Between Gay and Straight
9 min read

Between Gay and Straight

The development of an identity-inclusive lexicon occurs for minority groups in response to vernacular shifts taken by the majority against a minority. In the case of the LGBT+ community, words and ways of speaking about LGBT+ people are often levied against them before the community is enabled to create a foundation for dialogue on their own. A tactic used to reframe societal perceptions is the subversion of heteropatriarchical language, often through re-appropriation.

My research looks at the perception of acceptability of euphemisms used by heterosexual people and homosexual men in the United States of America. I use Robin Lakoff’s explanation of euphemism use: “When a word acquires a bad connotation by association with something unpleasant or embarrassing, people may search for substitutes that do not have the uncomfortable effect - that is, euphemism” (Lakoff, 1973). Following her standard definition of euphemisms in average American speech, my research assumes an important caveat to word substitution: euphemisms are adopted by the targeted population (in the case of this study, homosexual men) and embraced. This way, the community may empower those euphemisms as useful, inclusive terms, which gives those euphemisms a dual identity. As my research shows, “fag” occurs for both heterosexual people and homosexual men, but homosexual men have a drastically higher acceptability when using it to refer to other homosexual men. While American English speakers have access to the same euphemisms, there is a gulf of a difference between what is perceived as an acceptable use of a euphemism to refer to a homosexual man and which euphemisms are perceived as available, dependent on three layers: identity inclusion (homosexual men), community inclusion (LGBT+ people), and finally exclusion (heterosexual people). The results of my research showed a clear division between an identity-inclusive lexicon and an exclusive lexicon in regards to acceptability and access. Euphemisms become more acceptable to use and people have more access to them as they move from exclusive lexicons to identity-inclusive lexicons. However, heterosexual people have access to and use - despite the lowest ratings of acceptability - of strictly derogatory euphemisms. Even though homosexual men and LGBT+ people have access to and more acceptable use of the same derogatory euphemisms, there is less use of them.

These results reveal wider social implications of linguistic power structures and inter- community struggles of respect and agency. This research echoes what others have studied before and amplifies those claims with further research of a specific minority. I have framed my research and analysis with some of the works of Robin Lakoff, Penelope Eckertt & Sally McConnell-Ginet, and Elinor Ochs.

Lakoff (1973) expounds on the use of euphemism and euphemistic phrases, which provides the foundation for my research on identity-inclusive euphemism. Her theoretical grounding, paired with Eckertt & McConnell-Ginet (1992) and Ochs (1992) work on indexing gender within communities, leaves a window open to more complex, identity-based, linguistic enculturation that occurs between communities with respect to the identity-forming practices of minorities. All of their research agrees that communities have different stylistics and vocabularies, but no one has considered what parallel power structures in opposition look like living side-by-side. My research presents another step in considering the role of indexical features between communities in the context of power.

To obtain my results, I hosted two surveys on Google Forms to elicit as wide a range of responses from as many people, both heterosexual and non-heterosexual. I advertised them primarily on Twitter and through word-of-mouth.

The first survey asked respondents to generate lists of euphemisms that heterosexual people use to refer to homosexual men (HPHM1) and homosexual men use to refer to homosexual men (HMHM1). Both questions were open response with an unlimited text field. I also asked for limited demographic information: sexuality, gender identity, and nationality. I organized the results into three categories: 1) heterosexual people: all respondents who identified as heterosexual and cisgendered; 2) homosexual men: all respondents who identified as homosexual and male; and 3) LGBT+ persons: all respondents who identified as non-normative sexualities and/or gender identifies. I received 12 responses: four from heterosexual people, five from homosexual men, and three from LGBT+ people. Tables 1 and 2 list all generated euphemisms, ordered by number of occurrences.

The most salient result from the first survey is the number of items generated: There are double the number of euphemisms generated for HPHM1 than HMHM1. There are also quite a bit more literary euphemisms (e.g. “one of ‘those’,” “dick holster,” “light-footed,”) interestingly not generated by respondents categorized as heterosexual people; This may be in an effort to poke fun at the absurdity of euphemism and heterosexual people’s perceived reliance on it, but I didn’t pursue meaningful differences in the content of the lists.

