A reader, MM, sent a comment criticizing an off-hand, snide remark I had made in my micro-essay, “Sex Advice.” I welcome the opportunity MM gives me to take him into the alley and beat him to a pulp. His full comment:
Though usually considered much of a stick-in-the-mud regarding language, and especially neologisms, I must offer a cordial disagreement regarding the word “gender” when used instead of “sex.”
Ordinarily I despise changing the language (you should see, for example, my battles with the ignorami who say “healthy” when they mean “healthful”), but when a change improves and clarifies, then I can not only accept but embrace it.
You are right that “gender” was originally intended for language references — more important in French and other furrin tongues — but since “sex” has become such an important, or at least such an ever-present, part of everyday life, having a separate word, such as “gender,” keeps the meaning clear.
I mean, I have compromised my formerly inviolate principles so that now I even use the word “gay” rather than “homosexual,” after swearing I would never degrade the language in that fashion.
But, after all, “gay” is the polite term, the one preferred by the people to whom it applies.
So, if I can change, linguistically, so can you.
MM’s justification for the widespread substitution of “gender” for “sex”makes sense. I agree that it clarifies. However, it ignores the fact that such a change rarely occurs as a result of a technical-rational process. Such changes, this one in particular, are loaded with sociological and, with political importance. To ignore them is to assent. Winning the substitution of one word for another is like winning an election forever, an election in which the winning party never even ran and the opposition never campaigned. What I am going to say about “gender” applies even better to “gay.”
For the six-hundred years-plus that something like modern English has been in existence, the word sex expressed the distinction between male and female. That would be as in the “male sex,” “the weaker sex,” and “keeping the sexes divided.” It worked well. Hardly anyone got confused between having sex and the above usage. I admit it may have been partly because hardly anyone said, “I am having sex,” but rather, “ I am….(Anglo-Saxonism).”
Before I proceed, don’t get into a naively condescending mode about my assertion that modern English has been in existence for only six-hundred hundred years; consider the following: The English nobility only began speaking English toward the end of the fourteenth century. Before that, England was a bi-lingual country. I know it will make some of you die a little inside but Richard the Lion-Hearted was a French speaker. But I digress.
For all that period, hardly anyone used the word “gender” except grammarians: “he, she,” and sometimes: “mare is the feminine gender of horse.” Rather suddenly, in the late sixties or early seventies, academic feminists, riding shamelessly on the success of the black civil rights movement, decided they wanted a piece of the pie too. In academia, this usually means one’s own department, with a budget, loose travel money, and the right to pretend to be autonomous without too much oversight. They reasoned, that since “Black Studies” departments were cropping up right and left, there could also be…. And there the problem arose that they perceived quickly. They couldn’t very well claim that they wanted their own “Sex Studies Department.” For one thing, all the courses offered by such a department would quickly become over-subscribed. For another thing, most hated sex, the sport, and they had a horror of being mistaken for, say, some sort of sex therapists. So, one of them, more ingenuous than the others, or perhaps more cultured, hit on the idea of demanding “Gender Studies” departments. As the overall level of general culture in academia is mediocre, few noticed the violation of usage. Since it’s poorly a guarded secret that academia does not recruit in the same ponds as the SEALs, for example, those who noticed kept their mouths shut. Here is the rule of thumb: If you oppose anything with a progressive label, in nine out of ten universities, you are labeled a fascist, or worse. Then, your career suffers, you lose your financial ability to send your kids to private school and worse, few will sit with you in the faculty club.
To use the word “gender” when “sex” would be appropriate constitutes a supine acceptance of the massive and successful intellectual fraud that is feminism since the 1970s. It’s so even though such a substitution may clarify matters where little clarification is needed.
The word “gay” is even more loaded, of course. MM states that after all, it’s the “polite term.” In general, I am all for politeness, but not at any price. I don’t always call people what they want to be called. I don’t especially, if I sniff a covert intent to market evil ideas or evil acts. Thus, if violent jihadists I met at an all-soda cocktail party requested that I call them “saints” I would not comply. I don’t even use the conventional title “Reverend” when I refer to Catholic priests, these days. Finally, there is the touchy and immensely interesting empirical question of whether homosexuals want to be known as “gay” at all. The last question is not rhetorical, as we shall see.
First, MM’s linguistic insolence forces me through a detour on etymology, the origin of words. (I hate it when others force me to act like a pedantic little professor.) “Homosexual” is formed after the Greek root “homo” and the Latin suffix for sex (the activity or the proclivity. See above.) “Homo” means “same,” as in “homogeneous,” made of the same substance. A homosexual is someone who is attracted to his or her own sex, man to men, woman to women. (Thus, to call someone “homophobe,” is to accuse him of hating his own kind, say, cops who hate cops, a bus driver who hates other bus drivers, even a man who hates men, even homosexual men who hate heterosexual men. Wrap your mind around this one, MM! But, I digress again.)
