Male normativity in the usage of "homosexual" and "gay"

The terms “gay” and “homosexual” aren’t technically gendered; homosexual women often refer to themselves as gay, and the fact that the previous clause is correct English in itself should be self-evident as to my point. And yet, over and over again I see those two words being used alongside lesbian (like this article which uses the phrase “homosexuals and lesbians”), as if lesbians are some magical creatures apart from the rest of the gay world.

Men, being the default, don’t have a special word for them. But women often have such special status markers as lesbian and Mrs., not to mention that most of the time they are lumped into the markers that carry a male connotation such as gays and guys. Thought not as common, as the newspaper article linked in the first paragraph illustrates, this tendency to construe the male as neutral (and the neutral as male) bleeds into words that, as a clear part of their definition, are gender neutral.

Such male normative language bleeds into male normative thinking, which ends up reinforcing the idea of men as normal and women as Other. If lesbians can’t even be properly included in the term homosexual, then what hope is there for them to be seen as full participants in the queer community?

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8 thoughts on “Male normativity in the usage of "homosexual" and "gay"

  1. That’s part of the reason I prefer the word queer; I usually hear it used not only to refer to people of non-normative sexuality, but also in reference to non-normative gender identification. It feels much less constrictive than “gay” or “homosexual”.

  2. I’ve never understood the need to separate female and male homosexuals in discussion unless you are specifically referring just to one gender. There’s no special word for heterosexual or bi-sexual women, after all.

  3. Hmm. I don’t mind if all queer people are referred to collectively as homosexuals.

    However, I do find the term ‘gay women’ annoying. I mean, do you hear male homosexuals referred to as ‘lesbian men’? I’m not a gay woman. I am a dyke. Or a lesbian.

    Maybe we should call all homosexual people lesbians? Come on, the boys will know it includes them, too!

  4. I think the reason why “and lesbian” is included is that a lot of times if you don’t mention lesbians when you discuss homosexuality people simply assume that you’re discussing only men. This is the type of mindset that turns GLBTQ into not just a descriptive acronym for a group, but a pecking order. Gay men are the most visible because the culture values men, lesbians next, bisexuals and transgendered people when the media wants to wag its finger in some way, and queer and questioning people almost never unless you’re running some sort of shock value article. In order for women to have any visibility, we unfortunately have to be mentioned as separate entities. I actually prefer it to “oh, you know we meant you too” and then the media never focuses on anyone but gay men.

    But then, I’m queer, so maybe I don’t get a say. The day they admit that sexuality and relationships are fluid and not something you check off on a form is the day you’ll be able to knock me over with a feather.

  5. I think the reason why “and lesbian” is included is that a lot of times if you don’t mention lesbians when you discuss homosexuality people simply assume that you’re discussing only men.

    Right, but saying “and lesbian” after “homosexual” only reinforces that. What they should have done would be to say one of the following: “gay men and lesbians”, “homosexual men and women”, “gay men and women” (well, I’d love for them to say “women and men” sometimes, but I know that’s asking too much).

    Obviously the content of the story is also an important part of why the inequalities continue to be perpetuated, but language is also a contributing factor, and one that is often overlooked or downplayed in order to focus on the “big” stuff. If people saw lesbians (and the other lesser recognized parts of the queer “hierarchy”, as it were) as full-fledged members of the queer community, then maybe more of them would get up in arms about the way that we’re marginalized in the news.

  6. The use of gay, homosexual, and lesbian as nouns infuriates me. I think these words can only be properly used as adjectives, at which point we can use gendered or non-gendered nouns, like “gay men and women” (as you wrote above) or “homosexual students”. It can still be misused to carry gender (for example, “gay and lesbian students”), but I think that goes a long way toward 1) decreasing the perception that being queer defines who we are entirey, and 2) combating this idea that we’re always talking about the men.

  7. I have written about this issue as well. Please see:

    ‘Gay’ and the disappearing [+female];col1

    Also relevant:

    “Re-De-Signing People” By looking critically at everyday signs used in public facilities, this article, co-written by Tamarah Cohen and Kerstan B. Cohen, meets Kyoto Journal’s call to address “changes, challenges and possibilities” of gender identity, while exploring “relations between gender, culture and power.” We argue that “people signs” are pseudo-generic and offer rich possibilities for subversive “re-de-signing.” Kyoto Journal, #64 Special Issue, September 2006; currently available in-full on-line at

    Slideshow version:
    Part 1

    Part 2
    Part 3

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