Last night my boyfriend and I were on a train coming back from a few drinks with a friend. At one stop, a group of younger people got on. They were in their twenties, I guess. They had been to some sort of concert and were wearing various items of band merchandise. I suppose 10 years ago we’d have said they were “emo” – nobody says that any more, do they?
There were four of them. One looked like an artist’s impression of Guido Fawkes, there were two more devastatingly ordinary boys and then a girl, who was very excitable and babbled about gigs she’d been to and made up loads of transparent lies about things that had happened to her at them. So far, so normal.
And then, in the middle of a really weird story about some metal band dipping their hands in ramekins filled with blood (no idea) she said “I know that sounds really gay, but…” and then continued. None of her acolytes batted an eyelid, but I, a middle-aged gay man staring into the abyss of our future hope, flinched and I felt ill and I couldn’t hear anything else they said because that word was ringing in my ears.
I thought we had done this. I thought it was over. Using “gay” as a pejorative term to mean something was inferior or unattractive, I had previously thought, was dying out. It enjoyed a brief power surge a few years ago but thanks to a largely appalled reaction, it had faded into obscurity. What a naive moron I felt.
Of course it hasn’t gone away – it’s just that nobody says it in front of me any more, because I am gay. Either anyone saying it wouldn’t want to offend me or, more likely, could do without the dreary lecture about the appropriation of words and the harm it can do. I can’t blame them, frankly; I bore myself sometimes.
We all have levels of appropriateness when it comes to the language we use. With some friends, perhaps, it’s perfectly acceptable to call each other – either to their face or behind their back – fags or spazzes or mongs or trannies or whatever. (You may want to examine your social circle if that truly is the case, however.)
We all have our own unspoken guidelines about what we can and cannot say and I understand, in our increasingly culturally sensitive times, why we would want to hang loose and kick off our shoes and be refreshingly non-PC.
But if you know not to use a word in front of some people, should you be using it at all? What does it say about us that we play this game of having a zillion different custom vocabularies depending on who we’re with? If you can’t be yourself, then maybe you need to look at who “yourself” actually is, and make some minor alterations.
I don’t think the girl on the train meant any harm or was remotely homophobic – she is a product of her peers, who no doubt litter their sentences with all manner of words an old aunt like me might call inappropriate or offensive. And I too have my moments.
Perhaps the other meanings of gay are so far removed from her she barely registers the harm her new usage can do – and I know the definition of “gay” has had significant work done over the last century. But the repurposing of the word to mean something negative and undesirable is still evident, it’s still new. She’s young, she’ll know gay people. Maybe they laugh along when she says it, imprisoned by self-doubt or not wanting to make a fuss, or perhaps she doesn’t use it in front of them at all.
But if hearing it used in a negative context can make even a 39-year-old grandad like me feel uncomfortable or inferior or sad, imagine what it’s doing in the playground to a young boy or girl for whom “It gets better” is just a slogan on a millionaire’s T-shirt.
Don’t call it gay unless you’re sure it’s gay. Or I’ll be coming for you. And I’ll really show you what the word means.