At the end of 2017 the population of Australia voted in favour of gay marriage, and the country’s parliament legalised the non-binding vote shortly after. Starting this month, Australia has become the 26th country in the world where gay couples can form unions that are legally and societally equal to those of straight couples. Twenty-six seems like a small number, and it feels like such legislation is long overdue, but when we look at the history of what is an exclusively 21st century phenomenon, we may become more optimistic. The Netherlands was the first country to legalise same-sex marriage, and they did so in 2001. Since then, an average of one-and-a-half countries per year have passed such legislation. Two more countries, Taiwan and Austria, are pending legalisation by 2019. However, it is sobering to acknowledge that 72 countries worldwide still criminalise gay relationships, eight of which threaten the death penalty for those in homosexual relations.
The stark contrast between policies in different countries signals that legislation is heavily dependent on public perception and societal opinion. These factors are heavily influenced by the discourse around the subject; some of this negative discourse is still present even in countries where same-sex marriage has been legalised, so it is crucial that it be understood and acknowledged. An article in the Guardian, amongst many other sources, has argued in favour of scrapping the word ‘homosexual’ when talking about LGBT issues.
‘Homosexual’, although still widely used, has clinical and medical connotations that help objectify LGBT individuals, categorising them as ‘Other’. One of Michel Foucault’s most compelling social theories touched on poignant aspects of how modern Western cultures have dealt with sexuality. Although same-sex sexual relations were frowned upon before, the terms ‘homosexual’ and the ‘heterosexual’ didn’t exist – and neither did, to the extent they do today, the identities they entail – until the 18th and 19th centuries when a concerted effort was made to catalogue ‘sexual deviations’.
Therefore, the ‘heterosexual’ identity came to be defined against its Other, the ‘homosexual’, both defining one another through medicalised terminology. The categories were ascribed various internal and external attributes and after extensive ‘investigation’ the homosexual, in Foucault’s words, ‘became a species’. In other words, through a hegemonically directed reduction to certain behaviours and characteristics, for the first time in history gay people were classified into a social category, that of the ‘homosexual’.
The connotations of deviancy this new category entertained led to several others, including mental illness; it was only as late as 1992 that the World Health Organisation declassified homosexuality as a mental illness. Since modern society has tried treating all other mental illnesses, with varying success, this misjudged label led to gay individuals being subjected to therapies meant to ‘cure’ them of their sexuality. Electroconvulsive therapy was particularly popular between the 1940s-60s. Some centres still offer such treatments although the majority use a ‘pray the gay away’ technique. The Lake Elmo clinic, for example, run by the husband of US Republican representative Michele Bachmann, provides such ‘treatments’. Evidently, viewing LGBT individuals as mentally ill persists today.
Gay slurs are unfortunately still commonly used, the most common having heavily sexualised implications. Language commonly used to disparage gay men often emphasises effeminate characteristics. It attempts to emasculate them through emphasising their connection with what are considered ‘feminine’ attributes, implying that they have false or mistaken selves, that they are not ‘real men’. The word ‘faggot’ or ‘fag’, for instance, originates from an insult previously used against old women, specifically poor women who made a living by gathering firewood (faggot also meant bundle of sticks).
‘homosexual, in foucault’s words, “became a species”.’
Similarly, ‘dyke’ stems from a 19th century expression used to describe a well-dressed man, but also from ‘bulldyke’ where dyke is an euphemism for the vulva and the bull represents masculinity. Here the terms allude to the opposite gender, again to imply the individual is an unsatisfactory member of their socially assigned one. Manipulation of gender roles in this way exercises power over people – in not being a ‘real/proper’ woman the individuals become excluded and subject to negative attention.
The word ‘queer’ tells a slightly different story. Although it was, and still sometimes is, used in a pejorative manner, it went through a period of being reclaimed by the LGBT community. The word was used in positive defiant slogans such as ‘We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it’, popularised by Queer Nation. This shows that words can be re-purposed and given an empowering meaning.
These terms are not obscure, often still being utilised in blasé ways. Problems can arise especially when they are used by young people to bully LGBT students. A Stonewall 2017 report revealed that nearly half of LGBT students (and more than half of transgender students) are bullied for their sexual orientation in school. Teachers report hearing students use gay slurs, or statements like ‘that’s so gay’ on a regular basis.
Heterosexism, the belief that heterosexuality should be the only acceptable sexual orientation is particularly potent among religious groups. Southern Poverty Law Centre in the USA says Christian groups are the most vocal against the LGBT community, portraying the issue as a threat to American society and way of life. Imagery of war and ideas of LGBT people insidiously ‘converting’ others, as well as attempting to break down families all insinuate that the LGBT community is dangerous. Such groups simultaneously deploy rhetoric that aims to reinforce traditional familial roles.
‘viewing lgbt individuals as mentally ill sadly persists in many countries today.’
Hyper-masculine and traditional cultures simultaneously punish and deny the existence of LGBT individuals among their population; such a situation has been ongoing in Chechnya. Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic says reports of state-sponsored violence, torture and murder of gay people in the country are false since no gay people exist in Chechnya. This conflicts with statements by Chechen authorities encouraging parents to kill their gay children.
Since the rhetoric mentioned so far can be used to discriminate against individuals in society, very real consequences can result for LGBT people. Workplace discrimination, poor mental health (accompanied by high suicide rates), negative effects on personal relationships, as well as high rates of homelessness (according to the CDC 40% of homeless young are LGBT) are some of the life-changing issues. Part of the solution to these worrying societal problems can be being aware of the language we use, what it means, and re-purposing harmful speech.