I was talking to one of my co-workers today. We have two homosexual persons in our office. I forgot one's name, so I asked my co-worker, "What's his name?" My co-worker said "Who?", and I replied, "one of the homosexual persons."

Then, my co-worker told me that it is rude to call them "homosexual". I used "homosexual" because I thought it was better than "gay". Am I wrong?

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    Why not just say "the guy over there"?
    – Lenik
    May 26, 2011 at 1:07
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    @FumbleFingers why do you say that? The stated goals of most LGBT organizations is to promote acceptance and understanding of all sexual orientations and lifestyles. Acceptance includes the freedom to comfortably identify with your orientation without any stigma. As long as the exchange wasn't rude or openly hostile/derogatory/prejudicial, it should be no different than mentioning their hair color or what they are wearing. Why would asking what the "gay guys name" is be any different than asking "what the redhead's name" is?
    – crasic
    May 26, 2011 at 4:05
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    @crasic: I know for a fact that some redheads don't much like people calling attention to that particular characteristic. Just as some black people would prefer not to be identified as such for purposes of distinguishing them from whites. And would you identify some particular woman in the office as "the one with large breasts"? You've obviously been working in some unusual offices. May 26, 2011 at 13:08
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    @crasic: I sympathize with your way of thinking, but I agree with @Fumble. It is slightly inappropriate, for two reasons: 1. you don't usually point out people as "readhead" either, unless to someone you know well, in which case "the Jew" would go too; 2. homosexuality involves sex, which is a bit taboo. I don't care what LGBT organizations say, or gays who walk around butt naked in some parade: I have not chosen them to represent me, and the taboo on sex is still generally observed, including by most homosexuals. // And what if some effeminate guy insists that he is straight? It happens. May 26, 2011 at 14:20
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    @nohat: I think that's very hypocritical. I don't mind being called the curly haired guy. I am, so what? For me it's more the way one says it than the specific world used. Again, this is just our society wanting to be politically correct at all costs. Useless if the correctness is only limited to words. I just have a normal relationship with my gay friends and continue to call them gay and they don't mind.For example, I live in a fairly international city and it's absolutely normal to refer to people by their nationality (the Swedish guy, the Algerian girl). I don't see anything wrong with it.
    – nico
    Jun 10, 2011 at 7:03

5 Answers 5


Rudeness is perceptual. The co-worker has associated the (correct) term "homosexual" with negative connotations. The term "gay" is a slang word for homosexuality. Therefore, the word you selected is more appropriate.

The bottom line is your co-worker has personal issues with the word, "homosexual". Ironically, many homosexuals also have this problem. Logically speaking, the matter should be moot. However, arguing a emotionally charged matter such as this is rather difficult, and usually does not end well.

My advice is to simply use the word "gay" around that particular person, to make your life easier.

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    @FumbleFingers: That is freaky in several ways! 1. How is this relevant for his employer? It's none of his business, in my opinion. 2. I think gay is still more slangy than the other words used. It should be either Heterosexual, Bisexual, Homosexual, That is Private, or straight, bi, gay, I'm in the closet. May 26, 2011 at 14:25
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    @Cerberus: Freaky or not, the NHS is one of the biggest employers in the world. In fact it's the biggest employer of Anglophones, by some considerable margin. Personally if I'd seen that one of the boxes was I'm in the closet I'd have fallen off my perch, but gay is definitely part of the standard lexicon in the UK today, even if it's not there (yet) in the US. May 26, 2011 at 14:33
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    and btw one reason why it's relevant is the NHS has to be much more careful about the welfare of both staff and patients where gays are involved because they're much more likely to have HIV / hepatitis / etc. May 26, 2011 at 14:35
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    @FumbleFingers: Let me rephrase slangy as informal: don't you agree that gay is more informal than heterosexual? I just found the words in the list incongruous. // Okay, I see why the NHS might want to know that. However, I do think that stuff is private. If the risk warrants it, they should have every employee take an HIV test every six months (shouldn't be expensive); if not, I really don't think meddling with people's sexuality is a good idea. And how would they formulate policy? Gays shouldn't be surgeons? May 26, 2011 at 14:49
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    Yes, there are many alternatives. However, the question specifically targeted the words "gay" and "homosexual". Homosexual is autological (a self-describing word). If you set the Waybac machine's dial to 1940, you'll find the word "gay" means "having or showing a merry, lively mood: gay spirits; gay music." Thus, "homosexual" is both autological and historically more accurate. Jun 21, 2011 at 17:11

Well, I suppose it's slightly better than gay, which is now used derogatorily quite often, whereas homosexual has a more scientific detached feel to it.

