I have quite a few friends who are gay or bi. In fact, for a goodly chunk of my late teens / early twenties my closest friend was gay (the bassist in the band I mentioned in a previous post as it happens). So despite being straight myself, I’ve been on a number of Gay Pride marches and I’ve always been pretty sensitive to homophobia, whether in the media or the world around me.
At the same time, however, I believe there’s sometimes an over-sensitivity to perceived prejudice, whether it’s racism, sexism, ageism or homophobia. This is completely understandable, and I am not levelling criticism here. Groups within society who are on the receiving end of genuine prejudice will inevitably develop heightened sensitivities towards the language used to speak about them. It is a natural defence mechanism, and to expect any different is unrealistic.
So when BBC dj Chris Moyles used the word “gay” on air to mean “rubbish”, there was a predictable backlash. Now, far be it for me to defend Chris Moyles. The little I know about the man suggests that he’s an arsehole. His on-air persona is infused with the “humour” of FHM and Heat magazine. New-laddism (also known as “wankerism”). This isn’t surprising; he’s obviously aiming at the same (depressingly large) demographic. And while fans of the free market will praise him to the roof for supplying the content to meet a demand. Me? I just see it as another nail in the coffin of western culture. Plus, a couple of years back he crossed a picket-line at the BBC. And that’s guaranteed to get my hackles up.
You just don’t cross picket lines. Ever*.
But leaving aside the separate issue of Moyles’ arseholeishness; was his use of the word “gay” homophobic? And here I have to agree with the BBC’s board of governors who dismissed the allegation. I don’t believe it was.
Language changes. And in the modern world of mass-mediation this process has accelerated so that it now occurs at a dizzying rate. There’s an entire generation alive today for whom the word “gay” meant “happy” for a significant portion of their life. And this isn’t a trivial point, because if you look at where this most recent redefinition of the word (gay = rubbish) comes from, it’s the schoolyards. It’s a generational thing. Shifts in language often are. It was the youth of the 50s who shifted “cool” from being a description of temperature into an expression of approval. In the 60s “heavy” changed meaning rather dramatically as did many other words (“gay” among them).
And as the language of youth evolved, so necessarily does the language of those speaking to the youth (dj’s and what have you).
It is clearly true that the root of this switch (gay = rubbish) derives from anti-homosexual sentiment. But the homophobia of the schoolyard is different to that in the world at large. I’m not saying it’s harmless (it isn’t!) but it is different. When I was in primary school, a common insult was “Your mother is a lezzer!” As a nine year old I used the phrase myself (I was bullied at school, the way quiet over-intelligent kids often are, and would respond – usually while blinking away tears – with whatever taunts were doing the rounds at the time). In truth though, I hadn’t the faintest idea what “a lezzer” was. Could I possibly have been being homophobic despite not knowing what homosexuality was?
Similarly, I am convinced that today’s kids – whilst infinitely more sophisticated than I was at their age – do not see any connotations of homosexuality when they describe another kid’s trainers as “gay”. They probably understand homosexuality to a degree, and are aware what “gay” means in that context, but will see it as an entirely separate usage of the word when using it to describe trainers or a car or whatever.
1. Disabled so that movement, especially walking, is difficult or impossible: Lame from the accident, he walked with a cane. A lame wing kept the bird from flying.
2. Marked by pain or rigidness: a lame back.
3. Weak and ineffectual; unsatisfactory: a lame attempt to apologize; lame excuses for not arriving on time.
Right now the dictionary definition of “gay” does not include an analogue to definition 3 (above). But I suspect one day soon it will do. There can be little doubt that when “lame” began to be used to mean “weak” or “rubbish” (as it often is nowadays) it was connected to disability. But how many people today – straight or gay – if using the phrase “that’s just so lame!” are being consciously prejudiced against the disabled?