March 19, 2008
The de-gaying of 'gay'
Posted by: Chris
Me thinks the bullies of the world are protesting too much when they claim the word "gay" has been transformed into an innocuous insult that means "lame" or "stupid." On its face, it doesn't excuse using a word that describes a group of people as an insult. Would it be OK to use the names of other groups that way?: "That shirt is so Jewish!"
A new survey of schoolteachers in the U.K. confirms that "gay" is only one in a series of homophobic words that top the list of student insults. Here's the list of insults, according to the British Association of Teachers and Lecturers; the percentages indicate what proportion of teachers heard the particular word on a regular basis:
- Gay (83%)
- Bitch (59%)
- Slag (45%)
- Poof (29%)
- Batty boy (29%)
- Slut (26%)
- Queer (26%)
- Lezzie (24.8%)
- Homo (22%)
- Faggot (11%)
- Sissy (5%)
Of the top 11 insults, eight words (including Brit slang like poof and batty boy) are explicitly homophobic, and three words (bitch, slag and slut) suggest promiscuity and are usually used against girls.
And yet somehow the adult "experts" are buying into the claim by kids that gay has been 'de-gayed' and isn't anti-gay when hurled as an insult:
One reason for this increase in use could be because "gay" has partly lost its sexual connotations among young people, says slang lexicographer Tony Thorne. While still pejorative, for the majority of youngsters it has replaced words such as "lame".
"I have interviewed scores of school kids about this and they are always emphatic that it has nothing at all to do with hostility to homosexuals," says Mr Thorne, compiler of the Dictionary of Contemporary Slang. "It is nearly always used in contexts where sexual orientation and sexuality are completely irrelevant."
Whether or not the teens who use "gay" intend it to be homophobic, it's place at the top of a list of other popular insults -- almost all explicitly anti-gay -- suggests otherwise. So does the history of how it became an insult:
"In the early 19th Century it was used to refer to women who lived off immoral earnings," says Clive Upton, professor of Modern English Language at Leeds University. Around the 1970s it was claimed by the homosexual community as a descriptive term for their sexual orientation, now its most popular meaning. By the 1980s it was finding its way into schools as a playground insult.
"Every generation grows up with a whole lexicon of homosexual insults, in my day it was 'poofter' or 'bender'," adds Thorne. "They were used much more because they were considered more offensive than 'gay', which is more neutral."
I've noticed how the use of "gay" as an insult has come out of the playground and crept into pop culture, including films and TV shows. I hope our friends at Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, who've done a bang-up job the last several years consigning "fag" to the dustbin of unacceptable slurs, can reclaim the word gay from being further cheapened as an insult that is somehow not homophobic.
(Photo of bullying via BBC)
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