Sunday, 27 January 2013

'Gay' as a pejorative term

My housemate Harriet asked me for a quick chat about the word 'gay' and its negative connotations in case it would spark any interesting ideas that she could think about to help write her essay. Instead I dashed off this quick (not really, took far too long) and unedited (yeah, couldn't be bothered to spruce it up for you guys) thing. Although half-regurgitated from a quick google it's nice to get something like this out, written, and on the internet.


Discussing terminology as concretely offensive or not can be difficult because of the multitude of readings you can make. The word ‘gay’, though, was first adopted by the homosexual community as a positive description, with the immediate response of the general population beginning to use a historically positive word as a pejorative. Whilst I obviously don’t believe that everybody that uses the term has a hurtful implication in mind but considering the origins of its popular usage I find homophobic connotations pretty much inescapable. The same has happened, to a lesser extent, with special needs and the term ‘special’ as a means of questioning someone’s intellectual capacity. Another example on the same tangent is the charity Scope – which used to be called The Spastic Society but had to rebrand after ‘spastic’ became an abusive term.  More recently there’s been an inverted version, where a negative word has been subject to an attempt at using it positively: the word ‘nigger’ has been re-emerging in the public consciousness, with teens describing their friends as their nigz, niggahs, etc. It’s not reclaiming the word – it’s an insult to bring something with massive overtones of centuries of oppression into such a mundane context. When something is so loaded, it can’t be anything but an insult when rich white girls who listen to Odd Future decide that it’s a funny idea to use it. There’s a clear lack of respect and obvious attempt at getting a rise from someone. It’s the snatching, as opposed to forming, of an identity and the use of both ‘gay’ as an insult or ‘nigger’ as a banality by privileged (or the majority of the) people who are ignorant to context or just plain sadistic does little but to demean those it means something to. I find it hard to understand why people persist with terms if they can emote (however hard that can be) even more a moment with a homosexual teenager growing up as a ‘gay’ person alongside the connotation that this is synonymous with being second class or pathetic.

A way in which people commonly get confused with why ‘gay’ is offensive is to assume that the issue is one of political correctness. I’m not going to attempt to tackle that entire issue here (Stewart Lee dissects it brilliantly here and here - / ) but the implication that it is really gets my goat. If we allow it to be an issue exclusively based on ‘pc’ or not ‘pc’ terminology we ignore the pretty important issue that is genuinely homophobic bullying in schools that’s practically ignored because of teachers dismissing it as banter or presuming that ‘gay’ is being used in a ‘harmless’ way. Race is, rightly, dealt with in an incredibly serious way. Homophobic bullying should be, too.

One reason I think the word ‘gay’ (I have got to stop bothering with these inverted commas, right?) is so commonly used in a negative way is that people have the illusion of it as, at worst, a mild insult. “It couldn’t hurt anyone”, “(s)he knows the score” and so on. Yes, it can be to some, but sexual orientation is invisible. Homosexuality is not something that someone can see (as opposed to, say, your race). This means it can’t be challenged – there is no way of conclusively demonstrating that you are heterosexual. The lack of any effective recourse is what makes homophobic insults so effective as a bullying tactic.

At school, in our formative years, the currency of kids' conversation is often mean - and that's part of the rough and tumble of their lives. Children relish in the use of unacceptable terminology and yet homophobic insults’ potency lies in the fact that they strike in a necessarily personal place, one that may or may not have been come to terms with. Donald Christie: "If there's an area of life that children themselves feel insecure about they're aware of their own vulnerability. The whole point of bullying is about identifying and accentuating weakness in others." What can be poked gently just to get a reaction can accidentally touch a tender area and, once that line is breached, can spill into genuine harassment. People like to bully.

Helen Cowie: "It's a form of peer group control, boys have to be masculine and macho and anyone who isn't must go along with it or face being bullied. It's a form of bullying that domineering people seek out vulnerable people and school age is a time of emergent sexuality which is itself a vulnerable time."

