A. The Charge. In E. M. Forster’s novel entitled Maurice, the homosexual main character describes himself as follows: “I am an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort.” Rightly so. In fact some types of behavior are so despicable that they must never be mentioned or discussed. Same-sex acts are prime examples. Adhering to a strict policy of abstention is best for all of us.
Indisputably, the text you are reading violates this sound precept. In the name of all that is decent, you must stop this folly forthwith!
B. Historical Background. Taboos on uttering certain words and phrases thrive in many societies. However, there is a distinct Western tradition that has proved influential in the context of homonegativity.
The designation of homosexuality as "the nameless sin" reflects the belief that it was unfit even to be mentioned in Christian society. In 1769, for example, the English jurist Sir William Blackstone described the "crime against nature" as "a subject the very mention of which is a disgrace to human nature. It will be more eligible to imitate in this respect the delicacy of our English law, which treats it in its very indictments, as a crime not fit to be named, peccatum illud horribile, inter Christianos non nominandum." Blackstone alludes not to the statute of 1533, but probably to a single celebrated case, the arraignment of Lord Castlehaven in 1631, where the indictment speaks (in Latin) of "that detestable and abominable sin . . . 'buggery' [in English in the text] not to be named among Christians." (Similar language occurs in a text of Sir Edward Coke, published in 1644.)
Comparable expressions enjoyed the favor of canonists and authors of confessionals on the European continent; in 1700, for example, Ludovico Sinistrari d'Ameno records the terms peccatum mutum ("silent sin"), vitium nefandum ("unspeakable vice"), and vitium innominabile ("unnamable vice"), all designating the crime against nature or sodomy.
A century before, the Andean historian of Peru, Garcilaso de la Vega, claimed that sodomy was so hated by the Incas that the very name was odious to them and they never uttered it. While the Incas were apparently hostile to male homosexuality, Garcilaso's claim that they refused to name it is probably a projection of Christian attitudes. Significantly, Garcilaso also mentions an Amerindian city that, like Sodom, was destroyed by fire for its addiction to homosexual practices.
In late antiquity, through a false etymology based upon the Greek form of the place name, Sodom was interpreted as meaning pecus tacens, "silent herd," a gloss that may have influenced the later formula peccatum mutum. William of Auvergne (ca. 1180-1249) said that it was the "unmentionable vice," noting Gregory the Great's claim that the air itself was corrupted by its mention.
Thus it was against an extensive and varied background of usage that Oscar Wilde was to seek to turn the tables in his eloquent plea during his 1895 trial for the "love that dare not speak its name," taking up a phrase from the poem "Two Loves" by Lord Alfred Douglas (1894). In Wilde's statement under cross-examination, the phrase morphed into "a great affection of an elder for a younger Man. It is intellectual... when the elder man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him." In subsequent usage, the phrase "the love that dare not speak its name" became synonymous with homoeroticism in general.
In the New Testament the apostle Paul remarked mysteriously, "For it is a shame even to speak of the things that they do in secret." (Ephesians 5:12). Although this passage has been taken to refer to homosexuality, there is no conclusive evidence to pinpoint the sin (or sins) in question. Nonetheless, the words show that the notion of a transgression too horrible to be named directly was familiar to the early Christians. The Book of Wisdom (14:17) had spoken of "worshipping of idols not to be named."
Latin pagan usage supplies infandus, "unspeakable, abominable" and nefandus, "impious, heinous," both sometimes used of sexual conduct (cf. the later vitium nefandum. In some Spanish texts sodomites are curtly termed nefandarios.
Primitive societies, of course, observe taboos on certain words either because the objects they designate are too dangerous or too numinously sacred to be mentioned outright. Today many observant Jews prefer not to utter the names for the Godhead as written in Scripture, using “Hashem” (the Name) instead.
In early Christian thought, Dionysius the Areopagite (ca. 500) evolved his negative (or apophatic) theology, which held that God's attributes are too incomprehensible to limited human reason even to be mentioned. Thus by a curious irony, the Christian Trinity and the sodomites are linked in their ineffability/unspeakability.
In today’s parlance no such grandiose comparisons seem appropriate. As regards common-garden usage the matter is best understood under the category of euphemism, as seen in the expressions “powder room” for toilet and “go to bed with” for having sex.
Some traditional euphemisms or code words for homosexual include “musical,” “sensitive,” and “temperamental.” Sometimes the avoidance pattern takes the form of deleting any specific word for it, e.g., "Is he. . . ?" "Is she that way?" or "Could he be one?" Everyday usage in other modern languages provides various equivalents for such euphemisms. In French one may speak of “en être” and “comme ça.” The expression “ces messieurs” dates from the eighteenth century. With its “so,” German is very economical. In Italian we find “così” and “uno di quelli” or with somewhat greater clarity “quel peccato” and “quel vizio.” Such expressions can connote either strong distaste for such practices, or a wish to avoid embarrassment (sometimes both). The ultimate in erasure occurs when one merely makes dismissive movements, e.g. displaying a limp wrist for a gay male or performing a stomping gait to indicate a lesbian.
One can find numerous relevant instances of elision and euphemism in twentieth-century fiction, theater, film, and musical lyrics, where oblique references are left as clues but the explicit words are missing. At one time the word “gay” could be used to serve as a code word, but no longer.
In 2004 a popular program appeared on American cable television entitled "The L-Word." In this case everyone knew that the "suppressed" word is “lesbian,” so that the show’s title itself mocked the censorship tendency.
GLBT people who remain in the closet practice their own form of self-censorship. Unwilling to avow their sexual orientation, they permit their friends and colleagues, most of them at least, to assume that they are conventionally heterosexual. And in fact, many of those who are “out” nonetheless hold that the closet rights of nonadmitters should be respected.
Sometimes this approach even appears in dealing with the dead, especially famous persons, where standard accounts have long shown a tendency to minimalize or ignore the GLBT elements in a person’s life. This was formerly the case with biographies of such writers as Walt Whitman. W. Somerset Maugham, and Virginia Woolf. Even now such “degaying” occurs with respect to prominent politicians, diplomats, and religious leaders, who remain enveloped in a discreet cloak of silence. Of course this protection vanishes when they are caught in flagrante and exposed.
Interesting in this connection is the designation MSM (men who have sex with men). This euphemism (if it is that) is said to derive from HIV-prevention groups seeking to reach men who do not regard themselves as having homosexual identities, but who nonetheless engage in same-sex relations. Some of these men may be closeted, others bisexual. For some African Americans the expression “on the down low” performs a somewhat similar function.
C. Response. All knowledge, including that of sexuality, advances through freedom of expression, discussion, and debate. The taboo on the mention of homosexuality violates that imperative. In a lesser way euphemisms also impede proper communication and discussion. Frankness is needed.
The larger issue is one of visibility. For this reason, closeted persons must urged to come out. As always, though this must be a voluntary process.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. Michael Goodich, The Unmentionable Vice: Homosexuality in the Later Medieval Period, Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio Press, 1979; Keith Allen and Kate Burridge, Euphemism & Dysphemism: Language Used as Shield and Weapon, New York: Oxford University Press. 1991; idem, Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censorship of Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006; Ralph Keyes, Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2010.