Extending the Social Category Label Effect to Stigmatized Groups: Lesbian and Gay People’s Reactions to “Homosexual” as a Label


  • Jes L. Matsick Orcid
  • Mary Kruk Orcid
  • Lindsay Palmer Orcid
  • Eric K. Layland Orcid
  • Anna C. Salomaa


The social category label effect describes how labels influence people’s perceptions of social groups. Though the label “homosexual” versus “lesbian/gay” decreases some heterosexual people’s support for sexual minorities, it is unknown how lesbian and gay (LG) people respond to “homosexual” as a label used to describe them. Across three experiments in a largely U.S. context (Total N = 831), we examined how use of “homosexual” influenced people’s responses on psychological instruments, preferences for demographic questions, and evaluations of individuals who use “homosexual.” The use of different labels in psychological measures did not influence LG people’s responses (Study 1). However, LG people reacted less positively to “homosexual” compared to “lesbian/gay” in demographic questions and in interpersonal exchanges (Studies 2-3), whereas heterosexual people’s reactions were largely unaffected (Study 2). LG people’s more negative reactions to “homosexual” than “lesbian/gay” were partially explained by them perceiving the “homosexual” label user as less culturally competent (i.e., less inclusive, less engaged in LGBTQ activism). In this article, we make progress in new empirical territory (sexual orientation-based cues research), propose the notion of linguistic heterosexism, and discuss the sociopolitical implications of people’s language choices.