‘Gay’ as perjorative: in a shock twist of fate, people can be idiots.

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.

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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.

12 Comments Leave a comment

  1. 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.”
    Yes. This. Yes, basically, yes. If someone speaks like that around me, I assume they have no respect for me and mine, and treat them accordingly.

    Do you remember the Great Merton JCR Homophobia Imbroglio of 2007? Constant “that’s so gay”, homophobic jokes, limp-wristed impressions around the JCR –> an email (disclaimer: from Andy Godfrey, a guy I used to know a bit and who is one of the loveliest men in history) gently reminding people that actually, this isn’t hilarious for plenty of people who just want to play pool –> outrage from the poor, poor straight people about their CENSORSHIP and the queers’ INABILITY TO TAKE A JOKE. Also, god, I had forgotten how angry that Spiked article made me. (Un)fortunately I cannot find any of the student-paper coverage on the interwebs.


    • Oh dude, I’d forgotten about Merton – Merton, though! Such a civilised place! Some of my best friends are Mertonians! It’s amazing what outright shittery colleges can work up, though – remember the various pub crawl-related horrors of Wadham?

      I wish it didn’t always have to be the ‘militant queer’, though. I mean, on the occasions I have heard someone use ‘gay’ perjoratively and subsequently challenged them, I have usually been the only gay person in earshot – but I have never been the only listener. You know?

      It does at least warm my heart that any thesp using this word ‘ironically’ who ever makes it into professional theatre will be ripped to pieces on first use. HURRAH!


  2. Oh Wadham, the least leftie “leftie college” of all. Some days griping with Paulthedean and my lovely college parents about the Mythic Past in which Queer Bop was actually for queers, rather than straight boys dressed up in LOL CAMP fashion and ogling straight girls in bikinis*,

    * This is unfair in some ways. Some of them were queer. Some of them were queer and I didn’t know it! Some of them perhaps thought the same thing of me. (If I ever get round to The Great Post On My Bi Experience, presenting in many ways as straight unless I wear a shirt saying I LOVE CUNT is going to have at least three paragraphs) And some of them were deeply awesome straight people with deeply awesome costumes. But the day that there was queerbashing at Queer Bop was the day I mentally crawled into bed and pulled the covers over my head in many ways. Nothing but respect for the people who didn’t give up on the place and kept speaking out, more times than I did it.


    • Yeah, I know. I’ve been to several Queer Bops and hated them passionately each time – except the first, which was possibly the last gasp of greatness (oh god, how old I make myself sound). From an outsider’s perspective, Wadham is quite leftie in, for example, its Women’s Room etc etc, but the Queer Bop is horrific now.

      WOE, WOE AND THRICE. Told J the other day I’d never been to a gay club in London. Nobody should have the right to look at me with SO MUCH PITY, Laura. *hoar* *aged*


      • I didn’t realise you were at any after first year too! Though in both my second and third year, I, er, got too drunk beforehand and ended up falling asleep from ~10-midnight. I hope I am not the only person to have done that.

        I HAVEN’T EITHER. J is just horribly cooler than any of us. And this Pride will be my first, and I’m grappling with the etiquette of bringing one’s (straight) boyfriend…oh lord.


        • Not for v long! And this year of course – fourth year, ha.

          Oh, dude, get him to wear a ‘i’m not bisexual but my girlfriend is’ t shirt or daub some eyeliner on him or something if you want him to blend, otherwise you can be righteously This Is What A Bisexual Looks Like, asserting yr right to be wholeheartedly queer while he’s wholeheartedly straight. If go for latter look, don’t invite Seb. Or Jon. Or dress him in your clothes.


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