A new attitude puzzle

Come on, all you philosophers of language who love the substitution puzzle cases! What do you make of this?

CBS just found that if you ask Americans how they feel about “gay men and lesbians” serving in the military, a large majority support it. But if you ask people whether “homosexuals” should be allowed to serve in the military, support drops.

(Thanks,S!)

25 thoughts on “A new attitude puzzle

  1. Bah, the first one is such a biased question! That wording makes it sound like the homosexuals are *people*, or something.

  2. Hypotheses: for these respondents perhaps “gay” and “lesbian” is something you are; “homosexuality is something you do? And doing homosexuality, like fraternization in general, would be proscribed? Or: the “sex” in “homosexual” provokes? Or: “homosexual” continues to connote a medico-psychological condition and therefore triggers unease?

    Would support drop too if the word “heterosexual” were used instead of “straight” in an inverted form of the question?

  3. I wonder…is this one of those cases where referring to someone as a person, humanizing them as it were, prompts others to treat them better? Perhaps “homosexual” sounds too much like a category, detached from the individuals that fall into that category (not that I even accept such categories, but for the general public). By saying ‘gay men and lesbians’, it seems a little more personal. I bet if you personalized it even more, however impossible a task it would be, by giving the names and life stories of the individuals, even more people would support their serving in the military, regardless of sexual preferences.

  4. Maybe when they think of “homosexuals” they only think of gay men, but “gays and lesbians” is clearly both men and women, so in an attempt not to sound sexist they support it more?

  5. Emkas’ point is well taken: perhaps substituting “homosexual men and women” for “homosexuals” would have changed the outcome?

    But I wonder whether anyone really wants to fight for the word “homosexual”? “Gay” and “lesbian” are polite, finally, and as Em says, individuating. “Fag,” “dyke,” and “queer” are spicy, Act-Up approved, retro, intra-communal tags—but clearly if the CBS poll had used the latter terms, there would be outrages now, rightly. So, should we say “not homosexual please, but gay and lesbian,” or further, dump the hetero-/homo- thing and keep repeating that unwieldy acronym LGBT aimed at straightness? Is “queer” still queer enough?

  6. Hypothesis: If you asked Americans how they felt about “faggots” serving, there would be even less support.

  7. (Please moderators! Don’t let this comment stay in the queue forever!)

    1) Saying “homosexual men and women” (calling them ‘men’ and ‘women’) makes them sound like people. I think that’s why the results would be more like with “gay men and lesbians.”

    2) In reply to John Muse’s second paragraph:

    All true, but I just want to point out that it isn’t like “gay” and “lesbian” don’t have their own problems, as words. Like so many other words, ‘gay’ has come to simultaneously mean ‘gay man’ and ‘gay person,’ exemplifying how we consider ‘male’ to be the norm, and ‘female’ some other thing.

    There are lots of examples. I don’t really know the history, but I suspect that ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ developing this problem might be more recent than for most words. (Which might provide evidence that this kind of thing isn’t just fossilized language from hundreds of years ago, but actually part of how we think. In case anyone was wondering.)

    But sorry, I don’t know what to do about it either. Oh, and it would be nice if our language didn’t assume everyone was a man or a woman. And of course also nice if we let trans people who are men or women have the ‘L’ or the ‘G’ instead of acting like trans is a completely separate gender from ‘man’ and ‘woman’.

  8. Welcome back, David. I was going to write to tell you that I had solved the filter problem, at least for your name. I guess it’s fortunate that I didn’t write. I took two posts from you out of spam just now.

  9. To David: you’re right about “gay” and “lesbian”: being able to answer to a name is both liberating (I have a place, can be “in” the language, am recognizable, intelligible, real) and stultifying (I have to answer, I incorporate group formations, identity). This double bind forces all kinds of contortions and delivers all kinds of freedom. Even having the right and power to name yourself is a mixed blessing. But could we imagine another way? Trans folks prefer transgender precisely because it, if only for a moment, upsets this rule. But then they have to pay their taxes, give up their social security number, and otherwise fall into our grids of intelligibility.

