As a straight man, I don’t use the word “gay” lightly. To me, it refers to someone who is attracted to those of the same sex, and – perhaps more arcanely – those who are extremely joyful at the prospect. Although I would only say it in this last way while affecting a Victorian-era hifalutin accent.
It wasn’t always thus.
In my formative years “gay” and related words passed my lips in a disparaging way. I called other guys on the footy field “faggot” or “cocksucker” in an attempt to put them down; I claimed that my mates were “gay” for some perceived slight on their masculine contract; and I would have rather taken it “up the arse” than do something I didn’t want to do.
I didn’t really think much about what I was saying. It seemed normal, modern and par-for-the-course. Eventually I learned that what was I saying, the implications, the allusions I was conjuring, were offensive to people who identify as gay. And like many, this is something I learned from a gay person.
Something that is often argued in social debate, is that those who are unaffected by discriminatory speech, should not be self-appointed arbiters of what those that are should or should not find offensive. For the most part, I agree with this and live by it. (My reservations with this are minimal and do not impact on the way I interact. They are perhaps a topic for another piece.) If I hear from a gay person that using “gay” or associated words as pejoratives is offensive – as I did in this awesome video from the awesome Ash Beckham – then that’s good enough for me.
That could be the end of the story, and it’d be a lot easier if it were.
But like many things to do with social interaction, things are rarely that simple.
As some may know, I am a youth worker. In a former job I had, I was fortunate enough to start a social group for GLBTQI young people, the first of its kind in the regional city where I was living. The group met fortnightly to talk about issues that were relevant to them, and we even put on the inaugural Rainbow Fair Day, which still continues every year.
Mostly though, we just hung out. The service provided a safe space for the young people to come and be themselves, and it was my job to organise the nights so we were doing something fun and interesting. I would often put together a little program so we could look at specific issues and discuss them, and on one particular night, I wanted to look at homophobia.
While their stories of the prejudice they sometimes faced shocked me – one girl told me kids at school had thrown a chair at her – what probably shocked me more was the attitude they took toward the word “gay”.
Without exception, these young people told me that, to them, the word “gay” had two meanings: someone who is attracted to others of the same sex; and something or someone that is lame.
I protested. I asked them whether they thought it hurtful that a word used to describe a part of their identity was also used as an insult. This is what I had been told and what I had accepted.
Nah. They didn’t. They knew the difference between the sexuality-”gay” and the insult-”gay”, and accepted both in context. In fact, not only were they okay with hearing it, they used it a lot themselves. They told me that it was kind of like the word “shit”, which had for some time now been used to mean both something bad and good. They concluded by saying they thought the older generation worried too much about all this language stuff. It didn’t really bother them.
So, as a straight man, what am I supposed to think? From friends I have learnt using these words as pejoratives is not right. I accept that, and I wish I could personally apologise to all those I made feel less than, simply because I had a lack of empathy and a glut of ignorance.
Yet as a youth worker, I also believe that young people are just as entitled to their opinions and for these to be heard and heeded as everyone else is. I don’t accept the argument that because they’re young they don’t know what they’re talking about. Sure, their views on a range of issues and ideas will undoubtedly change and grow with experience, but I’ve been around long enough to know that age has no bearing on how ignorant or full o’ shit you are.
Moreover, I also accept and acknowledge that word meanings morph and fracture over time, and regardless of origin, can be widely understood in a variety of contexts. I remember being a young tike, and my teacher ridiculing our use of the word “radical”. She seemed to be rejecting its new meaning, and as a consequence, we felt that she was rejecting us. The older generation would be wise to not reject out of principle the ideas and views of the young.
Now I’m not arguing for the right to say that something bad is “gay”, or to call the guy who cuts me off in traffic a “faggot”. I’m not precious enough to feel that my right to say what I want somehow supersedes my responsibility to give a shit about how my words and actions may impact on others.
What I am saying is nothing is black and white. Some in the GLBTQI community admonish the use of “gay” as a derogation. Others simply don’t care. As I am not a member of the community, it is up to me to neither add to, nor adjudicate the debate. I think erring on the side of caution is always best, and I think that absolutely nothing is lost by a straight man refraining from using potentially homophobic slurs.
However, I take equal heed of the view that words matter, as I do that older people worry too much about language. Maybe the young people in the social group were just naive, and there is an absolute truth in Ash Beckham’s words. But then again, maybe for the young people, names don’t hurt nearly as much as sticks and stones do. What I do know for sure, is that the girl in the group would’ve preferred people project the word “gay” around as a pejorative throwaway, than throw a chair at her as a homophobic projectile.
I want to conclude this piece by saying that I wholeheartedly and unconditionally support organisations and movements such as FCKH8, It Gets Better, PFLAG, GLHV, and Open Doors. Homophobia is very real problem in our society, and young GLBTQI people are more likely than their straight peers to attempt suicide, abuse drugs and alcohol, and to engage in other risk taking behaviour. I believe there is a connection, and I worry and care deeply about that. If you’ve had time to read my piece, then please take the time to give those links a gander and support anti-homophobia.
And that’s what I think about that. Thanks for reading.