Don't call me gay - there's a better word for us

'Poof' is one of those words we cheerfully use to each other, but would certainly not want anyone else to use
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Much of the debate and polemic over "political correctness" turns out, in fact, to be a discussion of names. Specifically, whether there is a right inherent in groups of people to decide on their own name, or whether they must be named by others. To take away the right of people to their own name, to how they choose to refer to themselves, is an act of subjugation and disapproval. To ask people what they want to call themselves, and then to use that name, is, on the other hand, an act of ordinary respect.

Much of the debate and polemic over "political correctness" turns out, in fact, to be a discussion of names. Specifically, whether there is a right inherent in groups of people to decide on their own name, or whether they must be named by others. To take away the right of people to their own name, to how they choose to refer to themselves, is an act of subjugation and disapproval. To ask people what they want to call themselves, and then to use that name, is, on the other hand, an act of ordinary respect.

That, surely, is obvious. Paedophiles probably don't refer to themselves as paedophiles, but we stick to our name and not theirs, because we disapprove of the preference, and generally don't accept that they have a right to self-determination. Another interesting, small example of someone attempting to use an alien name in contempt came this week, in the form of an American book about the British campaign against thuggee in the early 19th century. Furiously anti-British, the book registered its contempt by imposing an ugly name from outside, and calling the colonialists "Britishers".

Whether you ask someone what they want to be called, or whether you decide on their behalf what they ought to be called, is a gauge of the respect that society is prepared to offer its constituent groups. We now not only assume that we should try and refer to racial minorities by names that are largely acceptable to them, but we often agree that there are some names that may only properly be used by members of that minority to each other. So, for instance, I may say that a man is "black", but only he may refer to himself, as black Londoners sometimes do, as "nigga".

The Government is trying to grapple with this problem in a difficult area, in order to decide how gay people should be referred to in legislation. It has been decided that "homosexuality" is no longer the preferred term, and forthcoming legislation will refer to "orientation towards people of the same sex" instead. Otpotss? I suppose it could catch on, given time.

But we don't really know what we do want to be called. We know very well what we don't want to be called, however. The problem with "homosexuality" is that it is, and remains, a medical term, and no one wants to go round with a diagnosis round his neck. "Lesbian" doesn't seem as bad to me; at least it refers to some sort of notion of history or culture, something which you might conceivably be proud of.

But if not that, then what should we use? One puts up with "gay", dopey as it is, so long as it stays as an adjective – I don't know why, but no newspaper seems to have noticed that "gays" isn't something that gay people say among themselves. There was a brave attempt to reclaim "queer" and turn it into a political rallying call, but it has a slightly period feel to it now. Moreover, it is one of those words, like "poof", that we cheerfully use to each other, but that we would certainly not want anyone else to use.

The difficulty, really, is not just the name, but in a broader issue. "Orientation" in the Government's formulation is suggestive, though "tendency" would be slightly more accurate. In the last half-century or so, I think we've become less and less convinced that what we are decides how we act. Labels of identity are particularly problematic; "homosexual" is tough, not just because it is a medical term, but because it defines a particular stable identity, which may not be very accurate. It doesn't seem to encompass everyone, which the cumbersome, rather PC but accurate term "men who have sex with men" does.

I feel much more comfortable with a term that refers to what people do, rather than claiming to know what they are; moreover, I dislike anything with the euphemistic feel of "gay". You might as well use that charming, but in practice rather confusing, Edwardian euphemism, musical, as in "Is he musical?". Gay just seems a bit ludicrous these days. (And, apart from anything else, it has become so universal a synonym for "hopelessly naff" among the young these days that we might very well drop it quietly).

These things do matter. One of the most moving moments in E. M.Forster's novel Maurice comes when its hero admits that he doesn't know the name for his state. He learns it; and, like anyone afterwards, if it is a name he can use, he can start to live properly. That will always be the case. His word was "Uranian", but it won't be ours, I think.

The word that might do is rather a frightful one, but it does meet quite a lot of objections. It has a historical and cultural origin; it refers to what people do, and not what people are; it has quite a ring to it; and, unlike Otpotss, it hasn't been made up five minutes ago. Let's return to our roots, and start talking about "sodomites".

p.hensher@independent.co.uk

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