Labels – Rationalization of terms


People have been asking about meaning as long as we have had any records. We wonder if the apple (never actually mentioned in scripture as an apple) in the garden of Eden was sexual sin (no real doctrinal basis for this one in the bible), if it was the acquisition of godly knowledge (more likely, though not entirely doctrinally sound, since it was called the tree of knowledge of good and evil), whether it was an actual tree or if it was simply an allegorical symbol.

Books have been written trying to help us understand things like Isaiah, the works of Da Vinci, and every other symbol that the world has ever known. We house the Rosetta Stone in a museum in London because it is one of the few known artifacts that directly lead to a concrete understanding of a set of symbols, the meaning of which had previously eluded mankind.

I used to be a linguist, and a literature guy. We would talk about things like the Langue and the Parole of language. Don’t let the French get in the way. the concept is that for every symbol, there is something that it stands for. This is a fairly simple concept when we first look at it, but it has fairly wide-reaching implications for all facets of life.

The word “tree” is not a tree, but rather it is an arrangement of lines on a page (or in this case, pixels on a screen.) That particular arrangement of pixels, when viewed by an English-speaking human will be interpreted as the letters forming the word tree. The word is also not a tree, but rather a concept that we can house in either electrical impulses in the brain (thoughts), or as compression waves in the air (sound). The concept is where we get closest to the actual tree, the actual object that is symbolized by all of the other symbols, and systems of symbols that I’ve just described.

The problem is, that the symbols (signifiers) and the symbolized (signified) are rarely one to one. There is usually what deconstruction calls “play.” The idea is that there is some distance between signifier and signified, and that because of this, they can move around. A tree is always a tree, but the word tree does not always symbolize one particular type of tree. It could be a conifer, a spruce, a deciduous tree, or it could be a decision tree, a family tree, or a probability tree. Each are related, and each bears the symbol of the tree, even though they are vastly different things. (Try building a physical house, in which you can live, out of a probability tree.)

You may be wondering why I’m talking about symbology, linguistics and deconstructive play. “Isn’t that something you should talk about on one of your other blogs?” you might ask. I know, it does seem a bit out-of-place, but I want to lay the groundwork for calling some people out on something that may seem mundane and even irrelevant, but that is of pretty big import to me, as a linguist, and as someone who is trying to help both myself and others.

I was once told that, “He who controls the definitions, wins.” I think that is pretty important in the case of the issues that we’re discussing on this here site. there are a lot of terms that we use, and I’d like to talk about why we use them, and why we should or shouldn’t. There are undoubtedly going to be some who disagree with my assessment, especially on the should/shouldn’t part. Those people are welcome to comment, or start their own blog that refutes mine. Frankly though, since this is my blog, I’m going to offer my opinion.

Gay. Homosexual. Fag. Queer. SSA. SGA. Gender Identity/Confusion. Ex-gay. Ex-ex-gay. Sex-addict.

many of the terms I just listed make people uncomfortable. Some of them make me uncomfortable, but for reasons that may not be entirely expected. I’d like to give what I think are the commonly accepted definitions, and why they came to be commonly accepted.

Gay:
One who is sexually, emotionally, and otherwise romantically involved, or interested in being such, with those of the same gender. This is a derivation of the previous meaning of the term, meaning to be happy. Why the change happened, I don’t know. The term has been stretched over time to mean anything from “undesireable” (as in “that’s gay”) to campy (the culture exemplified by San Francisco’s Castro district, and pride parades).

Homosexual:
One who engages in or is interested in engaging in sexual acts with those of their own gender. This is a term that has also been stretched to include similar meanings to those described under “Gay” but to a lesser extent. My guess is this is because it is a phonologically more complex word, making it less likely to be used in conversation. It is also more psychologically uncomfortable, as it refuses to be a euphemism like “Gay” is. The blatancy of the term refuses to let the speaker or hearer pretend that it is not based in sex.

Fag:
This is a derivation of the term “faggot,” itself a derivation of the old French word Fagot, meaning a bundle of sticks. This is likely a reference to the male genitalia. It is used pejoratively, and is considered highly offensive.

Queer:
This term is also a pejorative, though much like other terms (notably one beginning with the letter N referring to those of African decent) is subject to a double standard. Those who feel they are part of the gay community may use it with impunity to refer to themselves, but when others use it, those who use it as their own moniker become offended. The terms original meaning was as an adjective that described something out of the norm. Even if one is to accept the claim of the homosexual community that 10% of the human population is homosexual, this is still an aberration.

Obviously use of the pejoratives does little more to foster understanding than making painfully clear that the user of those terms does not look highly upon those at whom the epithets are hurled.  I would be ok seeing such pejoratives fade from use.

SSA:
This is an acronym meaning “Same Sex Attraction.” it is also used as a moniker meaning “Same Sex Attracted” leaving off the implied “person.” While I cannot definitively state the following, I believe that this term was created as a means to not have to use either “Gay” or “Homosexual” in order to avoid the emotional implications that may come with those terms, including identifying someone with the culture that embraces those terms. The idea is that if we call someone “Same Sex Attracted” it is somehow emotionally different from if they call themselves “Gay.” This is a view that I wholeheartedly reject. I will discuss this further after the definitions.

SGA:
This acronym stands for “Same Gender Attraction,” as well as “Same Gender Attracted.” I believe it is one step further removed from SSA. It is used for much the same reason “Gay” is used instead of “Homosexual.” By removing the term “Sex” from the acronym, we can pretend that it isn’t really there, even though what we are really talking about is homosexuality.

Gender Identity/Confusion:
This term is used in a plethora of situations. It is most commonly meant to be used to describe those who feel that their physical gender is not the same as their emotional gender. (Those who are likely to be termed Transsexuals) The term is however, also used an a euphemism for homosexuality. This is not taken well by those who identify themselves as homosexuals, as they do not feel that they are simply confused and need to become unconfused. It is also not particularly apt in the case of homosexuals, as there is relatively infrequently a sublimation of gender, simply a desire to be with those of the same gender in a sexual manner.

Ex-Gay:
This is a term that is used both derisively by the homosexual community, and hesitantly by those it purports to describe. The term means one who has transitioned from homosexual to heterosexual. The derision from the homosexual community is based on the belief that sexuality is innate and immutable. The hesitance from those who are often described as Ex-Gay derives from a couple of possibilities. One of them is that they never accepted the term homosexual to describe themselves, and feel that to allow themselves to be labeled by an abrogation of a term never adopted is not appropriate. Another is that those who wish to make the transition do not wish their new designation to reflect their former position, but their current or even their aspirational position.

Ex-ex-gay:
This is the term used for those who relinquish the desire to transition from homosexual to heterosexual, and embrace homosexuality as an integral part of their identity. These are typically the most vocal opponents of those who wish to make the transition from homosexual to heterosexual. They will often assert that because they were not able to make the transition, that it is not possible. These are often the most vocal when it comes to the assertion that those claiming to have transitioned are simply lying to themselves and everyone else.

Sex-Addict:
This is a person who has compulsive sexual behavior that is beyond their immediate control, which often escalates over time, and becomes an increasingly difficult burden, negatively affecting their lives in some way. The level of addiction varies wildly from one individual to the next.

So, Now that I’ve bored you all with my definitions, let me tell you why I think it is important to understand how the terms are used, and why I think some of them should be done away with. The first I’d like to see removed from our vernacular are those that are pejoratives. The use of a pejorative does nothing to further understanding or love. I certainly would not like those words to be stricken from our language by any means other than voluntary banishment, but I would not mourn their passing into obsolescence, nor would I mind a return to their original meaning and usage.  As a descriptive linguist, I understand that the latter is less likely due to the fluid nature of language, but a boy can hope, can’t he?

The second set of words I would like to address are “Gay” and “Homosexual.” These terms have pretty straight forward meaning, but they are often used in widely varying ways. If we use “Gay” to include all of the cultural, the emotional, the camp and the sex, then it catches many things that are not outside the realm of morality. (I may think that a lot of the camp may be in bad taste, but a particular pitch to the voice is in no way immoral.)  Emotional attraction between men can be both healthy and unhealthy.  It is the crossover between the emotional ans sexual that makes the terms problematic, as any emotional attraction is then assumed to be sexual, and therefore uncouth, immoral or creepy. (Depending on whom is asked.)

Homosexual is a term that I think has the most value. The clinical nature of its definition leaves little room for linguistic play. This means that there is less chance of misunderstanding. “I’ve been dealing with gayness for years,” could be an expression of frustration with an unpleasant, yet neither homosexual, or even sexual, situation over a long period of time. “I’ve been dealing with gayness for years,” could also mean that one has struggled with unwanted homosexual desires for years.  While more cumbersome, the statement, “I’ve been dealing with unwanted homosexual desires (thoughts, actions, etc.)” is less likely to be misunderstood.

The distinction may seem trivial, but I think that there is an important idea to be gleaned from it.  If a young man feels a strong emotional draw toward other men, for whatever reason, absent a clear understanding of the delineations that I’ve pointed out, he may simply label himself as “gay” and then proceed with all the activities of both terms, as he assumes them to be equivalent.  If however, that same young man understands that there can be an emotional, or even physical draw toward other men, without there being a sexual component, he can more easily delineate between what parts are healthy social desires, and which are unhealthy sexual urges.

The reason I started writing about definitions is that I recently exchanged emails with a man who asked me if I thought SSA could be eliminated.  We talked for a while, and eventually it became clear to me that we were not using the term in the same manner.  I assumed that he was using the term in the manner that it is customarily used, namely as a euphemism for homosexual attraction.  He was using it in a more literal sense, namely attraction of any sort toward those of the same gender.  He was specifically talking about an emotional or aesthetic attraction.  Our conversation would have been much shorter if I had been in the same book as he was (pages were out of the question).  My answer would have been the same, that yes, I think that such attractions can be eliminated, but I think that they are less vitally changed.

I’ve rambled here a bit, or at least it feels like I have.  I don’t know if this post will help anyone other than me.  I simply wanted to help people understand that definitions do matter, and the assumption that we are all talking about the same thing simply because we are using the same words is not only spurious, but also dangerous.  I suppose what I’m really asking you all to do is ask what someone means when they use a term, and be willing to accept their definition for the purpose of the conversation.  I would also ask that you be willing to define the terms that you use, so that the other person can also know where you are coming from.  If we do this, perhaps we won’t aneinander vorbeireden.

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