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Homosexuality and bisexuality

Meanings, use, and origins of
lesbian, gay & bisexual terms

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The term "GLBT" is an acronym for "Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
 Transgender/Transsexual. Sometimes, additional letters are
added: "Q" for Queer or questioning, "I" for Intersexual.


In an attempt to objectively report on all aspects of human sexuality, we find it impossible to use words and phrases that are acceptable to:

bullet Human sexologists,

bullet Mental health professionals,

bullet The LGBT community, and to

bullet Religious and social conservatives.

These groups tend to apply different meanings and attach various interpretations and negative emotional baggage to many terms related to this topic.

We will try to steer a middle course in our essays. We recognize that this will probably end up alienating everyone. However, until all the major actors can harmonize their terminology, some conflict over terms is inevitable.

The problem:

The English language is in a continual state of flux. This is particularly true in the area of human sexuality.

A particular word or phrase may :

bullet Be considered offensive in one environment,

bullet Be neutral in another,

bullet Be a preferred term in a third, and

bullet Have very positive connotations in a fourth.

In addition, the same word or phrase may be:

bullet Given multiple meanings by different groups.

bullet Gradually changing its meaning from month to month, year to year.

bullet Used to imply a specific belief system, so that the use of the term reinforces the belief.

Some examples:

bullet "Gay:"
bullet Is a commonly heard word used by public school students who wish to to denigrate another person, as in: "You are so gay." Many children use the phrase without knowing what "gay" means; they only understand it to be a type of general-purpose "snarl" word used to attack others.
bullet Is a preferred term used by many lesbians and gays in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual/transgender (LGBT or GLBT) community to refer to themselves.
bullet Is sometimes used to refer only to male gays.
bullet Is sometimes is used to refer to both male gays and lesbians.
bullet Is sometimes reserved to describe those who are politically active in the LGBT community.
bullet Is still used in its original meaning as a synonym for being happy and carefree.
bullet "Lifestyle"
bullet In non-sexual applications, this refers to a chosen way of living:

bullet A person may prefer a rural environment in which to live; others prefer a center-city lifestyle.

bullet Some may prefer to work for a large company; others like being self-employed.

bullet Some hope to be married; some to simply live together; others to remain single.

bullet Etc.
bulletReligious and social conservatives frequently refer to LGBT individuals as being trapped in the "homosexual lifestyle." They imply that having a homosexual orientation is not something that a person discovers; rather it is a chosen and addictive lifestyle. The implication is that, since it was chosen, an adult's sexual orientation can easily be changed. These beliefs are very rare outside the conservative communities.
bullet GLBT persons generally regard terms like "gay lifestyle" or "homosexual lifestyle" to be quite offensive, since they imply choice and ease of change Still, they do enter many different lifestyles, just as persons with a heterosexual or bisexual orientation do: each may seek to be married, live together with a significant other, cruise, date, etc.

"Sexual Orientation" and "Sexual preference:"

bullet Terms like "sexual orientation" and "homosexual orientation" are widely used by therapists, human sexuality researchers, religious liberals, and by the LGBT community. "Orientation" carries with it a number of connotations: fixed, unchosen, discovered.
bullet The word "preference" is generally preferred by social and religious conservatives. It carries a message that implies that homosexuals are all really bisexuals; they are attracted to both men and women; they merely have a "preference" for the same sex. Thus, by using this term, conservatives suggest that with a bit of effort, lesbians and gays can start behaving as heterosexuals. This belief found almost exclusively confined to conservatives.
bullet "Homosexual:"
bullet In the fields of human sexuality and mental health, the term "homosexual" is morally neutral and refers to a person who is attracted to persons of the same sex. Similarly a heterosexual is attracted only to the opposite sex, and a bisexual is attracted to both genders, although not necessarily to the same degree.

bullet AllPsych Online defines homosexual as:

bullet "Being attracted to or aroused by members of the same gender." 6
bullet The American Psychological Association defines sexual orientation as:

bullet  "... an enduring emotional, romantic, sexual, or affectional attraction toward others. ... Sexual orientation exists along a continuum that ranges from exclusive heterosexuality to exclusive homosexuality and includes various forms of bisexuality." 7
bullet Some dictionaries and other information sources assign dual meanings to the word, defining "homosexuality" in terms of both feelings and behavior:
bullet The Merriam-Webster Online dictionary defines homosexual as:
  1. "of, relating to, or characterized by a tendency to direct sexual desire toward another of the same sex.
  2. "of, relating to, or involving sexual intercourse between persons of the same sex." 8
bullet WorldNet Search defines homosexual as:
  1. "someone who practices homosexuality; having a sexual attraction to persons of the same sex."
  2. "sexually attracted to members of your own sex." 9
bulletSocial and religious conservatives generally interpret homosexual, bisexual and heterosexual in terms of behavior. A homosexual is a person who has recently engaged in same-sex sexual behavior with another person. Thus conservatives generally call a gay or lesbian person who decides to become celibate by the term "ex-gay," even though the latter's sexual attraction remains unchanged.
bullet GLAAD, a gay-positive advocacy group, is concerned about the medicalization of the term "homosexual." They write that "homosexual:"

"... has been adopted by anti-gay extremists to suggest that lesbians and gay men are somehow diseased or psychologically/emotionally disordered -- notions discredited by both the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association in the 1970s. Please avoid using 'homosexual' except in direct quotes."