For me, one of my most annoying aspects about the culture is when it becomes ‘gay’ to point out that ‘gay’ isn’t bad. The idea that the word no longer refers to sexuality is a ridiculous attempt at justifying anti-gay sentiment. The standard response to even mild trepidation or vocalised concerns about someone saying “that’s so gay” is that you’ll be laughed at. And then told how gay you are. I would not expect an honest, apologetic response: any concerns seem to do little but to further identify you as a target. If a person is genuinely offended and considering raising concern then they put themselves at risk at increasingly vitriolic insults.

That’s my argument for why it’s offensive, anyway. But whilst, as a straight guy without a large number of gay friends, I might not be able to claim any real right to be offended, the reason why it really irks me is that I am embarrassed by it. It is so outdated and the fact that so many of my friends use it sullies how I think of them. The idea that people my age would still use it as an acceptable insult or pejorative just seems ridiculous, almost mind-boggling. I know that, for much of this little thing, I’ve spoken about ‘gay’ as an insult more than a casually negative term but I find it hard to separate them. The recurring negative uses of the word are symptomatic of a mind stuck in a childish schoolyard throwback, a state that I strive to remove myself from. And although many have been raised on it, negative uses of ‘gay’ sincerely make me question those that I like. Dismiss my attitude as baseless liberal guilt if you will, but don’t presume lack of offence in your generalised insults.


All of my quotes, some of the stuff I’ve rephrased but naughtily not credited, and half of my research comes from this article. Seriously, don’t hate me, so much is lifted from it, I know it’s shameful:   //   I also used this: 

Further, completely unrelated reading but worthy of a month’s blogging (paywall, but...):

Thursday, 10 January 2013



PRIMARILY, this year I aim to make an effort. Even writing this, I know I’m in a pretty resigned mindset and doubt I’ll achieve these. I think it’s okay, I don’t need to get everything done, but neither can I sit and wallow. I’m only writing this because I have an unstarted essay due and I’m the world’s worst procrastinator. Why should I wait till publishing these to do something? You can do things without resolving that you will in print beforehand to scare yourself for fear of being reproached. Seize the day! I don’t need Ms Lindsay to push me!

Since the start of this academic year, I’ve lived in term time in a small Essex town/large Essex village called Wivenhoe. It’s lovely – semi-famed for its artistic community, full of pubs, really close to uni and has a nice bookshop and antique shop. And yet the only places I’ve been inside are my house, the train station, One Stop, Co-Op, my hairdressers’ and the chip shop. This is a ridiculous state of affairs and I am determined this term to have a snoop around and maybe even become involved in the community – my favourite performance poet, Luke Wright, is doing a gig above a pub this month and I’ve already recruited a couple of friends to accompany me. To aid my exploration of my community I’ve decided to bring back an old favourite. Who remembers my walking blog? Well I miss it and it’s a feature that’ll be easy enough to schedule, good fun and probably good exercise. As a sucker for alliteration, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to write a blog about walking in Wivenhoe, with the lovely benefits of being able to stretch my legs and get some fresh air. I’ve started a new blog just for those updates that hasn’t really been set up yet but you can find HERE. Do us a favour and bookmark it now, yeah?
Keeping exploring local is nice but I’d also like to commit to splurging a load of cash I don’t have on seeing a couple of friends at their universities (and, in doing so, completely justify it to myself when booking). I must go and visit Plymouth to see Al (and hopefully Bee), maybe a trip to Manchester for a couple of pals up there. I've got to see Laura sometime soon too, given she’s not exactly hard to get to. PREPARE YOURSELVES LADIES. Inevitable time spent getting to places on the train (to Plymouth takes 5 hours from Letchworth or something stupid) leaves me plenty of opportunity to explore beyond the boundaries of reality, too, and get my nose stuck deep into a big old book. I love but find it hard to find the time/bother to get any serious reading done so I’m looking forward to this one.

