Thursday, July 16, 2009

What's In A Name?

Homosexual - a word used to describe gay people. 

Note how I said that? I didn't say 'to describe homosexual people'. If you find the difference as interesting as I do, I am sure you feel it warrants a deeper look.

I suppose there have been many - um, unique names by which we gay and transgender people have been known over the centuries - the oldest equivalent in English is presumably that old biblical favorite "eunuch".

In a detailed thesis by Faris Malik "Thesis: Eunuchs are Gay Men", the author details his research into this puzzling subject - revealing not only the erroneous perceptions and misconceptions which can result from doctrines based upon errors in translation - but casts light on some which have occurred in the past and which have directly affected us as gay and transgender people right up to this very day.

"One day I read in the Bible that Jesus said there were eunuchs who were born so from their mother's womb.1 To my knowledge, a eunuch was a man who had been castrated, so how could he be born that way? As a translator by profession, I was aware that ideas are sometimes distorted in translation, and that this was particularly a problem in the Bible. In this case, the context was about men's obligation to marry, and these and other kinds of eunuchs were said to be exempt. As a proud gay man and, at that time, a Christian, I was intrigued by this. Since I firmly believed (and still do) that I was born gay and that, on this basis, it would be a bad idea for me to marry a woman, it occurred to me that a so-called born eunuch might mean a gay man like myself".

Malik continues his analysis as follows: "The oldest available version of Matthew is a translation probably from Aramaic or Hebrew into Greek, and the word used in the Greek translation is eunouchos, from which we get our word eunuch. The word eunouchos comes from eune (bed) and echein (to hold), and most scholars accept that it means "one who guards the bed." But Jesus would not have used the Greek word, since he spoke Aramaic. The Hebrew and Aramaic word for eunuch is 'saris', an Assyrian loan word that has been interpreted to mean "at the head." Neither of these etymologies ruled out my hypothesis that born eunuchs were, in general, anatomically whole like gay men" "...the term 'saris' had a dual meaning, with the other being "palace official." Apparently, sarisim had participated in religious rites (Jeremiah 34:19), which would be impossible if they were castrated. Deuteronomy 23:1 says castrated men cannot enter the congregation of the Lord. Therefore, modern religious scholars, assuming all eunuchs were castrated, concluded that a saris must not necessarily be a eunuch." You can read his whole engrossing thesis here 

So here we have the word "saris" which seemingly included all variations on the gay theme, versus the later Greek which was far more clear cut (sorry for the pun) about definitions.

"Eunuch" Noun - a man who has been castrated, esp. (formerly) a guard in a harem [Greek eunoukhos bedchamber attendant] "The word eunuch does not derive, as one might think, from the operation that produced a eunuch but rather from one of his functions. Eunuch goes back to the Greek word eunoukhos, "a castrated person employed to take charge of the women of a harem and act as chamberlain." The Greek word is derived from eun, "bed," and ekhein, "to keep." A eunuch, of course, was ideally suited to guard the bedchamber of women." -

'Eunuch' therefore certainly does not equal, nor satisfyingly translate to 'saris'. 

Not by any stretch of the imagination - unless of course you take the classic right wing bigot mentality which has always and currently still translates "homosexual" to mean everything in the GLBTI spectrum. Ask any militant anti-gay right wing fundamentalist just who falls under the term "homosexual" and they will most likely throw gay, bisexual, intersex and transgender people into the same container, possibly with unrelated items such as pedophilia, incest and bestiality - along with the kitchen sink.

It seems that this little word 'eunuch' was employed in attempts to translate an Assyrian word which was later adopted by Hebrews and which seems to cover everything from gay to transgender - gender and orientation neutrality or diversity - and not just the stereotypical men forcibly castrated in order to guard the Caliph's harem. Greek translations were made of older Hebrew texts in the bible - and the ancient Assyrian/Hebrew word used did not have the same meaning as the Greek substitute. But it's okay because they're all 'deviants' anyway, so who cares? Nice atitude. Sounds strikingly familiar to me.

Hmm. So much for those right wing conservative claims of "biblical inerrancy".

Despite claims by modern hypocrites and bigots, there always have been gay and transgender people. We didn't just suddenly pop into existence a few decades ago - and as we are a part of the human genome - at least until some right wing genius euphemistically tries to cut us out of that as well - we always will be. 

