Queer YA 101: Why you shouldn’t describe characters as “homosexual”
This whole post should probably come with a trigger warning since I'm talking about hate and hateful language, but I also tried to note specific links that might lead to triggering results. This isn’t really a post for folks who already know why the word “homosexual” is problematic.
Tl;dr “Homosexual” isn’t exactly a slur, but because of the people who tend to say it and the context it’s used in, it’s a crappy and bigoted way to describe a character, book, or person.
“Homosexual” is an offensive term.
You might be surprised to hear that. Plenty of people still say “homosexual.”
It’s not necessarily a slur. I don’t feel like I need to sub out some of the word with asterisks or call it “the h-word.” But it still carries a lot of hate.
The GLAAD media guide includes “homosexual” on their list of terms to avoid. Here’s a snippet of what they have to say about it:
Because of the clinical history of the word "homosexual," it is aggressively used by anti-gay extremists to suggest that gay people are somehow diseased or psychologically/emotionally disordered – notions discredited by the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association in the 1970s. Please avoid using "homosexual" except in direct quotes.
What the dictionary says
First, I wanted to talk about the dictionary definition of the term “homosexual.” So I googled “homosexual,” and all of the autofill results had to do with religious groups that condemn queerness. It didn’t feel great to read it.
Then as I started to type “definition,” the search bar autofilled “homosexual demon.”
So already you see that there’s a problem here.
Once I made it through the nasty autofill suggestions, the Merriam-Webster definition (“sexually attracted to people of the same sex” or “based on or showing a sexual attraction to people of the same sex”) was fairly straightforward. And it doesn’t suggest anything about the negative connotation of “homosexual.”
Well, it doesn’t suggest the negative connotation until you scroll down to the comments.
At the bottom of the Merriam-Webster definition page, users are prompted to comment about why they looked up the term “homosexual.” And those comments give an even better picture of the hate that the term carries. (Trigger warning for the comments: Homophobia, homophobic slurs.) You know, if the search autofill results weren’t enough to suggest that hate inhabits the word "homosexual."
So already you may be getting a sense of the type of people who gravitate toward using the word “homosexual.” The people saying “homosexual” aren’t usually queer people, and they aren’t usually allies.
Looking at the connotation of different terms
If you’re still feeling doubtful about “homosexual” being a disrespectful word, here’s an exercise to find out just how negative a connotation “homosexual” has:
(Trigger warning: Don’t search the word “homosexual” if you’d rather not see potentially homophobic articles, articles about homophobia, articles about hate speech, articles about queerness being criminalized, etc.)
Step 1: Do a Google news search of the term “homosexual.”
Step 2: Then do a Google news search of “LGBTQ.”
Step 3: Then do a Google news search of “queer.”
Step 4: Notice the differences in the subject matter and tone of the news stories, and the affiliation of the publications.
The results: Though the results would vary based on when and where you do the search, my takeaway from this exercise was:
Searching “homosexual”: brought up a lot of hateful articles, many of which were written by organizations that discriminate against queer people. I also found that it pulls up many articles trying to make broad “scientific” statements about queer people, and a weird number of supposedly “scientific” parallels being drawn between animals and queer people (WTF).
Searching “LGBTQ”: brought up many articles written with a more objective and inclusive view, many from large national publications.
Searching “queer”: brought up more entertainment and media criticism stories, popular (though often indie or niche) online publications, and more first-person articles written by queer people about their identities, lives, and experiences.
Each search gives you a pretty clear picture of the connotation of each term and who’s using what terminology. It might also give you a sense of why many LGBTQ+ people (like me) feel comfortable reclaiming the word “queer” as an umbrella term.
If it’s so offensive, are people really saying “homosexual” when talking about YA and other pop culture?
Short answer: Yes.
If we’re looking at the way books are discussed and categorized, the BISAC codes for classifying book subjects just got rid of the “homosexual” category in 2015. They’ve replaced it with the much more respectful LGBT. Before that, publishers had the option of classifying a book as “homosexual” or “LGBT.” (Which was a strange distinction to make.)
It takes a long time to make changes in the book business, and I’m not trying to point any fingers here. I actually want to applaud BISAC for updating their codes. (I know they’d been trying to update them for a long time.) The reason why this change is important is that BISAC codes determine how books are displayed, categorized, (and, as a result, discovered and purchased) online and in stores. They’re really crucial, and it’s awesome that they’ve removed the “homosexual” classification.
The world is still catching up when it comes to talking about books with queer characters, and the BISAC code change is just one example of that, and of things changing for the better.
So that was a smaller industry example. Here’s bigger news that you probably heard about:
It’s awesome that there *might* be out queer characters in the Star Wars movies in the future. (If I sound skeptical, here’s a video by fabulous feminist YouTuber Rowan Ellis explaining why.)
But when J.J. Abrams patted himself on the back about opening the door for queer representation in the Star Wars movies, he unfortunately said “it seems insanely narrow-minded and counterintuitive to say that there wouldn’t be a homosexual character in that world.” (Sure, he also said “gay” in other quotes—he seemed to use the terms “homosexual” and “gay” interchangeably in a lot of the press he did about queer characters in Star Wars.)
As a queer person who drinks coffee from a mug with the Millennium Falcon on it, I was ecstatic about the possibility of queer characters in Star Wars. But at the same time, I was really bummed out by J. J. Abrams’ word choice.
When creators use disrespectful words to talk about a group, it doesn’t make me feel optimistic about the possibility of great representation. (But I'm eager to be proven wrong in this case.)
So yeah, the word “homosexual” sucks. And yeah, people are still saying it pretty often, even when they mean well.
But isn’t “queer” a slur?
“Homosexual” carries some pretty hefty baggage. Of course, so does the word “queer.”
But the difference is that queer people haven’t reclaimed “homosexual.”
Sure, my Twitter searches have revealed that plenty of people still use the word “queer” in a derogatory way. (Beware of searching "queer YA" on Twitter.) But so many queer people have reclaimed it. It’s a word that’s become safe for many people, as the Google news search for “queer” suggests. (More on the word “queer” in a future post.)
On the other hand, “homosexual” is still used all the time by people who want to say terrible things about queer people.
And a lot of the time, it’s used by people who want to say terrible things about queer people while pretending to be fair and objective, because “homosexual” is not technically a slur. As the GLAAD media guide mentions, “homosexual” is hateful but it also seems clinical—the perfect word for people who want to say bad things about queer people while pretending to have the authority of science, religion, or a "rational" philosophical or moral standpoint.
Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. So if you’ve been describing people or characters as homosexual, now you know to stop.
Talking about books with queer characters is complicated, but it’s important to try to get it right. If you’re feeling a little shaky about how to talk about books with queer characters, check out my blog post on things to keep in mind when talking about books with queer characters. And look out for more posts in this series for more thoughts about thinking and talking about YA with queer characters.
I’d love to hear more thoughts and questions about talking about books with queer characters, and it’d be great to see what resources are helpful to everyone—let us know in the comments!
For more information about diversity in YA, especially intersectional diversity (which I didn’t focus on in this post, but which is important), check out past blog posts:
And here are some more resources: