THE LAST WORD
By Fred Hashagen
People often underrate the impor
tance of the language they use. At the
risk of sounding insipid, words have
power. They shape minds, impact policy,
and can occasionally make or break ca
reers. If you don't believe me on that
last bit, just ask intellectual dynamo Dan
Quayle what the word "potato" did to
his political career.
Rhetoric has fascinated me for a long
time now; indeed, it was probably this
interest which drove me to write this col
umn, so it saddens me that the gay, les
bian, bisexual and transgender commu
nities are disregarding the bias currently
present in GLBT discourse.
The GLBT communities' embrace of
the word "queer" is one way in which
we have ignored rhetorical significance.
The American Heritage Dictionary de
fines the word queer as: "being of a ques
tionable nature or character; suspicious"
and "a disparaging term for a homo
Why, then, do we use it to describe
Some would argue that the word
"queer" serves as a good umbrella word
for all gays, lesbians, bisexuals and
transgenders, but to be legalistic about
things, queer is a disparaging term for
My problem with this choice in word
ing, though, goes beyond my concern
for expressing inclusiveness. The prob
lem is that we have chosen to define our
selves as "being of a questionable na
ture." Now, I'm all for self-degradation.
In most cases I think it's pretty funny.
However, laughs should not come at the
expense of self-respect. By telling others
that we are "suspicious," we disrespect
ourselves and consequently allow oth
ers to undermine us.
At the same time, we must be wary of
changing our terminology too drasti
cally. We must be sure to stress that we
As I write this, I am reminded of one
of my trips up to Insomnia. On this par
ticular Friday night, I found myself be
coming increasingly aware of my dance
partner's inebriety. To put it bluntly, the
amount of alcohol that must have been
in his blood supply would have made
Boris Yeltsin drool. In any event, when
this guy introduced himself to me for
about the fifth time, he added, "I'm
straight-gay. How 'bout you?"
Looking back, I probably should have
^aid, "Yeah, I'm straight, except for that
whole part about liking women.* That just
never seemed to stick." Instead, I just
nodded my head and told him that I had
to "take a break." And I did take a break-
for the rest of the night.
Straight-gay! What the hell does that
mean?! That must be like intelligent-con
Our challenge, therefore, is to find
terminology which will classify us as dif-
That must be like
ferent but unworthy of suspicion. That
being the case, why not be as specific as
possible? What's wrong with the terms
"gay," "lesbian," "bisexual" and
In ensuring that the dialogue on GLBT
issues is specific and respectful, we
should pay even more attention to those
terms which pose an outright threat to
us. So, while we quash the acceptability
of "queer," we should also hammer away
In cases of bigotry other than ho
mophobia, the word used to describe the
prejudice clearly connotes hate. A per
son who discriminates based on race is a
"racist." One who discriminates based
on sex is a "sexist." Discrimination on
the basis of religion may reflect the be
liefs of an "anti-Semite" or an "anti-
Catholic" or any number of other things
following the prefix "anti." The point is
that the names assigned to other forms
of bigotry clearly imply that the bigot
should be loathed.
What, though, does "homophobia"
imply about how homophobes should
The answer lies in the most common
connotation of the suffix "phobia." In al
most every other use of "phobia," the
implication is that an individual is irra
tionally fearful of something. In other
words, implied behind the word "ho
mophobia" is the understanding that a
homophobe is fearful not hateful.
The difference between hate and fear
may at first seem trivial. Expressions for
bigotry may initially appear suitable as
long as the word implies an unreasoned
aversion to a group of people. However,
one of the greatest threats that we face
right now is the paradigm that it is ac
ceptable for heterosexuals to fear us.
This threat has manifested itself most
clearly in what has come to be known in
legal circles as the "gay-panic defense."
This is a tactic used by unscrupulous de
fense attorneys which argues that vio
lence targeting gays, lesbians, bisexuals
and transgenders is understandable, be
cause the abuser had insecurities about
his or her own sexuality which made him
or her lash out when confronted by an
alternative lifestyle. Essentially, the de
fendant argues, "Yeah, I did it, but I was
afraid of the guy I killed, because he was
gay, and he asked me out."
Fear is now being used to justify vio
lent acts against us. Hate could never be
used for this purpose, or at least if it were,
it would not earn sympathy for anyone.
Consequently, we must delete "ho
mophobia" from our dialogue. It should
be replaced with "heterosexism—a term
that implies oppression and makes’the
oppressor hateful by definition.
The current state of the terminology
describing alternative sexualities makes
it incumbent upon the gay, lesbian, bi
sexual and transgender communities to
keep each other abreast of the character
of dialogue on GLBT issues.
Should we fail at this, then we will
have allowed bigotry to permeate the
minds of otherwise reasonable people.
Fred can be reached at