Resolved for 2018: Choose Your Words Well

How we describe ourselves and our circumstances makes all the difference.

Posted Dec 29, 2017

John-Manuel Andriote/photo
Source: John-Manuel Andriote/photo

Words matter. A lot.

The words we use to describe ourselves and our circumstances can be the difference between feeling hopeful or helpless.

Telling ourselves “I’m a loser” or “Life is unfair” almost guarantees we will be bitter and resentful and trapped in a vicious cycle of self-defeat. On the other hand, "I am having a hard time just now, but I will get through it" is powerful and resilient.

Gay men know a lot about the power of words either to strengthen or undermine us. While many younger gay men have seized on the word “queer” to describe themselves, inverting the insult and imbuing it with positive meaning, it’s instructive to recall how the word “gay” came into use. 

In the early 20th century, words like “normal” and “fairy” were applied to men according to their ranking on a scale of traditional masculinity, rather than their sexual orientation per se. “Homosexual” was a clinical term and, as has frequently been the case, gay men were reduced to their sexuality—as if it completely defined them.

Beginning in the 1930s, white homosexuals in New York began to use the word "gay" to describe themselves as a way of communicating discreetly with one another. Black gay men of the time used phrases like “in the life” and “the sporting life” to speak about their “different” sexual orientation.

After the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York, "gay power" was shouted in the streets and graffitied on the walls of gay neighborhoods. Veteran gay activist Frank Kameny coined the phrase "Gay is good" as a way of flipping the usual insults and put-downs on their head.

Gay men’s understanding of the power of words and language was central to their earliest responses to the HIV-AIDS crisis after the first cases were reported in 1981. Meeting in Denver in 1983, gay men from New York and San Francisco adopted the Denver Principles, a kind of constitution for how to care for and involve people afflicted by the illness in decisionmaking about their care.

These courageous men rejected the stigma society insisted on attaching to the frightening and mysterious new disease—mainly because it was deadly, involved sex and drug use, and largely affected gay men. They insisted on being called “people with AIDS” rather than “AIDS victims” because, as gay men, they understood that labels matter. 

Today, when HIV is highly manageable with medication, the language has shifted so we refer to “people living with HIV” or “PLH” rather than people with AIDS. 

Again, words matter. “Living with HIV” reflects the new medical reality of people who have the virus. It is positive and empowering, and it helps counter the stigma still unfortunately linked in many people’s minds to this particular microbe.

For 2018, take a lesson from gay men in general and people living with HIV in particular: Choose your words well—especially the words you use to describe yourself or your circumstances.

Words shape the story you tell yourself about yourself. Will you be your story’s hero? Or the victim?

You decide.