The word “homosexual” is new. It appeared in European languages around the turn of the 19th century. Before that, male homosexuals were called “sodomites,” which is presumptuous and nastily over-informed about their actual practices, as well as vague. Besides, it assigns to male homosexuals an unearned monopoly. Females homosexuals did not exist back then, I guess, because there was no name for them except perhaps “Lesbian,” inhabitants of the charming island of Lesbos, in Greece. (To this day, heterosexual male inhabitants of the island insist on calling themselves “Lesbians,” a practice some American tourists find disorienting. But I digress again.)
It seems to me, following MM’s comment, that “gay” is only the “polite term” if “homosexual” is impolite. But it’s a neutral word with the immense merit of being precise and descriptive. Only the prejudiced, the narrow-minded, the repressive can find it insulting. That would be, of course the large number of Americans who think homosexuality is religiously prohibited or against nature.
I, for one am neither disgusted nor shocked by the practice. I don’t want to enter here into a theological argument but it is suspect you could not find any clear condemnation of homosexuality in the Old Testament. You would find several in Saint Paul, that successful cult founder and pillager of the Christic message. As for the un-naturalness of homosexuality, follow me: Widespread homosexuality in the Animal Kingdom tells us again that Mother Nature is one playful bitch! It’s the same Mother Nature that put teats on bulls and paints threatening eye shapes on the wings of slight butterflies. Mother Nature was thinking: You never know; it might turn out to be useful sometime. There is even a tentative but attractive evolutionary explanation for the commonness of homosexuality among humans. (Another time, if you ask.)
Throughout the fifties and the sixties, homosexual organizations such as the Matachine Society of San Francisco, were making good progress in reducing the routine, often violent police persecution of homosexuals. (In case you suspect I am a homosexual myself because I am so well-informed: No, I am not; at least I don’t think so. I could be a late bloomer; you never know.)
I don’t know exactly when the word “gay” appeared. It was in common usage in the late sixties. It looked then like an innocent and even charming, whimsical piece of public relations: Homosexuals had a good life, they partied a lot; they were merry (gay); nothing to hate there. Then, the AIDS epidemic happened, and male homosexuals started dying and the whimsy became a swindle. One’s friend’s, one’s lover’s funeral is not a party. It’s not merry, it’s not gay.
After that, the word became a defiant banner in the hands of homosexual activists whose sins against basic intellectual honesty are numerous, the most grievous, sins by omission. Here is an incomplete list:
Gay activists have not spoken clearly to condemn the specific sexual practices that entail a high risk of death. They have acted as if they were more interested in theoretical sexual freedom than in life itself. Instead, they have pursued diligently the fallacious line that “anyone can get AIDS.” Really? What do you think is the probability of catching the HIV virus for a promiscuous American man who has intercourse with many promiscuous American women and who never, never shoots foreign substances into his veins, and who has not had a blood transfusion?
Gay activist organization have stayed carefully aloof from the revulsion engendered by the revelation that thousands of priests worldwide have sexually abused tens of thousands of boys, and boys only. As if the pedophile priests with a total predilection for children of the male sex were not homosexual. They never sound off either about the national scandal of homosexual rape in prisons. The rapists are not gay, they are somehow heterosexual men who like to do it to other men. Gay organizations have not even spoken up about serial rapist-killers of young men who, I some years, account for the bulk of the violent deaths of homosexuals. The serial murderers are not gay either.
And of course, recently, gay organizations have been the latest of a long series of activists gangs to try and use the powers of coercion of the government to impose a change in our language, with gay “marriage.” (I believe in equal protection so that I am in favor of civil contracts giving homosexuals the same rights as married heterosexuals.)
Now back to MM’s issue of politeness, that I take seriously. As is always the case when someone tries to impose political correctness on the general population, gay activists imply that they represent the whole sizable homosexual minority. No counting allowed. We have to go by other indices. Here is one: There is an organization of brave homosexuals called the Log Cabin. It’s a Republican organization. Here is another: A short time ago, I had an animated substantive discussion with a man for whom I have great intellectual respect. At one point, he referred to himself as “proudly homosexual.” There goes the activists’ linguistic monopoly!
To use the word “gay” in lieu of the neutral “homosexual” is to condone a gay agenda based on the quiet intellectual terrorism of political correctness. It’s a way to cooperate with one’s own oppression and with that of others.
I would admit if pressed that the danger presented by ideologically loaded neologisms as “gender” for “sex” and “gay” for “homosexual” does not measure up to that of Hitler’s panzer divisions for example. Yet, yet, few of us will ever have a chance to lob a Molotov cocktail at a panzer. Occasions for resistance to Goebbels however are everywhere. Goebbels was the gifted Nazi propaganda Minister who asserted that if you tell a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.
So, here we go, MM: There are homosexuals of both sexes.
[Editor's note: this essay first appeared on Dr. Delacroix's blog, Facts Matter, on May 25th 2010]