A survey has found that the wording used when asking the public about their views on gay rights makes a substantial difference to the answers.

A recent CBS News/New York Times poll asked 1,084 American adults their view on gays serving openly in the military.

It found that respondents were far more supportive when they were asked about “gay men and lesbians”, instead of “homosexuals”.

Seventy per cent of respondents were supportive of gay men and lesbians serving in the military but this dropped to 59 per cent when the word “homosexuals” was used.

When respondents were asked whether they believed gay men and lesbians should be allowed to be open about their sexuality, 58 per cent agreed but only 44 per cent agreed when they were asked about homosexuals.

The noun ‘homosexual’ is rejected by some because of its clinical connotations, which hark back to the days when gay people were viewed as mentally ill.

It is used most often by those who disagree with homosexuality and is sometimes modified to ‘homosexualists’ when discussing gay rights activists.

US newspapers The New York Times and The Washington Post restrict usage of the term ‘ homosexual’ and the Post’s style guide notes that it “can be seen as a slur”.

British newspapers generally accept ‘gay’ as a permissible alternative to ‘homosexual’. The Guardian counsels that ‘gay men’ should be used instead of ‘gays’, while the Daily Telegraph states that ‘homosexual’ is an adjective, not a noun.

In recent years, some style guides warned against the use of the term ‘practising homosexual’. This phrase has now disappeared from the majority of style guides, as it has presumably become almost obsolete in mainstream use.