The “G” Word

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.

 

 

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Australia’s Values

And so we arrive at another Australia Day, a national holiday affixed with such contrasting emotions as to be one of the more confounding days on the calendar. Coincidentally, my last post on this blog was exactly a year ago, where I lamented the history attributed to this day. (2013 was a very busy year for me, but I feel this is a good day to recommit to my writing here.) However, with this post I would like to look at something different. 

During the past 12 months I took a sociology class at a university that is perhaps best known for its prestige and tendency to produce pretentious wannabe academics. In the midst of some disappointing conversations on social issues, the idea was tossed up by the lecturer that the quest to name cultural values, and the pride that a nation can have in them, is misguided and exclusive. Inevitably, she said, cultural values would leave people out and draw a line between those considered “Australian”, and “non-Australian”.  She stopped just short of saying that it is wrong to have cultural values in Australia.

I find this a strange notion. I wished I had voiced my disagreement, but maybe I was too flummoxed and challenged by the idea to speak my mind. I guess now I have had a chance to reflect. 

The first point I would like to make, is that I understand the argument. Proscriptive cultural values have the potential to exclude, especially when they are founded on narrow interpretations of how a life should be lived. Think societies based around religious dogma – such as in Iran – or those that embrace definitive personifications of nationalism, such as with our own “Aussie Battler”, a white Australian (usually male), who toils with their hands, remains stoic, and takes pride in the sacrifices they make. In Australia, such proscriptive images impact mostly on our Indigenous population, as well as our vast culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

But the exclusivity of these cultural values aren’t inherent to the concept of having cultural values. They have merely been poorly chosen and reflect a racially narrow tribal mentality of national belonging.

The second issue I have is that our laws reflect our values, and lay them out for all to see. Sociologists are eternally fearful of saying or believing anything which could remotely be construed as ethnocentric, but even a cursory look at our laws reveals that we are not as accommodating of others’ cultures as we think. Whilst the arranged marriage of young girls to older men is something that is practiced in several cultures around the world, in Australia, we have a law against the practice. This is because we value a child’s right to a childhood, as well as their agency in choosing their own partners at an age when they are able to make the decision for themselves.  

Similarly, Australia upholds the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in relation to a children’s right to an education. Our law states that young people must be engaged in some form of education until the age of 15 or 17, depending on the state. Even though some cultures around the world do not support this right – at least not as an often enforced and focused upon facet of their society – this is compulsory in Australia irrespective of the culture a child citizen has originally come from. It is compulsory because we value education and a child’s access to it.

Finally, I believe that many people who come to this country as new Australians, do so because of our values, not despite them. To claim that we shouldn’t be proud of these values may come as a shock to those who have immigrated here to enjoy the freedoms we have, the equality we (attempt to) realise, and the agency we value. If not for our cultural values, then why did more than a quarter of our population (at the 2011 Census) leave their country of birth to live here? 

The French have liberty, fraternity, equality. In America they appear to value freedom and bravery. But in Australia, we seem to have head-in-the-sand boganism, and a progressive intelligentsia that derides this, while championing a post-modernist sense of ambiguity. I feel we are missing out. 

I don’t want Australia to have values that exclude large swathes of people from feeling like they are an Australian. But I do want some national values to be proud of. They can also have the effect of binding those of us from disparate cultures with a shared journey. Ultimately, I read once – in a Sam de Brito column of all places – the words of John Raulston Saul: “alienation at its most essential level is not poverty or unemployment. It is the inability to imagine your society and therefore to imagine yourself in it.” What makes us all Australian if not for a shared vision of what it means to be an Australian?

I really wished I had put up my hand in that sociology class…

 And that’s what I think about that. Thanks for reading.

The Subjectivity of Shaming

“There are three types of truth: your truth, my truth, and the truth.”

(Apologies for the large number of questions I pose in this piece.)

