Saturday, June 17, 2006

Out of the mouths of babes...

This news story struck me this week

I know many people who use the word "gay" as an insult - many of whom aren't opposed to homosexuality per se. Our use of language betrays us as a society. Where its acceptable to use the word "gay" as an insult, whatever tidy niceness we say on the outside about being open minded and not having a "problem with it" rings shallow.

Its not acceptable to call something "black" as an insult or "Muslim" or "Asian" - and quite rightly so.

Change language, change attitudes.


Helen Louise said...

Y'know, I've never thought of "sissy" or "mothers' meeting" as homophobic insults...

But I think you're right. "Gay" as an insult really annoys me, especially as the first people I heard using it were Christians. Somehow it's ok to say something is "gay" but not that it's "shit"??

It's a bit tricky because I've always seen "mother's meeting" as insulting to mothers (ie. gossiping) and "sissy" just means "coward. In fact I use the term "bastard" as an affectionate insult despite the fact that by its original meaning, I'm the bastard! Similarly people will say "lame" to meaning something is boring or ineffectual and generally forget that it originally meant "physically disabled". In fact, I think if you told someone with a wheelchair "lame" they'd probably assume you were insulting their opinions rather than their disability...

The trouble is, everyone knows what "gay" means, whereas no one really cares whether your parents were married when you were born.

ash said...

I must jump to the defense of Moyles and others here. I think it is causing a flap about things like this which does far more damage in the long run, than a few linguistic anomalies.

My PE teacher once told me 'you throw like a German grenades-man' and I never for a moment thought he was suggesting I was a nazi-istic fascist, although he was definately mocking my inability to throw a cricket ball (and i'm now better at it).

I don't think it is a huge deal that a few kids are saying 'oh that's so gay!' i've said 'oh you're SO gay!' to my gay friends on occasions too, and it has never been meant, or taken, as an insult.

I know when I was in the habit of saying 'gay' a lot, it came from an episode of The Simpsons, where Mr. Burns says 'so, what're you up to tonight, Smithers? Something gay no doubt?' Smithers blushes, because he is gay, and has a crush on his boss. However, Mr. Burns is stupidly old (like 120) and intends the meaning to be 'jolly'.

Now, I've said before I shall not use this word again in this manner if it is causing people offense. But I think it is utterly sad that people bother to get upset about something so inoccuous.

Everything comes down to context. I have called someone I know who is gay a 'fag' in the past, and, in the context and in that situation, he knew I was joking, and found it hillarious (before ripping me back!). Of course, there are many ways in which calling someone a 'fag' could be a very malicious insult.

The principle argument in the BBC argument was that using 'gay' as an insult meant that children found it harder to accept homosexuality when they are older. I think that is only the case if we make a big deal about how bad it is to use the word (because they draws attention to it) and if we refer to peolpe as 'gay' when we're teaching about it, which is not the correct word anyway.

Contemplative Activist said...

I beg to differ.

Ash, if you heard children use the word "black" to describe something as naff, you would probably talk to them about it. (At least, I hope so).

I'm really disturbed at our society's current use of the word "gay" - particularly when many young gay people may be put off talking about their sexuality.

It may not mean the speaker is homophobic - I'm not saying that at all. Indeed, most people who use the word "gay" in that way are more careless than bigotted.

But, its about our society. Does it not bother you that its ok to call something they don't like "gay"?

I think its quite different from calling gay people directly by derogatory terms - which, can have two meanings. Either insult, or intimacy. I mean black people call each other niggers when they are very close friends - if I walked up to a black person in the street and said, "Yo nigger", I'd probably get a punch! On the flip side, I've called gay female friends dykes - but in context, when we were describing how they couldn't stand to wear high heels...and I'd said, "Face it, we're all just big dykes at heart."

However, there is a disturbing trend for the word "gay" to be used carelessly & thoughtlessly. I think it betrays latent prejudices within our society towards gay people.

I mean if people went around and said, "Oh look, bird shit on the ground, how Anglican is that" - you wouldn't think that society thought much about your religion would you?


ash said...

a) most people i know who were are gay didn't realise this as children, they realised somewhere from their teens onwards. So if we're talking about children (and, being a youthworker, I consider children to be under 11), I don't think it is an issue that it might offend any children who are shy about their sexuality.

b) you say you aren't calling people who use this term 'homophobic' but then you say 'it betrays latent prejudices within our society' which is essentially to say 'you're all sub-consciously homophobic'.

