful term – but suffice to say it refers to everything non-heteronormative: everyone not cisgender-and-heterosexual, everyone excluded from straight society and everything that belongs to our communities and culture. Queer people are bisexual, pansexual, transgender, genderqueer, agender, a rainbow of other things – and, yes, gay.

Some of us also identify purely as queer, whether on political grounds, because we aren’t sure how else to identify or because we feel the details of what we are matter less than the fact of what we aren’t (that is, straight). That ‘queer’ a negative term allows it to be all-inclusive in this way: the difference between ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ is somewhat analogous to the difference between ‘African American’ (a specific identity) and ‘person of colour‘ (anyone non-white).

Other queer members of this blog network identify as bisexual, trans(female), demisexual, gender-questioning and (sometimes) lesbian – as well as simply or primarily ‘queer’. Personally, I identify as ‘queer’ foremost and ‘bisexual’ when relevant, because I don’t want to define myself by how much I’m interested in each gender.

Why is ‘homosexual’ considered a slur?

‘Homosexual’ was coined in the 1880s by psychiatrists and popularised by a text called Psychopathia Sexualis, which as the name suggests didn’t propose a positive view of non-heterosexuality. (It was similarly negative about kink and asexuality.) Organised medicine referred to ‘homosexuals’ from then on as perverted and mentally ill, often subjecting to them to unethical, abusive, traumatising ‘treatment‘. It was only in 1990, the year before I was born, that the World Health Organisation removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses.

A lot of contemporary ideas on sexuality take root in this pathologising history, I think – the idea of orientation as a fixed natural state, the idea of gay bodies and straight bodies, gay brains and straight brains; the idea we’re born with predetermined sexualities. That’s another discussion, though.

Today’s conservatives use ‘homosexual’ to conceal their queerphobia with the respectability of ‘neutral’ language, instead of using words and phrases we’ve adopted like ‘gay’, ‘queer’ and ‘LGBT’. It’s noteworthy the the first two of these were both originally straight slurs as well: queer people have been able to reclaim them, but never really attempted to do so with ‘homosexual’. That should tell you something about how powerful its history of violence is and why we use it so rarely.

Why is pronouncing it to rhyme with ‘promo’ particularly bad?

The best way to explain this is probably to demonstrate, so here’s an audio file. You have to understand even speaking this word makes me shudder.

Some people use Greek pronunciation and say /hɒməʊsɛkʃuːəl/ (which is more accurate); some people use Latin pronunciation and say /hōməʊˈsɛkʃuːəl/ (as in Homer Simpson). My mum does the latter, but she pronounces it /hōmōsɛkʃuːəl/ so the second ‘o’ is as long as the first. If you use the prefix on its own – if you call someone a homo – it sounds like that (it rhymes with ‘promo’), but saying /hōmōsɛkʃuːəl/ has always been particular to her.

It’s a especially strained pronunciation: it sounds like you’re forcing your mouth around something so strange and unpalatable that even saying it is unpleasant. Combined with the background of the word, I always found that extremely othering.

Do you find acceptance as a bisexual with people who are not bisexual?

Generally, no. (I’m not that keen on the concept of ‘acceptance’, actually – usually I prefer ‘respect’.)

I’ve written before about the challenges bisexual identity tends to entail – here’s a post you might find useful – and being constantly perceived (even described) as gay is one of them. This is especially the case with straight people, but gay people – gay men in particular – do it too, and damaging myths about bisexuality are rife in gay communities. For that reason, most of the queer people I know are bisexual: we’ve had to build our own communities because we’re excluded.

A more subtle form of this is how terms like ‘gay and bi’, ‘LGB’ and ‘LGBT’ are used in reference to queer people but bisexuals aren’t included in reality – when ‘LGB’ charities, for example, don’t give us any representation or when ‘LGBTQ+ community’ events are dominated by cisgender gay men. The same problem affects trans people and to an extent lesbians and queer women, and a pragmatic feature of the word ‘queer’ is that it’s often used by people from these groups. Search for gay bloggers, columnists and groups and predominantly, you’ll find cis gay men; search for queer ones and you’ll find far more queer women (including queer feminists), bisexuals and trans people, as well as activists with other identities.