There is a secondary effect in the tonal difference between the lists. The list generated for HPHM1 skews immediately more negatively: The top two, most occurring euphemisms are “fag” and “fairy,” generated primarily by homosexual men and LGBT+ people. The tone of responses for HPHM1 is vastly more positive: With the exceptions of “fag” and “faggot,” the majority of the euphemisms are terms of endearment or camaraderie between homosexual men and LGBT+ persons in general. There were also a handful of interesting variations on the same word: “girl” & “gurl” and “sis” and “sister.” These differences in spelling weren’t the focus of my research, they were just an interesting occurrence from the written medium of the survey.

Of note, one heterosexual man refused to provide euphemisms for HPHM1. He simply wrote “I don’t know of any inoffensive euphemisms for gay men.” This reticence is apparent across all heterosexual people’s responses for both HPHM1 and HMHM1: The majority of responses come from homosexual men and LGBT+ people. The same respondent also wrote, for HMHM1, “Gays, faggots, only ones I’ve [heard used] in any sort of positive tone”. He was the only respondent to broach sensitivity of euphemisms, despite being instructed not to worry about that.

For the second survey, I collated the 14 highest occurring euphemisms across both HPHM1 & HMHM1. I eliminated “fudge packer” and “twink” because I provided both of those as examples in the instructions for the first survey and then added “sissy,” “sis,” and “sister,” despite the three of them not being generated in both HPHM1 & HMHM1; Since “sissy” and “sis” are variants of “sister” with very standard pragmatic meanings (“sissy” is bad, “sis” is intimate, and “sister” is familial), I wanted to measure their effect on acceptability when used by heterosexual people and homosexual men. This is the same case for “mary” and “nancy:” “Nancy” is an archaic slur for feminine boys that was reclaimed by homosexual men and is used in a playful, teasing sense between homosexual men. “Mary," however, was created by homosexual men and has always been used interchangeably as a term of endearment and to tease. The final list for survey two is: gay, queer, sis, queen, sister, girl, homo, mary, nancy, fairy, fruit, faggot, fag, and sister.

The 13 respondents of the second survey - five heterosexual people, three homosexual men, and five LGBT+ persons - were asked to rate the acceptability of a heterosexual person using the specified euphemism to refer to a homosexual man (HPHM2) and then to rate the acceptability of a homosexual man using the same euphemism to refer to a homosexual man (HMHM2) on a linear scale from one to five. Three of the respondents participated in the first survey.

Figure 1. Acceptability of Euphemisms Used by Heterosexual People to Refer to Homosexual Men (HPHM2)

Figure 1. Acceptability of Euphemisms Used by Heterosexual People to Refer to Homosexual Men (HPHM2)

Figure 1 shows the results for HPHM2 very clearly: everything except the plainest categorical words may be used by heterosexual people to refer to homosexual men. Another noticeable spike is the acceptability homosexual men rated heterosexual people using “homo:” Although this abbreviated form has a history of derogatory use, this implies an allowed sense of familiarity between heterosexual people and homosexual men. However, euphemisms for closer, familial expressions remain out-of-bounds, as shown by homosexual men’s perception of “sis,” “mary,” and “girl.”

On its own, Figure 1 is unsurprising and benign. However, when compared with data from HPHM1, some questions arise:

Figure 2. Euphemisms Heterosexual People Use to Refer to Homosexual Men (HPHM1)

Figure 2. Euphemisms Heterosexual People Use to Refer to Homosexual Men (HPHM1)

In Figure 1, everyone seems to agree some euphemisms are bad and some are good. Why, then, do homosexual men and LGBT+ people generate more derogatory euphemisms for heterosexual people than heterosexual people do for themselves? There is a clear disconnect between what LGBT+ persons experience and what heterosexual people own up to: If heterosexual people know it is unacceptable to use euphemisms like “fairy” and “fag,” why are they being used? This schism remains in the results from HMHM2, but with a clear difference, shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Acceptability of Euphemisms Used by Homosexual Men to Refer to Homosexual Men (HMHM2)

Figure 3. Acceptability of Euphemisms Used by Homosexual Men to Refer to Homosexual Men (HMHM2)

There is a far more gradual downward slope in acceptability in HMHM2 with only a few shifts in what is considered derogatory for homosexual men to use when referring to homosexual men. The clear difference is between the assuredness heterosexual respondents have in determining what is acceptable and what is not, remaining the same across both HPHM2 & HMHM2, and the overwhelming acceptability homosexual men have with these euphemisms. An interesting difference is the flipped response to “homo:” Homosexual men think it’s okay for heterosexual people to use it, but heterosexual people are sure that it is derogatory for both heterosexual people and homosexual men.

