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.