GLAAD readily accepts bisexual and heterosexual, but frowns on the use of the term homosexual.

bullet "Equal rights:" or "Special rights:"

bullet LGBT groups and civil rights groups often state that they are trying to achieve equal rights for persons of all sexual orientations and gender identities. They have actively supported legislative efforts to protect jobs, prevent hate crimes, and to make marriage universally available. However, they have always sought these rights, privileges and benefits for persons of all sexual orientations and gender identities, not just for LGBT persons. To our knowledge, they have never advocated legislation that gave special rights to the GLBT community that were denied anyone else.
bullet Religious and social conservatives frequently use the term "special rights" when referring to LGBT groups who seek legislative changes. For example, CitizenLink, a news service of the fundamentalist Christian group Focus on the Family wrote about the drive for same-sex marriage in Rhode Island -- the only New England state that still reserves marriage as a special privilege for opposite-sex couples. CitizenLink wrote:

"Advocates for special rights for homosexuals are looking to pave the way to full-fledged gay marriage. Family advocates are trying to introduce a marriage-protection amendment."

They argue that since human rights and LGBT groups are promoting a change to the definition of marriage to include all loving, committed couples, that this is a "special right" they are seeking.

Also, their mention of "family advocates" does not refer to persons who actively support all marriages and families. They refer only to advocates of marriages led by opposite-sex couples who also oppose same-sex marriage.

What all of this means to this and similar web sites:

It is becoming very difficult to write about any human sexuality topic without alienating some of our visitors. Rather than adopt either the terminology used by the LGBT community or by social/religious conservatives, we typically use medical definitions. We adopted the same approach in matters relating to abortion access. Rather than use terms promoted by pro-life, anti-abortion or pro-choice groups, we again use medical definitions.

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Origin of terms 

bullet Homosexual: For most of recorded history, there was no concept of sexual orientation; there were no words to describe homosexuals, bisexuals, or heterosexuals. What was recognized is that there were adults who had sex with members of the same gender. The famous six "clobber" passages in the Bible reflect this thinking.

The terms "homosexual" and "heterosexual" were first used by a Károly Mária Kertbeny (1824-1882) in private correspondence during 1868. He later used the terms in his two German pamphlets which he published anonymously in 1869. They opposed extending a Prussian anti-sodomy law throughout all of the German Confederation.

bullet Fag: This is generally used as a snarl word by heterosexuals to insult male homosexuals. The word is sometimes used with positive connotations by gays and lesbians. The most common belief is that "fag" is derived from the word "faggot." Faggots were sticks of wood that were used to start a fire at a Witch burning. Some believed that a gay or lesbian person would be burned, along with faggots, to help start the fire. Gradually, the term was believed to be used to refer to the victim instead of the wood. This etymology appears to be incorrect. Tracing the history of "faggot" back through French and Latin to its Greek origin, it has always referred to a bundle of sticks.

"Fag" was originally used to refer to something that nobody wanted, like the frayed end of a rope. Later it was used to describe menial work that nobody was willing to perform. Still later it was adopted in the British public school system. Students in the upper class would torment students in the junior grades. To be a "fag" meant that you were under the control of a senior student. Occasionally this meant that you would be forced to be the passive partner during anal intercourse. Finally, the term became associated with the act itself.

bullet Gay: Some people believe that "gay" is an an acronym for "good as you." This is a nice theory, but without foundation. "Gay" has had many different meanings in the past. It was used as a synonym for happy by Chaucer in the 14th century. By 1637, it took on the meaning of a person leading a loose and immoral life. By 1825, it was sometimes used to refer to female hookers. A "gay house" was a brothel. By the late 19th century, it meant to be in good health or to be convalescent.  

"Gay" was first used to refer to a male homosexual in the 1933 play "Young & Evil." Cary Grant used it in the 1938 movie "Bringing up Baby" to refer to a transvestite. Gershn Legman & G.V. Henry mentioned the term in their book Sexual Variations (1941). In recent years, it has been used to refer to lesbians as well as homosexual males. 1

Related essays:

bullet Meaning of the terms "homophobia" and "homophobic"

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Glossary for reading about witches, mid-wives and magic," at: 
  2. "Etymologies & World Origins: Letter G," at:
  3. George Chauncey, "Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940," Basic Books, (1995). A winner of the 1994 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store  
  4. Gregory Ward, "Studies on Gay & Lesbian language: A partial bibliography," at:
  5. "GLAAD media reference guide," Gay & lesbian alliance against defamation, at:
  6. "Psychology Dictionary: homosexual," AllPsych Online, at:
  7. "Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality," APA Help Center, at:
  8. "Homosexual," Merriam-Webster Online, at:
  9. WorldNet Search, at:
  10. "R.I. Still Only N.E. State Without Gay Marriage," CitizenLink, 2009-JUN-29, at:
  11. "Károly Mária Kertbeny," Queer Theory, at:

Site navigation: Home > "Hot" topics > Homosexuality > Basic data > here

Copyright © 1999 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2011-APR-23
Author: B.A. Robinson

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