Continuing to compare Figure 3 with the results from HMHM1, the same trend appears, though reversed from Figure 2 and HPHM2:

Figure 4. Euphemisms Homosexual Men Use to Refer to Homosexual Men (HMHM1)

Figure 4. Euphemisms Homosexual Men Use to Refer to Homosexual Men (HMHM1)

Visualizing this data reflects the more genial approach to euphemistic communication enculturated within the LGBT+ community: all of the euphemisms skew more categorical (“gay,” “queer”) or more familial (“sis,” “sister”). As I commented on in my overview of the first survey, heterosexual people were apprehensive to generate euphemisms for either HPHM1 or HMHM1, even though HPHM2 & HMHM2 revealed their lack of hesitance to make judgement calls about euphemism use. With such a high acceptability rating for “sis” in HMHM2 (Figure 3), why wasn’t that euphemism generated by any heterosexual person for HMHM1 (Table 2)?

These results demonstrate a more nuanced codification of a linguistic feature used to reify identity and establish community boundaries. The first form a euphemism takes is to assign new meaning by either mollifying or vilifying the referent (Lakoff. 1973). The doubled number of euphemisms generated for heterosexual people’s use shows that there is no limit to the euphemisms a majority can invoke and can possibly need to invoke. This follows Lakoff’s (1973) claim that each successive euphemism takes on the negative connotation of the original referent and new euphemisms must be generated constantly: “faggot” to “fag,” “homosexual” to “homo,” “light in the loafers” ad nauseam. The ethical acknowledgment but non-complicity of the heterosexual people who responded raises a flag. As the one heterosexual male respondent implied in the first survey, the sheepishness that heterosexual people demonstrate in generating euphemisms, despite being the primary linguistic customer of those turns of phrases, reveals that the insidiousness pointed out by Lakoff’s work takes effect across communities and not singular, dichotomous identities.

Euphemisms do not carry their derogatory weight within the LGBT+ community or specifically between homosexual men. The majority of the euphemisms are used by homosexual men to foster inclusivity and familiarity - even the reoccurring derogatory euphemisms “faggot” and “fag” were rated markedly higher for acceptability when used by homosexual men. This shows the LGBT+ community’s need to create and reclaim euphemisms as a way to establish an identity for themselves: social practices within the homosexual male community construct identities “as” homosexual men by rewriting lexicons and access to define themselves in opposition to heterosexual people (Eckertt & McConnell-Ginet. 1992). “Sissy” is used to connote extreme femininity as negative, but “sis” and “sister” invoke familial ties used to strengthen a community: all three of those euphemisms are out-of-bounds for heterosexual people’s use. A homosexual man cannot be a heterosexual person’s sis or sister and the heterosexual person certainly cannot refer to a homosexual man as a sissy.

Re-appropriation relies on leveraging stance specifically to self-determine identity and index the feature(s) to the overarching language (Ochs. 1992). Embedded communities - i.e. “homosexual men” is a categorization of “men,” which, by default, is heterosexual - must actively act against heteropatriarchical language to define themselves in opposition: many of the euphemisms generated by the respondents were the same, but they had vastly different weights when rated for acceptability, revealing a threshold defined by LGBT+ persons that can be used to constitute identity and reject heteropatriarchical stances. The unending euphemisms heterosexual people have access to surround the LGBT+ community to refer to the other and the limited, purpose-driven list generated for homosexual people is used directly to name that other. Euphemism is an indexical feature leveraged by both identity-inclusive and exclusive lexicons, wielded against one another simultaneously for opposite purposes, and, depending on which community you belong to, acts as either a tool of empowerment or a tool of oppression.


References

  • Eckert, P., & McConnell-Ginet, S. (1992). Think Practically and Look Locally: Language and Gender as Community-Based Practice. Annual Review of Anthropology 21, 461-490. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2155996
  • Lakoff, R. (1973). Language and Women’s Place. Language in Society 2, 45-80. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4166707
  • Ochs, E. (1992). Indexing Gender. In Durant, A., & Goodwin, C. (Eds.), Rethinking Context: Language as an Interactive Phenomenon (pp. 335-358), Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.