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From Nice Guys of OKCupid

Ever since I read Clementine Ford’s piece on The Daily Life (cracking start to the year by the way) I’ve been pondering on this shaming business. For those of you who are into the whole brevity thing, the skinny of the piece is that it is a brief exploration of the Nice Guys of OKCupid tumblr that has recently been put out to pasture. She does a really good job of personifying these Nice Guys (as opposed to some commentators who like to view offensive men not as actually human beings with thoughts and emotions, but rather more akin to single-celled gametes blindly trying to bump uglies in a petrie dish), and it was that that especially got me thinking. Continue reading

The Porn Portfolio #1: Attempting to debunk some myths

This is the first of what will be a regular series relating to online pornography. This year I am undertaking my honours year in sociology and I have decided to look at the effects online pornography has on the attitudes and beliefs that young men have towards women and sex. Because of this I have decided to use this blog as a way to organise and consolidate my ideas.

To begin with, I want to address a couple of porn myths (at the least, they are myths to me) that I have been hearing a bit lately. Before I do so, I want to make a couple of things clear: I am not anti-porn. I am not against the visual representation of sex, nor its mass production or consumption. People have a right to film themselves or film others and sell this content onto the public. More power to them. What I am though, is anti-degradation and anti-violence. The porn I am examining and I speak of in this and future pieces, is a particular brand of pornography that is rampant online. It might feature body-punishing acts, offensive name calling, and lots of fluids going where they shouldn’t if you had even the tiniest modicum of respect for the other person. It is degrading, disgusting, offensive, often extreme and not merely confined to the dark recesses of Webville. Indeed, of the six porn websites that feature in the Top 100 visited sites, all of them are rife with videos of this kind. And I’m not okay with it.

Anyhoo, onto two myths (although I’m sure there will be lots more debunking to come over the next 12 months). Continue reading

Gender stereotyping in an Australian advertising campaign

I have been wanting to vent on this for some time and a prompt from slendermeans has given me the excuse I needed. (It’s a really good blog and I suggest you all get over and check it out.) Gendered advertising has always kind of irked me, even when I didn’t really understand what those irksome feelings were all about. But once you are switched onto it, the amount of advertising that attempts to wrap us up into nice, warm little binary-gendered nuggets is extremely frustrating.

I call all your attentions to a K-Mart TV advertising campaign that was launched earlier this year in Australia. I’ve made things easy for you to understand the context of this post, simply by clicking here and here. You’re welcome. Now I’ll just grab a beer while you have a look.

The perceptive of you may have noticed that the commercials are a little dominated by women shoppers. And by “a little”, I mean “fucking totally”. These two ads are completely representative of the whole campaign, where 95% of those depicted as patrons of K-Mart are women. As you can see from the second video, this is even true when the products being marketed are intended for use by men. I mean, they’re men’s t-shirts! We can buy our own fucking t-shirts, thank-you very much, and we don’t need to be fed the bullshit that it’s up to the women in our lives to dress us up in our big-boy pants. I find the ads stupid and offensive both as a man, and as someone who supports feminism and gender equality. Continue reading

What’s in a word?

I was listening to a years-old Big Ideas the other day, featuring Sheila Jeffreys, radical feminist, professor, and author, and Robbie Swan, founder of the Eros Association, officer of the political Australian Sex Party, and pornography producer.

Predictably, the debate was quite robust. Robust in an intelligent way, not the “robust” debates of parliament that George Brandis speaks so fondly of – grown adults, who are presumably smart, guffawing and carrying on like pork-chops. This was a good debate, both sides presenting some good arguments – as well as a healthy amount of bullshit – while remaining largely civil with each other. I had only heard about Jeffreys from reputation – which isn’t the best – and have yet to read any of her work, so I was pleasantly surprised to hear she wasn’t the misandrist radical that she has been made out to be. At any rate, I will find out next year when I take Sexual Politics at Melbourne Uni, a unit she has presided over for as long as I’ve been hearing her name.

All of this is a rather long and digressive way of getting to the fact that during the debate, Jeffreys mentioned the (well-worn) fact that the word “pornography” comes from the Greek meaning “writing about prostitutes”. (Except, to be accurate, what she actually said was that it meant “writing about whores”, which I think was her way of surreptitiously making everything seem that little bit more negative.)

I had read this before, but thought little of the fact. Etymology interests me in so far that it maps the incredible evolution that language takes. But I don’t feel like there needs to be any great connection between a word’s origin and its common usage today, nor how that word is understood and interpreted by those who utter it. Continue reading