As the shameless king of procrastination – my apathy and vague narcissism really do know no bounds – I have got to get stuck into my work this year. I did so to an extent at the start of the academic year and remembered how much I liked my course and why I’d chosen it in the first place. I’m confident that this will hold true this term and serve only as an incentive. I’m penniless so being able to get a job – maybe exploring Wivenhoe will help me find something – can’t be absent from my list of priorities (and the structure that comes with working will hopefully allow me to slip into working for myself too).I’d like to blog again, even if it is only about my walking, though shan’t be as naive this time and promise much more than I can give. I miss doing a photo (however bad it was) a day, so might see if I can take that up for a while, maybe for a probationary period. Perhaps a second of video a day, a la this dude? Somebody remind me about it though, because there’s no point saying you’ll do something and then putting it off. Look – my new attitude shining through! And one I nicked from Cathy. Thanks, C.
As you may well be aware, my essays are almost exclusively written in the period from 7pm-10am so to hurriedly apply at the deadline, by which time I’m more tired than the look behind David Cameron’s glazed eyes. Needless to say this rules out most planning and pretty much all editing. I MUST begin to do these things if anything I ever do is going to be good. Was it Ernest Hemingway who said that “the first draft of anything is shit”? Whoever it was knows a lot more than I do.
I never write anything for myself, barely even jot down ideas anymore. I must write. One paragraph every two days minimum, with exception of essay days. Setting myself tasks seems all well and good now, before I do it, and though it makes little sense I take this as but incentive to further remove my ambitions from the accomplishable. By the end of summer I must have written: one whole song and one play of any length(as well as the short one for coursework); by the end of the year one page-long poem and two short stories.

This is something I’ve been quite good at when at home, but not at uni: spending time with people I feel good to be with. I don’t want to have to continue to waste my days hung over, drunk or bored out of my tiny mind with people I do like but don’t find consistently enjoyable. I guess I mean do more fun things than go to a club bored. It would be nice to share a day or evening hanging out with someone. Maybe even sober! Musts: meet Laura. Meet Bee. See Zoe more. Hang out with the fun people from uni, not just mates. When home try and meet up with people I haven’t seen since before uni despite promising we would see each other.

I’ve noticed since my break-up just before the turn of the year that I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time tweeting. I don’t know whether this is just because it coincides with a deadline but I’ve really got to spare myself some real world time. Everything is going to seem more fun, right? Hopefully it will help with productivity in any case.

Simple, this. Stop making massive 3-4 person portions and then eating it all because I can’t be bothered to make the tiny bit of effort to store it away; or learn how  to judge the size of my appetite more accurately. With regards to shopping, buy regularly, sensibly, healthily and with an undefined but implied budget. The effects of my new attitudes towards feeding myself will hopefully be twofold: eating less at more sensible times (I’m putting on a bit of weight, me. The walking blog thing should help) and stop myself digging into my overdraft to attack campus shop sandwiches (why do I always buy two again?). Convenience food is my downfall. I’m not going to commit to that much less pizza and garlic bread but it’d be good to cut down. By the end of the academic year I will have more than three stock recipes.
For the past two and a half years, I’ve been a vegetarian. I’m really happy and incredibly surprised (or would have been should you’d have told me at the start) that that is still the case. Mostly my concerns with meat are my personal health and the environmental impact of it, so I’ve to my shame never conformed to the anti-animal cruelty veggie stereotype. The other day, however, I stumbled upon a Wikipedia entry in which I learned the process employed for the mass-production of milk. I won’t fill in the gruesome details here, but if you care to know just wiki veganism. I’m concerned, though, about how my diet would adapt to the elimination of milk and if I would be able to sustain myself well enough without spending a ridiculous amount of money on special vegan produce. So, as a compromise, by the end of year I will have spent two weeks to one month without having milk in my diet. Is soya milk nice? I hope so.

MY main aims are therefore sensible self-discipline, but not exercising too much self-restraint. Try and sort out a vague schedule but not being afraid to let go of the reins when able. I want to enjoy my life and not distorting the world for myself – but still be able to stimulate it. A nice clear head and scope to enjoy myself. It sounds ridiculous but I’ve written this in pink – by accident, mainly – but it’s made a lovely change and actually feels really nice. Cynicism can only do so much for you. I might carry on with such an easy-going colour. There we go. I’ve started already!

Here’s to a happy and active year for all.


Captions I haven't bothered finding pictures for: "I’ll leave money, exercise and learning to drive for now." // "Clutter will NOT be an excuse to fail to write. Living downstairs in a house of loud students, though, is perhaps acceptable"