    But I’m off topic. Thanks for your indulgence.

  10. JM. I’m sorry to say that this comment got into the spam box. Clearly, our filter has strong, retrograde attitudes. I’m glad I could rescue it.

  11. John: I’m not sure if you’re any more off topic than I was, but anyway, I’m very confused by your comment.

    With ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ I was talking about the way ‘male’ is treated as the default in language and how that’s a problem. You talk like you’re agreeing with me, but I don’t really have any idea what you’re talking about, so that seems odd.

    Trans folks prefer transgender precisely because it, if only for a moment, upsets this rule. But then they have to pay their taxes, give up their social security number, and otherwise fall into our grids of intelligibility.

    Huh? I still don’t know what you’re talking about, but I’m worried that if I did I would be disturbed. In my experience, trans people (just like other people!) prefer language use that affirms their chosen gender/sex. Depicting ‘trans’ as another gender wholly separate from ‘man’ and ‘women’ does not do that. And is offensive.

  12. David, I’m thinking that John is actually means to be referring to people who reject both gender categories– which is, in fact, difficult to do in a world constantly requiring us to choose one.

  13. David, I agree: ‘male’ is the unmarked term, treated as the default when no mark is given: judge versus female judge, etc.

    Perhaps I’m wrong about the T in LGBT, but isn’t being in “transition” and being transgender, m2f or f2m, while not another gender exactly, something really complicated? I would have said that the terms “male” and “female” aren’t adequate to describe what being transgender, living as a transgender person, the experience, is like. Otherwise, why affirm and use “trans” at all? “Wholly seperate from ‘man’ and ‘women’” isn’t what I meant and isn’t what I mean, but nor do I mean fully assimilable to either ‘man’ or ‘woman.’ But I could be overstating the case.

    And the remarks about taxes and social security—written in haste and too clever by half—were only meant to say that systems take their revenge.

  14. Ah. I just got worried, since it’s all too common for the world to try to force trans people outside of those categories (yes, while requiring everyone to choose one–but contradictions like that aren’t so surprising).

  15. Perhaps I’m wrong about the T in LGBT, but isn’t being in “transition” and being transgender, m2f or f2m, while not another gender exactly, something really complicated? I would have said that the terms “male” and “female” aren’t adequate to describe what being transgender, living as a transgender person, the experience, is like.

    I think the problem is the assumption that the terms are intended to refer to an experience of living. “Male” and “female” aren’t terms (IMO) that refer to a certain gender history or experience. Some trans persons reject them and prefer a third gender identity, but many trans men and trans women would appreciate the extension of the terms expanded to included them, since they really already ought to (as flexible and socially grounded as they are).

    And, one other comment, being trans is complicated, yes, but I think there’s a sense in which marking it as additionally complicated makes the umarked cisgender person’s experience less problematic when we should be recognizing that gendered experience, in general, is complex.

    Interestingly, I had to check off a box recently at my university as they asked me to choose my gender. They had “male” “female” and “transgender”, but I could not choose both “male” and “transgender.” I was forced to select only one. It was really very frustrating. And I’m not sure how useful the results would be without allowing for multiple selections!

    (Sorry to add onto the tangent – I know the original post is about gay/lesbian persons.)

  16. Hi, M. I see that saying “male” and “female” are “terms” risks reducing lived experience to mere words, but I also hear in the word “term” a legal, political, contractual bond: these are the terms, etc. Your experience with the check-box shows you the terms of these terms, right? That said, you offer something that didn’t occur to me: placing the burden “complication” on transgender folks does presume simplicity, and ease for the cisgendered—and thanks for the new term! Being at home in one’s skin and with one’s gender is typically a cover-up of some kind, occurs at someone else’s (or even one’s own) expense, and a privilege with historical and social depth.