Q&A: What’s ‘queer’, why is ‘homosexual’ a slur and what’s being bisexual like?

16 thoughts on “Q&A: What’s ‘queer’, why is ‘homosexual’ a slur and what’s being bisexual like?

  1. 2

    Weird. I never consciously realized that ‘homosexual’ had two different pronunciations until now. I actually had to pronounce it out loud as I was reading this to try and hear the difference.

  2. 3

    The differences in the pronunciation of “homosexual” are less obvious to my ear in American English – I can hear the difference when you say it, but I don’t think the former pronunciation is absent from American English, leaving only the later.

  3. 4

    I think you need to be careful with blanket statements about the pronunciation — while it may be true it British English, the former pronunciation is basically unheard of (or at least unused) in Australian and American English.

  4. 6

    @Alex Gabriel
    Mea culpa, in my haste to get ready for uni I mistook the title question to be a statement on your part, rather than the verbatim question of a reader. My apologies!

  5. 8

    Fascinating. I’m embarrassed that I wasn’t aware of the use of “homosexual” as a slur. I did a search and found this item helpful in understanding how that usage works. It makes perfect sense now; thanks for making me aware of it.

    Regarding the pronunciation, I think people who are noting a distinction between American and British English have a point. I’ve never heard anybody pronounce “homosexual” any way other than with the prefix rhyming with “promo”; indeed, for many words with “homo” meaning “same” that I can think of I pronounce the prefix that way. Homorhythmic, homogeneous, homograph, just to list a few. This pronunciation guide for “homosexual” gives audio and IPA, and I think the American pronunciation shown is exactly what you’re objecting to, is it not?

  6. 9

    Hi Natasha, Alex; as an Australian native I would aver that of the three pronunciations offered:
    • The Greek form, hɒmə(ʊ)ˈsɛkʃʊəl, is rarely used here, usually by someone raised somewhere where the pronunciation is more common such as the UK (I recall my partner’s English-born mother pronouncing it this way).
    • The Latin form, hōməʊˈsɛkʃʊəl, is the predominant pronunciation here (when for other words, like ‘homogenise’ the Greek pronunciation is obvious and natural).
    • The alternate Latinate pronunciation, with the two equally stressed /ō/ vowels, hōmōsɛkʃʊəl, is the language of teasing and bullying – I would like to say the language of the schoolground, but it also used by adults for exactly the reason you give, of wanting to appear unmannered or unschooled, so that the word is supposed to acquire a contemptible association by the speaker finding it difficult or unfamiliar to pronounce. So yes, it’s othering.

    The assertion that ‘homosexual’ is a slur however sounds rather like a blanket statement, and to back it up I would actually prefer more than delving into the depths of history to the 19th century pathologists who invented it, or citing its more recent removal from the DSM or the ICD (by the way, your auto-correct has mangled the long form of WHO). Current vernacular usage is what defines the word’s status as a slur or not owing to the plasticity of language to be reclaimed, refashioned, and redefined, and I would be somewhat skeptical that it is only conservative, anti-gay rhetoric that has ownership of the word ‘homosexual’ currently.

    Again, I can only talk from my own experience, but observe that in my part of the world, as language goes we Aussies are fairly informal which means that terms like gay or lesbian are the common, informal word of choice rather than the obviously formal or technical term – but as a fairly literate society it is a word that is known to almost everyone, and I suspect the pejorative appropriation of the word as a respectable word for masking homophobic views is very much the minority usage, and as a mask its use is transparent – people feel no need to shy away from using homosexual as a formal, definitional term because of homophobes also using it.

    To be honest, I tend to see many more attempts at blanket statement communiques and the policing of terminology within the trans community, where it tends to take a form of straw argumentation that tends to go like:
    (1) creating a straw definition of a term that one doesn’t like;
    (2) uncharitably attacking the implications of the straw definition;
    (3) blanket statement that the term is always offensive and therefore a slur;
    (4) blanket statement that no one in the trans community should use it (even if the word actually is being used widely and non-pejoratively in some other bubble in the community);
    (5) blanket statement that people who use it are slurring others.
    So I acknowledge that terminology battles are a thing, but I find it difficult to get worked up about them because the result is so often totally unproductive.

