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...):


  1. I agree, I find it incredibly embarrassing when people use it - there are so many other words that can be used to describe something other than lazily saying 'that's/you're so gay'. When people use it in front of me I just usually pick out the absurdity of what we're saying. I was walking with a friend to assembly and she said 'we're going to look so gay holding our planners'. I replied with something along the lines of 'Really? I don't think holding our planners could tell people if we are attracted to people of the same sex'. It's probably a pedantic way to get the point across, but I think as most people don't intend to be offensive, just pointing out how ridiculous they sound might make them think about how they use the word gay.

    1. Any way of getting the point across is more than valid, in my book. I've got no problem with constructive pedants! Thank you for the comment x


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