    (on a tangent we will go, a tangent we will go, hi ho…)

  17. @JohnMuse – you’re making a pun on “term”? Because I simply mean something akin to “word” and not anything legal/contractual.

  18. Hi, M. I originally wrote the following: “I would have said that the terms ‘male’ and ‘female’ aren’t adequate to describe what being transgender, living as a transgender person, the experience, is like.” In this sentence I used “term” to mean word. But since I think that words organize and so do more than simply name things that exist independently of them, I used “term” to include this political and legal dimension. You ask, “you’re making a pun…?” I want to say ok, I am, but for what I take to be a good reason. Do I misunderstand though the import of your hesitation?

  19. Excuse not following the argument, but I have been interested to observe the appeals from groups like the Family Research Council (I sign up for updates from these groups mainly to keep up with anti-choice activities) on this issue always make much of “homosexual”. E.g. the latest appeal that just arrived in my in-box today is headlined “Help stop President Obama’s plan to force the military to embrace homosexuality” and goes on to talk about “homosexual conduct”, “homosexual behavior”, “radical homosexual lobby”, “homosexual rights extremists”, the “homosexual agenda” and more (yes, all this packed into one message!). Not once are the words “gay” or “lesbian” used. As far as I know, groups like FRC have always focused on “homosexual” and have worked hard to give it a negative connotation attaching it to “radical” and “agenda” and all those other hot-button words. I’m not sure how much they have thus caused “homosexual” to be treated as a less acceptable category/term or how much they have piggy-backed on something already there. Still, I can’t help but think their homophobic campaigning must have had at least some impact on perceptions surrounding “homosexual”. They’re good at this!

  20. I have no idea what “reducing lived experience to mere words” is supposed to mean (is doing that different from, say, talking?), but that is not the ‘risk’ I perceived in the way you wanted to use these words. You said:

    Perhaps I’m wrong about the T in LGBT, but isn’t being in “transition” and being transgender, m2f or f2m, while not another gender exactly, something really complicated? I would have said that the terms “male” and “female” aren’t adequate to describe what being transgender, living as a transgender person, the experience, is like.

    The ‘risk’ here is to deny trans people their self-determined gender/sex. Of course a trans identity is complicated (as you seem to agree now, any gender identity is complicated)… but if someone is a man/woman (and I’m likely to take someone’s own identification at face value for these purposes), the words ‘man’/’woman’ don’t need to sum up all for who they are to be the appropriate words. Even if that person is trans!

  21. Hi, Captivar. Thanks for the research. I’ve seen similar mailers and you’re right about the language: the FRC website too is full of it—in more ways than one.

    Hi, David. I have no intention of denying trans people or cis people or anyone a name. The more names, the merrier, and sure, let’s err on the side of self-determination. But if you see these names as powerful then you must also see that they mix blessing with curse. Blessing: I can be real to the extent that I bear a name that others recognize, and so when I bear that name and use it and am called, I too am recognizable. Curse: I am limited to what others think they mean when they call me. For example. When someone says to me, “be a man!” Or when I hear a mother on a bus say to her two young boys, maybe 3 and 5, who are playing and hugging and kissing, “boys don’t kiss other boys”—then what-it-is-to-be-a-man and what-it-is-to-be-a-boy are being decided and informed and enforced as are the absent terms here, girl and woman. (though when someone says, “be a man” or “grow a pair” or “man up” I’m not always sure what the opposition is…) So the choice would be to not-be-that, deny the name entirely: I’m not a man if that’s what a man or a boy is. Or to be a different man so that the very meaning of the appellation undergoes a shift. Or accept the language that comes at you and live it.

    You’re right, “the words “don’t need to don’t need to sum up all for who they are to be the appropriate words” but nor can words be precisely controlled by anyone: they’re the site and stake of public contest. And nor are there only benefits to naming-yourself. Some choose to opt out entirely, not wanting to fight on that ground.

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