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Are ‘gay’ and ‘homosexual’ the same? Here’s what we found.

- May 22, 2017
A rainbow flag flies during a demonstration in Berlin on May 17, 2015. (Gregor Fischer/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

After Olympian Tyson Gay qualified for the 100-meter-dash final, Christian news outlet OneNews Now published an article with the following headline: “Homosexual Eases Into 100 Final at Olympic Trials.” The mistake was caused by the site’s editorial filter, which changed the athlete’s last name automatically — in keeping with the outlet’s policy against running stories that use the term “gay,” replacing it with “homosexual” instead.

Although this may be funny to some, it exposed a clear divide in how Americans talk about people with same-sex attractions. Although the terms “gay” and “homosexual” may be denotatively listed as synonyms, using one or the other is often strategic and deliberate, with a host of sociopolitical connotations.

What do people mean when they say ‘homosexual’?

Historically, the term “homosexual” has been associated with clinical ideas about same-sex attraction as deviant. Born-again Christian groups have strategically used this term to emphasize their belief that homosexuality is a behavioral aberration; with this as a foundational belief, they create “conversion therapy” programs to treat same-sex attraction as a psychological abnormality. The term “gay,” on the other hand, became the preferred term used by pro-LGBT activists in the late 1960s. It has been used strategically to refer to inclusive, proud and public portrayals of sexual identity.

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Our new research suggests that these rhetorical strategies can shape public opinion about LGBT rights. To test this, we embedded an experiment in the 2012 American National Election Study, or ANES, a large and nationally-representative survey of Americans. The ANES randomly assigned half of its respondents to answer policy questions about “homosexual” rights, while the remaining half did the same about “gay” rights.

The results showed that, as recently as 2012, the terms “gay” and “homosexual” could affect public opinion. The term “homosexual” was associated with lower levels of support for LGBT rights.

But here’s an important caveat: This effect is conditioned by a few factors. One of them is survey respondents’ levels of authoritarianism. Authoritarianism, in this context, is a psychological preference for order, sensitivity to in-group/out-group distinctions, and preferences for moral traditionalism. We also examined the interaction between authoritarianism and two other factors: people’s religious preferences and social context.

Here’s how we did our research

First, we explored whether born-again Christians who scored highly on the authoritarianism scale reacted differently to the two terms. In short, yes. Among born-again Christians, opposition to “homosexual rights” was 21 percent higher for individuals with the highest observed level of the authoritarianism scale, compared with those scoring at the lowest level. For those who were not born-again Christians, this difference was only 8 percent. However, when asked about “gay rights,” we observed no differences between the two groups.

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Second, we examined whether a similar pattern of results might occur when looking at whether respondents personally know someone with same-sex attractions. Whereas knowing someone with same-sex attractions may decrease the likelihood of holding negative attitudes toward them (psychologists call this a “contact effect”), not knowing someone may exacerbate differences in how people who score high on the authoritarianism scale process the two terms.

We find that opposition to “homosexual rights” was 16 percent higher for those scoring most highly on the authoritarianism scale who did not personally know someone with same-sex attractions, when compared with those scoring at the lowest level. Again, when asked about “gay rights,” we observed no differences between the two groups.

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Overall, our research suggests that the terms “gay” and “homosexual” can be used strategically to sway public opinion among certain large and politically relevant groups. Highly authoritarian born-again Christians make up 21 percent of the U.S. voting-age population. Highly authoritarian people who do not personally know someone with same-sex attractions comprise 23 percent of the American voting-age population.

Which words get used to talk about people with same-sex attractions can help shape opinion about LGBT issues. Political figures hoping to boost public opposition for LGBT rights may be able to use the term “homosexual” to sway listeners’ positions. And those who want to increase support for LGBT rights might wish to stick with “gay.”

Of course, which side is successful may depend on how frequently Americans hear messages using each term. Our experiment was relatively controlled, assigning respondents to think about one term or the other. But in real life, people probably encounter some combination of both.

Although 2012 may be quite a while ago on a subject for which opinion has changed quickly, its lessons remain. Elites, public opinion surveys and people in daily life may wish to be careful in how they describe people with same-sex attractions. Words that appear to be synonymous may, in fact, have very different political implications.

Matthew Motta is a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota. Find him on Twitter @matt_motta.