Wednesday, December 1, 2010

That's Lame. And Also Retarded. Oh, and Gay.

Homo Superior linked to this article about a week ago, but I wasn't paying attention at the time. I won't blame the writer for the title -- "Is It OK to Say 'Gay'?" -- but it does the miss the point. Of course it's okay to say "gay" if you're using it neutrally to refer to us homosexuals, as in "the gay movement." It's not okay to use it as an insult, except of course when I do it.

The article itself provides a nice biography of the word 'gay', though the author stumbles when he says "The original sense of 'gay' was entirely positive." It still is; only homophobes really disagree.
The earliest OED examples of “gay” meaning homosexual are from 1941. This example from that year shows just how in-flux (and covert) the meaning was: “Supposing one met a stranger on a train from Boston to New York and wanted to find out whether he was ‘wise’ or even homosexual. One might ask: ‘Are there any gay spots in Boston?’ And by a slight accent put on the word ‘gay’ the stranger, if wise, would understand that homosexual resorts were meant.”
This meaning, or rather use, was still around when I made my debut in gay society in 1971. "Gay" was in transition from a code word for insiders to a public word. ("Family" later took its place.) Which is why:
Meanwhile, examples of “gay” meaning “lame” don't turn up until the 1970s. The first known use is from 1978: “‘It looks terrific on you.’ ‘It looks gay.’” This takes us back to the Vince Vaughan lines. Let’s take another look at them: “Ladies and gentleman, electric cars...are gay. I mean, not homosexual gay, but, you know, my-parents-are-chaperoning-the-dance gay.”
The most useful thing about this, as far as I'm concerned, is that the first recorded use of derogatory "gay" is from 1978 (though I'm not sure that the example the writer gives really is the same as "That's so gay"). I hadn't known that before. It means that as almost as soon as "gay" became a public word, used by heterosexual media as well as gay activists, it became a pejorative term used by homophobes.

Referring to the controversy over a line given to actor Vince Vaughan in Ron Howard's latest film, the writer says:
I have mixed feeling about this. On the one hand, it’s 100 percent understandable why GLAAD is a little sensitive to anything that sounds like gay-bashing. If I could, I would personally bash gay-bashers with a nuclear bomb. On the other hand, I don’t think the lines deserve much, if any, criticism. Though this has been widely referred to as a “gay joke,” I don’t see any joke at all. It's just an observation with an unfortunate connotation that the screenwriters went out of their way to make clear wasn’t intended. Isn’t Vaughn’s clarification—“not homosexual gay, but, you know, my-parents-are-chaperoning-the-dance gay”—equivalent to the famous Seinfeld “Not that there’s anything wrong with that”? So what’s wrong with that?
I think this writer is missing the point. (Interesting for someone who bills himself a "language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist": he seems deficient in all three areas.) To homophobes, by which I mean not only raving bigots but ordinary people who would like to be liberal and tolerant but are still deeply uneasy about the idea of homosexuality, calling something "gay" or "faggoty" is a joke. The writer's inability to see a joke in Vaughan's line indicates a tin ear for language and its uses. And Vaughan's "clarification" just compounds the offense. It's not a major offense, mind you, not like saying "All fags must die," but it's still an offense. The proper response, to my mind, is not to start foaming at the mouth, but to use one of Miss Manners's repertoire of methods for reacting to unfunny, offensive remarks. Raising one's eyebrow and looking down one's nose at the offender with magnificent disdain. Saying, "And you think that's funny?" Whoever wrote that line for Vaughan isn't evil, just stupid.

The writer, unable to quit while he's behind, digs himself in deeper:
I also have trouble seeing what the “lame” sense of “gay” has to do with homosexuality. Does anyone in the world think gay folks are lame? As I understand the homophobic viewpoint, gay people are considered sinners and evil-doers—a lot worse than lame, right?
Let me see if I can spell it out in words simple enough for this guy to understand. What do electric cars have to do with homosexuality? What does "my-parents-are-chaperoning-the-dance" have to do with homosexuality? It's not gay people who created this connection; it's mainstream, mostly male, America. As soon as "gay" became an official, mainstream word for homosexuals, mainstream male America promptly adopted it as a putdown. "Does anyone in the world think gay folks are lame?" Why, yes, if you're using "lame" as a schoolyard pejorative. To conformist fourth and fifth grade boys and the adults many of them become, the kid who doesn't fit in -- especially where gender is concerned -- is a sinner and an evildoer.
The dislike of “gay” is an awful lot like the dislike of “retard”—both words, when used insultingly, are hated for reasons that are very compassionate. But language is an amoral beast that operates and evolves on its own, and “retard” is just one of many terms for someone of low intelligence—like “idiot” and “moron”—that moved from medicine to slang. You can’t stop language change, and I think that’s OK. It’s more important to take care of people who are retarded than to police every use of the word “retard”—even when it’s used by morons.
Well, no. "Language" may be "an amoral beast that operates and evolves on its own," but the people who use language are not. And the same people who defend the use of pejorative "gay" or even "faggot" in this way have their own language bugbears that will inspire them to outrage. As the title of this blog indicates, I don't mean to "police every use" of words like "retard" and "gay" either. But people do need to take responsibility for their use of language. And while kids are to some extent exempt from that responsibility as they are from other responsibilities, their own policing of each other's gender performance all too often goes beyond mere words and into real violence. The use of gender pejoratives by kids should put adults on the alert. The use of such words by adults deserves less forgiving scrutiny. Sorry, straight boys, you can use words like pejorative "gay," but you don't get to be respected as decent human beings when you do.