Why do people still think using ‘gay’ as a perjorative term is acceptable? Not in the sense of an explicitly, directly homophobic act, but as a word you can legitimately apply to any of life’s small annoyances; anything you don’t particularly like. Your laptop’s playing up – it’s being gay. Your director’s set doesn’t correspond with your aesthetic preferences? Gay. Your college first XV strip to the waist at the sweaty end of a college bop, then rub all over each other to the strains of ‘Free Nelson Mandela’/’Love Shack’ – sorry, no, that’s not gay. My mistake. It’s banter. But your lost keys, your spilt coffee, your bad essay, your tutor’s unreasonableness? They’re all gay. Really gay.
There are two answers to the question at the start of this essay: people think it’s acceptable to use ‘gay’ as a perjorative term, because they don’t think gay people are really, truly worthy of respect. Apparently, people think it’s acceptable to say ‘gay’ (sometimes interchangeably with ‘lame’, for added ignorance) because they don’t think it’s really, truly acceptable to be it.
Yes, using ‘gay’ as a catch-all is just a ‘lazy’ way of speaking, but it’s a laziness that says a lot about the speaker. If you are heterosexual and say ‘gay’ perjoratively in front of someone who’s LGBT or an ally, – acctually, scrub that. I think that even if you say ‘gay’ perjoratively behind the backs of someone who’s LGBT or ally, you’re an idiot who deserves to be treated as nothing other than the bigoted child you so obviously are. But onwards:
When you’re speaking in the hearing of someone queer, and you use ‘gay’ as a synonym for ‘rubbish’, you’re saying:
“I don’t think it’s worth my while to moderate my language out of deference to your feelings. I will not make the minimal effort to keep from saying hurtful things in front of you. I am not concerned with your comfort, or – crucially – your good opinion of me.”
I don’t care if that’s not what you think you’re saying: it’s what people hear. Because we can all moderate what we say and write when we think it’s in our best interests. We can all manage not to swear in front of our grandmothers or during job interviews. Even longer-term, we can bite our tongues to keep from hurting people’s feelings – we can smile and be pleasant to a friend’s partner we despise, or sit through a dull conversation on x topic when we want the speaker to like us. Even when we’re really relaxed – relaxed like you might be when you let a perjorative ‘gay’ roll off the tongue – it’s hopefully automatic for all civilised beings to say please and thank you. That’s obviously desirable. So why is it desirable to ‘automatically’ be a prejudiced idiot? Why the hell is it such a huge effort not to sound like a total bigot? And why isn’t it important to you, a straight person, that any gay person could be hurt by a word you really don’t need to use? Why aren’t that person’s feelings worth your while?
And yeah, I do know that some LGBT people use the word ‘gay’ perjoratively, and call it ‘ironic’. Which.. whatever. I find it distasteful. Any LGBT person who does that is just providing ten more idiots with an excuse for lazy, hurtful speech – ‘oh but my best friend is gay and he/she finds it hilarious!’. Great. 90% of the LGBT population won’t. But, I suppose that the LGBTers who do say ‘gay’ that way — it’s their word. Theirs to use, even if I see it as abusing it.
But it makes me horribly uncomfortable. I can’t believe I regularly hear this word being used as a perjorative in a university city meant to contain some of the brightest young people in the UK. Worse still – although mercifully not in the LLL company (which… would be ridic considering it’s not exactly straight or narrow overall) – thesps doing student drama think it’s okay to say! Students wanting a career in professional theatre! Young people aged 18-22 who actually expect to find fame and fortune in the theatrical profession while being homophobic! Except, oh, wait, they’ll probably manage to modify their speech, because then there’ll be something in it for them. Whoops.
Oxford is not a homophobic city – it’s an amazing place. There’s a thriving LGBTsoc, some good club nights, a generally relaxed atmosphere; and the vast majority of students are not homophobic.
Yet, for some reason, a significant minority of little gits are lazy and ignorant enough to speak as if they were.
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.