I think it is more damaging to make a big hoo-ha about the issue than to ignore it and let it die down. I remember loads of stupid words I used as a kid and the average fashionable life-span was 6-9months before something else comes along. By making a big deal about how bad it is, we're encouraging children to use it all the more: children and young people are not that rational, and their response to being told something is 'bad' is to go and do it more.

Further, I argue that 'gay' isn't the right word anyway, and has several meanings.

I wouldn't get that bothered about someone using Anglican in that way: indeed, look up 'Parochial' in a thesaurus, and see if you think I mind being on the 'Parochial Church Council'!

and I am, as I've said before, a bastard.

MadPriest said...

Although I'm relatively straight, for much of my time I inhabit gay culture, and have done all my life. I sometimes use the terms, in question, within this culture as they are owned by the culture. I will direct them at gay and straight as long as they are part of the gay culture. For example, I may tell a priest not to throw a "hissy fit" about something or to stop being such a queen, or a right bitch. But notice, gay insults are usually misogynistic, because many gays are. Hence, the communal "hissy fit" gay priests threw over women being ordained to the priesthood.

That's the trouble with insults - they're so insulting.

Peterson Toscano said...

"That's so gay" sounds inappropriate and destructive to me because basically it equates gay with bad, stupid, undesireable.

For those of us who grow up gay, messages like this, built up over time, along with other negative from society's leaders, ( as well its followers), that can cause us to question our worth as gay people and as people. We can think that gay is bad, so I must be bad.

Growing up everyone was called a "faggot" as the worst insult (and it still in US schools). As a faggot this reinforce the false idea that I was a worthless piece of shit.

Perhaps some gay people (particularly adults) don't feel the full effects of these words, but plenty of us have and still do.

Contemplative Activist said...

Thanks Peterson, you put it better than I could have.


Clarie said...

Heya, just popping by to say hi, browse your site, and wonder if I'm the reader you mentioned a while back from UKC. My names Claire Morton, I did applied psych with clin psych 1997-2001 and went to CU (a tiny bit) and City Church whilst in Canters - which all adds up to the fact that I feel I should know you but I have no idea who you are! anyways, be nice to hear from you (I understand about keeping the blog anonymous) but you can email me at c.m.f.morton at gmail.


Contemplative Activist said...

Oh goodness, Claire, I thought you knew who I was :D. Gosh, I've well and truly anonymised by blog - I'll email you ;D


david said...

As a person growing up with a physical disability I can still remember how it felt being called "cripple" on the school yard. And then later -- faggot and fairy -- not because I was (I'm hetero) -- but because of my gait due to the disability and my inability to compete athletically.

Later I appropriated the word cripple as a self-descriptor. A defense mechanism I suppose -- but no different from gay appropriation of their various euphemisms and insults.

I also remember when classes for mentally retarded got renamed because kids were using "retard" as a swear word -- and I remember hearing "special" used as an insult on the playground shortly afterwards.

As an adult I tried to explain to another adult that using "retard" as an insult was as offensive to some disabled people as "nigger" is to blacks. I was told I was a racist because I said the "n" word.

Labelling is a complex social phenomenon. We tend to use it just before we prepare to kill people or their kinfolk -- like calling a terrorist a "coward" and then dropping bombs on the Iraq.

I wish we could stop doing it in jest or otehrwise. But I have serious doubts about any enterprise that takes certain insult labels and makes them unspeakable and leaves the practice as such intact.

Contemplative Activist said...

I like to take a social-constructivist approach with language, seeing it as a means whereby we as a society and a culture create our own reality.

I wouldn't want to ban any use of language (Challenge, yes, but ban, no). If we take a step back we can see how the language we use and have used in the past has reflected and constructed the prevaling attitudes within our culture.

I also like to think, that by changing our use of language, we can change its meaning and ultimately challenge and transform the prevailing beliefs and attitudes within a culture.

Like how oppressed peoples have taken language used to insult and oppress and used it in empowering ways to challenge oppression.

Nowadays, the very idea of calling someone or something black as an insult would be considered racist and unacceptable - not because it is forbidden, but because our society's attitudes have changed.

I hope the same can be said of this way of using the word "gay". "Gay" has been such an empowering word for LGBT people - what a tragedy if our society robs them of it.

I don't think it should be banned - but if I hear it used, I have and will challenge those using it. Its not my only soap box - I feel just the same about the use of words referring to mental health conditions (psycho, schizo) as insults or to describe out of control, dangerous or criminal behaviour either.

Particularly with children, I think we can tell them why its not a nice thing to say, and not allow this use of the word gay to influence the development of their attitudes towards gay people.

But you are right - it is not enough to change our language, we must change our attitudes and the way we behave towards people - I can't help but wonder if changing language can be a step along the way.