What a difference a word makes

A CBS poll on gays in the US military finds that the American public is much happier with the idea of ‘gay men and lesbians’ serving in the military than ‘homosexuals’ serving in the military. For the ‘strongly favour’, ‘gay men and lesbians’ adds 17 percentage points to the total.

‘Gay’ is a word with more positive connotations than ‘homosexual’ – a legacy of its old meaning and not prompting respondents to think about sex acts that they don’t want to think about, even while liking some gay people and enjoying aspects of gay culture.

But this theory of connotations is better at explaining why people go from ‘somewhat’ to ‘strongly’ than to explaining the shift from oppose to favour (homosexual – 59%, gay – 70%). It’s surprising that near-synonyms can lead to a non-trivial minority offering different views on the substantive issue.

HT: Marginal Revolution.

11 thoughts on “What a difference a word makes

  1. Gays are well-dressed arty types who make you laugh. Lesbians sing like k d lang. Homosexuals engage in disgusting sex acts. ‘Gay’ and ‘homosexual’ may refer to the same group of people but they do not have the same connotations. The difference in results from the different framings is not quite as startling as one might think.


  2. The other interesting thing is that it’s obviously a polarizing issue for many Americans — the strongly oppose category gets almost twice as much support as the oppose category in both cases. It would be interesting to know what effect being in the military has, and what effect having to fight does as well. Do people that actually do the work think differently?
    You could also frame the question for different roles like “not fighting on the front line”, or ones with really specific relevance that are currently more contentious like “Arabic interpreter”. Perhaps people would be happy to have homosexuals doing jobs that they are not stereotyped out of, or perhaps people just don’t like thought of homosexuals in the military in general.


  3. Of course, they misinterpreted it to mean ‘happy’ men and people from the Island of Lesbos.

    On a more serious note, it seems that in this case, and many others, labels trump substance. It’s one reason why Labor has been clever in naming it’s legislation – “Unfair” dismissal laws and “Fair” work laws – which are difficult to oppose because people assume the label is some objective description of the Act.


  4. Likewise, using the term “fair trade” as a counter to “free trade”, and as a label for trade laws that in fact are potentially unfair to workers in developing countries (and unprotected workers in developed countries), is a masterstroke in marketing terms.


  5. I think it’s less crazy voters in this case and more that they’d have forgotten in the former formulation, unlike the latter, that the rule change would also let lesbians serve. If some folks are worried about gay men joining the military but are ambivalent/supportive of lesbians serving, but focus first on the former if not specifically reminded, then that could easily explain the results.


  6. Though free/fair are different concepts and used to describe substantively different arrangements. While I think subtle semantic distinctions can be made between ‘homosexual’ and ‘gay’, they can be used interchangeably in many contexts including this one, and refer to exactly the same policy. I think this is an interesting example of differing connotations alone seeming to trigger a major difference in a poll outcome.


  7. It’s not surprising at all. This is precisely why you never take any notice of a survey’s result without looking at the EXACT question asked – and the questions immediately before it, too.

    I never ceased to be amazed at how often people, including professional politicians, fall for for “public opinion” surveys commissioned by lobby groups. The research organisation generally does not have to do anything very dodgy to produce satisfactory results for their client – it just has to accept the clients’ framing of the question.


  8. The word homosexual sounds so authoritatively clinical which, at a subconscious level screams pathology, illness, perversion and so on. I’d say that explains the poll’s finding.


  9. Well, I think everyone is concentrating too much on the “gay” word and not enough on “lesbians.” As most men (well, I may be projecting here) find the kind of lesbian that is easily spotted as such in the supermarket as a little scary, intimidating, and looking like they could carry a machine gun further than most guys, of course they think lesbians should be allowed in the defence force. I’m only half joking.


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