Why ‘homosexual’ is loaded with stigma

Owen Jones
7 min readSep 4, 2023

The English language is a funny thing. It lacks consistent rules. The meaning of a word can vary wildly dependent on context, and who is saying it. The meanings and implications of words can shift dramatically in relatively short spaces of time.

And this brings me on to the word ‘homosexual’. Over the weekend, I was on the receiving end of my 490485th online pile-on: this time, because when someone put it to me that LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall discouraged the use of the word ‘homosexual’, I responded that if anyone referred to me as a “homosexual”, I’d regard that as one of the most obvious red flags imaginable. I went on to say that people who unironically go around calling gay people “homosexual” tend to be homophobes.

There is an exception, I noticed: you will find gay people using ‘homosexual’, but almost always to take the piss, a form of arch satire. I’ve often spoken about being a ‘raging homosexual’, and called myself or queer friends ‘a massive poof’: but minority groups reclaiming terms of stigma and abuse is a long tradition indeed.

Anyway, as a result of all this, two groups of people piled on — first, straight right-wingers with varying levels of antagonism towards LGBTQ+ people and LGBTQ+ rights; and two, a subgroup of gay people who have been radicalised against trans rights, who represent a tiny minority of LGBTQ+ people, as I’ll show. The responses ranged from incredulity and ridicule to suggestions that I’m mentally ill. The episode even spurred GB News to do a clip about it: glad to know I’m helping to keep them busy.

Before I go into the history of ‘homosexual’, it’s worth saying this isn’t some burning issue for LGBTQ+ people, particularly in a time of raging hate crimes and the growth of anti-LGBTQ movements: it’s just an episode which offers interesting lessons.

Firstly, if almost any gay person thought about it for more than 2 seconds, being described by a straight person unironically as a ‘homosexual’ would obviously jar. Consider ‘are you gay?’ and ‘are you a homosexual?’ Imagine a politician started talking about ‘homosexuals’ on national television. Given you can use ‘gay people’, opting for ‘homosexuals’ is certainly a choice. Indeed, ‘homosexual’ is a term rarely used in public discourse.

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Owen Jones

Author of 'The Establishment' and 'Chavs', Socialist, Guardian columnist. Losing my Northern accent. My views etc... https://www.youtube.com/c/OwenJonesTalks