According to Wikipedia, "the first known appearance of [the word] 'homosexual' in print is found in an 1869 German pamphlet by the Austrian-born novelist Karl-Maria Kertbeny, published anonymously, arguing against a Prussian anti-sodomy law." There is something particularly ironic about that too, don't you think? It seems both the word and the abstract personification attached to it have been on the wrong side of conservative law since it's adoption by pro-gay advocates as a noun-slash-adjective to describe gay people in a less offensive way than using the offensive term "sodomy" - which if you do your research is nothing less than a woefully misplaced misnomer: 

"Genesis 19:1-11: This text is often used to show that homosexual behavior is punished by God. It is, however, concerned about abuse, not about sex in itself, but male-male rape and hospitality concerns. The people of Sodom obviously were engaged in practices that angered God. However, these verses do not show that homosexuality in itself was the real problem. As described below, many other verses in the Bible support this fact and show what the real "sin of Sodom" was." "What was the sin of Sodom? Abuse and offense against strangers, insult to the traveler, inhospitality to the needy, and sexual abuse." "There is a sad irony about the story of Sodom when understood in its own historical setting. People oppose and abuse homosexual men and women for being different, odd, strange, "queer", outsiders, foreigners in our society. They are disowned by their families, separated from their children, fired from their jobs, evicted from apartments and neighborhoods, insulted by public figures, beaten and killed on the streets, and even thrown out of churches. All this is done in the name of religion and supposed Christian morality. Such oppression is the very sin of which the people of Sodom were guilty. Such behavior is what the Bible truly condemns over and over again. So, those who oppress and condemn homosexuals because of the supposed "sin of Sodom" may themselves be the real "sodomites", as the Bible understands it.""

Now there is a "biblical world view" I can agree with. 

It was but a short step from there to become a tool of the bigot fraternity, which just goes to show that though they are very crafty and skilled in emulating the creativity of gay people, they are nothing more than base copy-cats with little imagination. Even this week I received notification that that sly US "ex-gay" group NARTH has just reviewed the past 169 years of anti-gay rhetoric and put a modern spin on it, no matter how idiotic and impractical and tried to pass it off as a "new study". ...But I digress. Bearing this trend in the rhetoric of the religious right opposition to our humanity and equality, it occurs to me that before very long the word 'gay' (also a gay original) will probably be used as a derogatory term as well. Oh, darn - wait - they are already there. Even in today's schools and playgrounds, kids are derogating each other with the insult "gay" - meaning "stupid". And even supposedly well-meaning people are using this hateful subversion to mean "don't be gay", "that's gay" - i.e. "stupid". So suddenly "gay" means "stupid"? How the hell did that happen?

Let's start at the beginning.

How do you feel about being called "homosexual"? 

I would assume that if you are heterosexual, you might take umbrage and be offended. Or if you were straight and not narrow and have a few real gay friends - you might view the person who is abusing the word as an insult as some kind of whacko with his own sexual issues, perhaps even a case of closet-syndrome.

Different people react differently to the word - even gay people. Some gay people don't seem to mind it being used to describe them, bearing in mind the original non-offensive meaning. On the other hand, I know some people who would take offense if they were called homo-anything - let alone "homosapiens" - but they are the James Dobsons and Errol Naidoos of this interesting little planet at the center of the universe, where the Sun is not a gigantic ball of flaming gas, but a lens focusing the light of God upon it. At least that is what they used to teach back in the day, when Galileo and many other people of reason and science nearly got burned at the stake for daring to prove them wrong.

"Homosexual" actually an amalgamation of two words one Greek and the other Latin, means the linear opposite of heterosexual - which means "differently sexed". In a word like "homosapiens" however wikipedia explains "the word homosexual is a Greek and Latin hybrid with the first element derived from Greek homos, 'same' (not the unrelated Latin word homo, 'man', as in Homo sapiens), thus connoting sexual acts and affections between members of the same sex, including lesbianism.[17] 'Gay' generally refers to male homosexuality, but is sometimes used in a broader sense to refer to all LGBT people. In the context of sexuality, lesbian denotes female homosexuality." Already the contextual meanings coupled with differences and similarities between languages is enough to give one a splitting headache. Anyway - therefore (I love that word) "'homosexual' means "same sexed" - or one who has relationships with the same gender as her or him self." 

The problem comes in when you realize how the word has been used - and abused - against gay people down through the centuries. In the last hundred years or so, since the topic has gradually become more prevalent and addressed more publicly in different media - and the use of the word has predominantly become stigmatized because it has mostly been our detractors and persecutors who have used this word - even when there were more genteel alternatives - and made it out to be a derogatory slur and insult. One can even hear the distinct distaste in every syllable of the word in the way it is pronounced.

