Recently, a couple of prominent gay bloggers have criticized mainstream media outlets major and minor for preferring the term “homosexual” over “gay” in its news coverage. Among the storied publications hanging on to archaic terminology for dear life? The Washington Post.
Earlier this month, John Aravosis‘s praised the Washington Post for an op-ed supporting gay marriage—-before quickly criticizing the paper for its incessant use of “homosexual” throughout the piece. In his indictment of the Post, Aravosis raises an interesting point about mainstream media coverage of shifting cultural attitudes. Even as a newspaper’s coverage tends towards the progressive—-as is the case of the WaPo editorial—-its commitment to formal style often keeps the discussion mired in the traditional.
To a seasoned Postie, “homosexual” might seem like a formal—-even respectful—-choice for your editorial endorsement of same-sex marriage rights. But as Aravosis points out, the usage is swiftly transitioning from “formal” to “archaic”—-and is now dipping into “offensive.” “Homosexual,” to thoroughly modern ears, recalls a time when being gay was stigmatized as a type of psychosis—-not the most flattering choice for your equal-rights essay.
In the newspaper business, however, stylistic tradition often lags far behind popular usage. But as reporters and editors strive to maintain style, Aravosis argues, they sometimes sacrifice objectivity. Even in WaPo‘s gay-positive editorial, the use of “homosexual” aligns the paper with the rhetoric of far-right homophobes, and in opposition to the preferred usage of most gay men and women (that would be a simple “gay”).
As blogger Rex Wockner points out, the Washington Post has now proven itself more traditional than the leading authority on newspaper style—-the Associate Press Stylebook. The Stylebook I’ve got lying around the office, published in 2000, defines “gay” as “acceptable as popular synonym for both male and female homosexuals.”
But the reference book has come a long way since 2000 (when, as a side-note, it had to remind journos not to upper-case the L in “lesbian”). According to this (admittedly dubious) resource, the AP Stylebook began to explicitly prefer “gay” over “homosexual” in its 2006 edition. “Homosexual” remains the preferred term “in clinical contexts or references to sexual activity”—-but not in general reference to specific humans.
As long as the Post editorial board is publishing endorsements of same-sex marriage, it might be time for the paper to endorse “gay,” as well.