However, I wouldn't say that makes it ok to use in a context like that—it makes it feel like you know them only by their sexual orientation and not by who they are as people, so it is still sensitive in that respect. It would be more acceptable to use a different quality—perhaps answering "him" while gesturing in his direction, or perhaps "the one working on the [so-and-so] project"; these alternatives make it seem like you're not concentrating on sexual orientation.

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    +1 for identifying what the real problem likely was -- using a controversial trait to identify someone instead of something conservative (e.g., "the guy wearing the white shirt"). May 26, 2011 at 1:09
  • // ah...you're right. totally agree. Thank you for the advice.
    – user1268
    May 26, 2011 at 1:26
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    When "gay" is used as a derogatory term these days it is not in the context of sexual orientation.
    – dave
    Jun 8, 2011 at 19:40

I can't speak for your co-worker, but the part that would have bothered me about that statement was that you were identifying someone to a person who didn't know them by something that is logically a non-physical characteristic.

So basically you are asking your friend (and anyone else in earshot) to look around for someone who "looks homosexual".

Yes, that would have bothered me too. I have enough trouble fighting the innate bigotry society has instilled in me as it is, without having to deal with others inviting me to indulge in it.


Many gay people, including myself, find the word homosexual somewhat offensive because of the way it has been coopted by professional anti-gay activists such as the National Organization for Marriage and the Family Research Council. One News Now, a news website run by the homophobic American Family Association, once got into trouble for taking a AP press release about the sprinter Tyson Gay and publishing it as "Tyson Homosexual". They have an automatic filter which converts gay to homosexual. Why do you think they feel the need to have that filter? Why are homophobes uncomfortable with the word gay?

It's because gay and homosexual don't mean quite the same thing. Homosexuality is an orientation. A gay person (note that both words can be used as nouns, but many gay people are uncomfortable with that) is comfortable with his sexuality. He has established, to borrow the language of the religious right, a "gay identity".

Gay news blogs such as Box Turtle Bulletin and human rights organisations use the word gay throughout their writing.

Words mean things, even if the difference is subtle; and this difference in usage has an effect:

A recent CBS/New York Times poll found that 70 percent of Americans are in favor of gay men and lesbians serving in the military. Hooray for progress! Unfortunately, the same poll found that only 59 percent of Americans are in favor of homosexuals serving in the military.


Mike Christian's answer is therefore shown to be wrong. The word homosexual is not "more appropriate". It's not used in a human rights context; it's not used in a cultural identity context; and it's falling out of favour in a medical context (they use "men who have sex with men" instead, to cover all bases). The only context in which the word homosexual is still commonly used is an anti-gay context. Avoid it.

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    Hmm. I'd come to the conclusion that "homosexual" was an orientation, and "gay" was a lifestyle. By which definition I am homosexual, and entirely comfortable with it. That said, I rarely bother with that distinction and use the terms interchangeably anyway.
    – user1579
    Jun 8, 2011 at 20:45
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    @Rhodri, "The gay lifestyle" is another phrase of the religious right. No one can ever really define what the "gay lifestyle" is. I'd say that gay is an identity, in that you're gay if you think you are. So a gay person is homosexual and comfortable with it. Of course, all these words have fuzzy edges. That said, I've rarely seen homosexual used as a self-descriptor. Even homosexual fundies don't use it as a self-descriptor. They describe themselves as "experiencing unwanted same-sex attraction".
    – TRiG
    Jun 9, 2011 at 9:40
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    I think what I'm trying to get across is that "gay" is a self-descriptor used by people who consider their sexuality to be a defining feature of their life (ditto, to a much lesser extent, "straight"). It's not a defining feature of my life, any more than my handedness is; I just happen to find men sexually attractive.
    – user1579
    Jun 9, 2011 at 14:21
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    I truly appreciate your rebuttal! Point well made. I enjoy a lively, civil debate, which is becoming increasingly rare among denizens of the Internet. Jun 21, 2011 at 17:18
  • boxturtlebulletin.com/2011/08/18/36222 "Conservative churches welcome homosexuals."
    – TRiG
    Aug 19, 2011 at 11:44

Oh, for heaven's sake. Speak to your Gay/Homosexual co-worker and ask HIM what language he prefers and why. Strike up a genuine friendship and get some real answers to your question. He probably won't bite if you approach him like another human being and not merely as a member of some group.

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    Well.... he might bite. Rarr. Nibble ;)
    – user02138
    Jul 24, 2011 at 10:48

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