With my background in public opinion polling, I knew that a poll could be influenced by how questions are worded and ordered, but the extent of this difference surprised me.
A fascinating new CBS/New York Times poll reveals that attitudes about gays and lesbians serving in the military turn on how the question is asked. It turns out that 42% of Americans oppose allowing "homosexuals" to serve openly in the military, but only 28% oppose allowing "gay men and lesbians" to serve openly. Conversely, 58% of Americans favor allowing "gay men and lesbians" to serve openly in the military, but only 42% favor allowing "homosexuals" to serve openly. Apparently, some 15% of Americans don't know that "gay men and lesbians" are "homosexuals."
It's possible, of course, that those 15% are drawing a sharp distinction between sexual orientation and sexual conduct. On this view, "gay men and lesbians" are only inclined toward homosexual conduct, whereas "homosexuals" actually "do it." But this gives the befuddled 15% more credit than they're due. The subtlety of this distinction is not captured in any common definitions of the terms, both of which are generally held to embrace both same-sex attraction and same-sex conduct.
A more logical explanation has to do with the emotional connotations of the respective terms. "Homosexual" conjures up dark visions of filthy bodily acts that arouse deeply-rooted feelings of disgust and ancient fears of Sodom and Gomorrah and hell and damnation. "Gay men and lesbians," on the other hand, increasingly reminds us of people we know -- sons and daughters, cousins and classmates, nieces and nephews, coworkers and neighbors. It would appear that 15% of Americans cannot stomach the thought of homosexuals, but can tolerate and even try to understand gays and lesbians…
…So, what's in a name? Does a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Is "colored" the same as African-American? Is "spic" the same as Hispanic, "dago" the same as Italian-American, "hymie" the same as Jew, "redskin" the same as Native-American, "mick" the same as Irish-American? Do words affect beliefs and politics?
What this poll leads me to think is that the word "homosexual," though once thought to be a neutral term like "colored" or "crippled" or "retarded," should now slip out of our responsible public discourse. For 15% of Americans -- or some forty million of us -- the very use of this word apparently triggers deeply emotional and hostile responses, responses that apparently can be softened or even avoided entirely simply by substituting the less fearsome phrase "gay men or lesbians."
When we hear religious leaders or politicians referring to "homosexuals in the military," "homosexual marriage," or "special rights for homosexuals," we must recognize what they are doing. Especially for the 15% of Americans who react so viscerally to the term "homosexual," they are trying to chew their way into the worst parts of our psyches in order to manipulate our beliefs and values and make us worse people than we really are… [emphasis added]
Inserted from <Huffington Post>
I have seen LGBT folks become quite upset at the use of the term ‘homosexual’. I admit, I lack their degree of sensitivity to the issue, as does anyone who cannot wear another’s skin. But I had no idea that this word could cause a 15% swing public opinion. I tried an experiment on my own. When I googled ‘homosexual’ more of the images returned were negative, such as my bottom graphic above. When I googled ‘gay and lesbian’ , more of the images were positive, such as my top graphic above. I chose that graphic because it represents my own position and policy for this blog.
What really upsets me the most is that the GOP has been able to use this difference to influence Americans. You can be sure that the difference did not come from the teabaggers. They would oppose LGBT service regardless of terminology. I’m equally certain that progressives would support LGBT service regardless of terminology. Therefore the Americans the GOP are manipulating are in the middle. These are the folks we need to educate and win over.