Beauty - or venom - as it seems, is in the eyes of the beholder; or in this case - in the tongue of the speaker. "Dead" ancient languages such as Latin and Greek which are used for medical classification and terminology are usually quite neutral, but clearly in this case, hate has soured the usually neutral soup of language. The offense these days is in the ears of the hearer - and after four decades of it - and us - being abused by people like James Dobson, Paul Cameron, Anita Bryant and every other radical fundamentalist nut-job to take the lead ever since they started the "culture war" on diversity. 

Often the hostility and distaste or contempt for the people a word symbolizes can be seen simply in the little "quotation marks" around it as in "gay" - as if to suggest that we do not really exist.

Other words far less neutral came along over time, words actually meant to hurt and to be insulting descriptions, such as "queer", "faggot" and the colloquial Souf Efrikin "moffie". As a matter of interest the word "fag" - or "faggot” means a bundle of wood. Its use as a gay slur is said to have originated from the days when gay people were burned alive by the church and they were said to resemble a bundle of "faggots" tied together as they burned. I am sure many bigots long for those days - perhaps even just so they might dream up a few new words to act as vehicles for their hatred - or so that we can do it for them. 

Can a word definition change because of the hatred it is used to channel? It seems to me that it can. Take the German word "fuhrer" as an example. It is a simple word meaning "leader", in fact up until the end of WW2 it was used in all sorts of social and job descriptions in Germany - and even Austria and Switzerland, for any kind of leadership role. And yet the first thing that popped into your mind when you read the word "fuhrer" was 'Adolf Hitler', wasn't it? I think you see my point. Hitler was known as "the Fuhrer" - and that forever changed the connotations of the word - an association with hatred and evil. To me the way gay-hating bigots employ the word "homosexual" achieves something quite similar. It immediately reminds me of the hatred in the statements I have heard in radio broadcasts, or read in newspaper articles filled with propaganda and lies against people like me - and it awakens a hostile response in me as I am sure it does in others.

The transgender community has its own pet hates as far as descriptive terms go. "Tranny" for transsexual or transgender is quite commonly used even in the trans community - but raises the hackles of some of the girls - or guys, being usually associated with the pornography industry and prostitution. I have heard some use the term "he-she's" which is generally repugnant and used in the media to sensationalize transgender issues. Then we have "she-male" which is also largely associated with the sex industry, even though many of those who even may call themselves "she-males" are in no way connected to it and would be offended by the thought. The lesbian community has the same issue with words such as "dyke" for "butch" (or masculine) lesbians, which conjures up images of generally inaccurate stereotypes. It is clear that the use - or misuse - of certain words to some is like waving a red flag at a bull. Bearing in mind what happened in the latest 'running of the bulls' in Spain, that would be ill-advised indeed.

It is the use of words such as "sodomy" and "sodomite" which gave rise to words such as "homosexual" - which brought about the gradual evolution of this term into a slur of note - which spurred the pink community to come up with new words of its own to describe themselves. One more modern such word is the widely preferred "gay" - coined by the gay community in the USA back in the late 1950's or 60's and now used the world over. And it didn't take the bigots very long to cotton on to it and try to turn it into a slur of some kind as well. In fact, as long as there is this friction and enmity between us - while this vaunted "war on homosexuality" of theirs rages - it seems we will have to keep inventing new names for ourselves and time how long it takes for the slow-witted copy-cats to catch up.

Ironically when people are called 'gay', some attack the gay liberation movement for "stealing" the word from the so-called heterosexual society - but would never own up to the way they and those like them have warped and twisted other words against us.

To sum up, many gay people today immediately become hostile when they read or hear the word "homosexual", especially when directed at them. Why? It means 'gay' yes - but in a negative sense. Take a good look at the individual or group using it - either it is a person or group trying very actively to rob us of our equality and civil rights - or to prevent us from getting any in the first place. Often it is a group whose press releases and statements are filled with legible hatred and venom, filled with other words and phrases tied to the "H" word, like "deviant", "immoral", "sinful", "threat to this or that" and so on. It is a case of a word being stigmatized by the hatred of those who have used it against us in the past.

In the words of a well known South African gay rights advocate, "I am not homosexual, I find the term offensive. I am gay, even queer, but NOT homosexual."

‘What's in a name’, you ask?

You tell me.


If you would like to know more about Christina Engela and her writing, please feel free to browse her website.

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