  7. 10

    Every marginalised group gets words and usages that are bandied around to maintain their otherness and marginalization. It’s homosexual for gay people, homosexual for bisexual people, islamist for any muslim who dares to let their faith inform their politics. We’re now used to the terms “jihadist” and “jihadi” which has completely wiped out the concept of peaceful jihad, the struggle with the self, from the consciousness of the western media and most of its audience. Disabled people get “the disabled” and various specific slurs.

    In fact, I very rarely come across the term ‘homosexual’ in England among my generation and younger in general conversation – people born from the 1960s onwards, it’s pretty much died out and when you do hear it, it grates like crazy and everybody, straight or lgbtqi, knows it. I thought even the BBC had given up using it but it was only a couple of years ago I heard them spout it out with plums in their mouths on the news one day, stuck-up superannuated elitist parasites that they are. If there’s one obstacle to social change it’s that bloody organization, I can tell you.

  8. 11

    @Xanthe @8

    I mean I’m sorry but that’s a load of indecipherable verbiage you’ve just come out with there and I really don’t think getting to the bottom of this depends on us all learning the international phonetic alphabet. All pronunciations of the word are pathetic.

    And your arguments and lists, talk about a maze. What the hell are we supposed to make of that? It’s like playing chess where all the rules are printed in random order and random languages. I can’t make head nor tail of it, and I don’t see why I should bother.

    I’m making a blanket statement based on my experience as a gay man: the word ‘homosexual’ is always a slur and it always has been. That’s why we invented the word gay. Nothing is lost by abolishing the word. I don’t really care what intersectional cause it serves in Australia if any, if you think you can make a case for it then by all means try, but you’re gonna have to come out with something a bit more certain than that you’re skeptical, and bear in mind I’ll be going increasingly crimson as you unfold your justifications.

    I cannot recall a single use of the word ‘homosexual’ in the last 40 years which hasn’t at best grated with me and at worst enraged me with its sheer ignorance and calculated othering. The word ‘homosexual’ is always and everywhere a slur, as, by the way, is the word ‘homosexuality’, whether used with the best of intentions or not. I say this because I’m a bisexual gay guy and that’s the only justification I need, because that’s what I feel, and I don’t see any reason to “back it up”.

    It’s 2014. This discussion was already over in 1984.

  9. 12

    exi5tentialist, I apologise for my comment obviously grating upon you. Incidentally the use of IPA was only a pattern-matching key to relate it back to what Alex had already typed, since his audio recording makes each of those three distinct pronunciations much clearer; and it was a pleasure to hear Alex’s speaking voice, which I neglected to mention before in what was already a long comment. As for the rest of your response, since I obviously disagree that use of such words “is always and everywhere a slur” (how much more emphatic could you possibly want for a blanket statement?) I’ll endeavour not to comment further until I’ve got something constructive to offer. Feel free to add me to your killfile until then.

  10. 13

    I just thought we’d fought, won, deadified and buried this argument in my youth and that was at the beginning of time. And now it’s bloody 2014 and the same old argument is being resurrected for the hundred and fortieth thousand sodding time. I spend my life arguing with Victorians, and I don’t just mean the geographical variety. I’m emigrating to Planet Gay, we used to have fun over there and this never, ever, ever came up, except maybe as a joke to laugh at the ancestors.

  11. 14

    I don’t know how to type the ipa symbols.
    but I say that word like “hoe-moe-sek-shoe-al” except the first o is slightly nasalized, and the last vowel is kind of a schwa.
    not that I say the word all that often. i’ve generally said “gay”.

  12. 16

    Just a note: it can get a bit hard in other languages where common slurs haven’t been reclaimed and I’ve often found “homosexual” to be the least loaded: its either that or convoluted euphemisms. Czech by the way. And we have easy bigot recognition in “homosexualism/ist”.

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