We are not ‘gays’, we are people (who happen to be gay)

Dear all

I applaud when people draw attention to injustices: situations in Africa where homophobia has political and religious traction are deeply upsetting and I am all for protesting against governments and churches who make threats of violence against us.

However, it annoys me when people write about “gays”. First, purely gramatically, gay is an adjective, not a noun. This is a common annoyance: for example, “medal” is a noun and not a verb.

However, if grammar were my only objection it would be churlish to comment. I also contend that using gays as a noun reduces the identity of the group in discussion to one aspect of their lives. For example, I am a man who happens to be gay, or if you want, a gay man. I am not a gay. In fact, the only time I can think of where gay is used as a noun was in the deliberately ironic Little Britain “Only Gay in the Village” sketches, where the word gay was deliberately chosen because Daffyd’s entire identity was posited on his sexual preferences, with everything in his life orbiting that fact. He dressed in (hideous) PVC outfits because that was his perception of what gay men wore. He even wanted a gay career, and was oblivious to the fact that all of the guys in the village were busy having a bit of bum fun of an evening and dismissed their self-generated identities.

People are diminished when reduced to a single aspect: hospitals promote referring to “the patient in bed 8 with {disease name}” rather than reducing the patient to “the {disease name} in bed 8”. We refer to people with disabilities rather than the disabled or even disabled people because it puts their personhood first. Using a lazy label can dehumanise people so that we can consider them as the label first, and worry about their humanity later. Just ask someone with dyslexia whether they’d like to be permanently reduced to their learning difficulty! The irony is, in an article where someone is drawing attention to an injustice like punishing people merely for their sexual orientation, using “gays” continues to reduce the people, the individuals, with complex lives and heterogeneous characteristics, attitudes and lifestyles to a single label.

Worse, in my opinion, “gays” can actually be exclusive of other groups being oppressed. Women who identify as gay are usually called lesbians, although gay woman is also used, albeit rarely. Bisexuals, often as much a victim of these waves of hate because they’ve committed the same “sin” of consensual sex with another adult (who happens to have the same genitals), are not included in the word “gays” and nor are members of the trans community, whether male to female or female to male, and who are by default also considered to be in the same group. In traditional African cultures where homosexuality is still taboo and gay cultures and identities are emerging in response to oppression, many man who have sex with men (MWSWM) probably won’t self-identify as gay (a similar group exists in the UK of men who don’t identify as gay but who regularly have sexual contact with the same gender). Talking about “gays” being slaughtered ignores the women who are dying, and denies the identities of people who are bisexual, transgender or who don’t really have a label but like a bit of same-gender fun.

And it’s entirely legitimate to say “well, you need to prioritise: either we can fight the oppression or you can worry about labels”. Fair enough, if you think the objectives are mutually exclusive. I don’t. I think that challenging language which continues oppression of groups is as legitimate as challenging homophobic policies. Whilst increased coverage is to be welcomed, I’d prefer it if the people doing it had sufficient respect for the groups affected to respect their self-defined identities rather than demanding gratitude for it being covered at all.

I speak only for myself; nobody can speak for an entire community except by consent of that community, and I don’t have it. However, I am a human being. I have a genetic condition which affects my day to day life. I own a cat, a car and a house. I own an iPhone, have a medical tricorder from Star Trek on my shelf and I am a lefty liberal namby-pamby do-gooder who thinks that everyone deserves the same opportunities in life. I am an enthusiastic proponent of the efficacy of science as an explanatory method for the universe around me, and I am a computer programmer, web developer and project manager. I have an undergraduate degree in life sciences, and I am studying science and society for an MSc. I am white, male, 34 years old, 5’10” tall and have a penchant for chocolate-based snacking products which has, doubtless, contributed to the bulging keg where my six-pack should be. I am a former born-again, baptised, evangelical Christian, and I would now describe myself as a pragmatic atheist. I also happen to have been hugging the same guy for the last ten years.

Does that mean I should be reduced to being “a gay”? No, of course it doesn’t. It diminishes me and my experiences when I am reduced to that, and it diminishes the people who are suffering in the fear of everyday life when their complex, multi-spectral identities are reduced to a single adjective used as a noun, and excludes half the people who are being oppressed anyway. Reducing me, them, us to a single aspect reduces us to being a stereotype worthy of pity. Instead, remember they are people, with interests, relationships, histories and lives in which being reduced to a single aspect is what is causing them to be threatened with violence.

Am I really being unreasonable if I challenge language which continues this reduction?


About David Waldock

Open University graduate, health and life science at undergraduate level, science and society at post-graduate. Interested in how the Internet is transforming the ways in which the public(s) engage with science(s). Also interested in "the skeptical movement" as a form of science activism and it's effectiveness in achieving its goals. Interested in the representation of LGB types in science and in the periscience communities. Work for a well known and loved public institution. Views are mine and not necessarily my employers.

5 responses to “We are not ‘gays’, we are people (who happen to be gay)”

  1. Maria Wolters says :

    I hear your indignation. Now that you’ve got that off your chest, how should @Gurdur have referred to the group of people in question or reworded his blog post?

    Challenging language that you perceive as reductionist is not enough – you need to be prepared to suggest alternative wordings. That is the *only* way to foster dialogue; people can’t possibly know how to avoid potentially demeaning connotations unless you show them.

    So, I challenge you to rewrite @Gurdur’s original post, linking to it, using terminology that you would find acceptable.

    • davidwaldock says :

      That’s easy, just replace “gays” with “LGBT people” or “people who are LGBT” or “people attracted to the same sex”.

  2. Maria Wolters (@mariawolters) says :

    OK, that’s useful – and certainly a convention I’ll use in my own blogging, assuming that the people who would read me know who LGBT people are. May I ask you related questions in the future? I always find it helpful when people in a group point out connotations of group-denoting terms to me that I’m not aware of.

    • davidwaldock says :

      Of course, and I’m fairly certain most LGBT-types would welcome it. The point, by the way, isn’t that I demand people to never make “mistakes” (I certainly make enough!). The issue for me is that when mistakes/slips/gaffes (whatever we call them!) are made, that the people affected are not vilified for noting they felt excluded/oppressed/whatever and that people adapt if they need to! All life is a learning experience, and I hope that I am also open to being educated if it is needed.

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