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If you use 'gay' in a derogatory way, you are encouraging homophobia

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Louis TomlinsonThis summer has seen a number of high profile instances involving people saying things they probably shouldn’t. Jeremy Clarkson has once again proven he can’t help but insult minorities while he works on a car programme, videos of Justin Bieber have surfaced of him apparently using racist language, and Jonah Hill let loose a particularly disturbing side of himself when he shouted ‘faggot’ at someone.

Racism is unacceptable, as is homophobic language such as ‘faggot’. But what I’d like to shine a light on here is, potentially, even more dangerous than that. The above two examples are clearly repellent and people do not and will not turn a blind eye to them. But the bigotry that regularly goes unchecked and uncommented upon is another use of language: using the word ‘gay’ to mean ‘bad’ or ‘nasty’ or ‘undesirable’. This word was recently used in this way by One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson. One could argue he did not know he was being filmed (the video emerged online), but if the term trips off his tongue so easily, it is unlikely the first instance he has used it. He is, however, by no means the only offender. 

I don’t wish to play down the devastating effects racist words play in our society, nor more openly-homophobic language such as ‘faggot’, but the word ‘gay’ is becoming arguably more dangerous due to its insidious nature. Its use is becoming frequent, casual and spoken by individuals who themselves would never use other stronger terms of hatred. They may even consider themselves pro-gay, open-minded types who wouldn’t dream of restricting somebody else’s freedom to love who they wish to love. For this very reason, the word is becoming even more damaging. It is the homophobia peddled not only by true homophobes, but by those who would generally disapprove of discriminatory attitudes. 

I’m not going to pretend the word ‘gay’ has always meant ‘homosexual’. It has had a variety of meanings throughout history. I fully accept language changes and develops; it is a living, breathing thing that reflects the society that uses it and the cultures that manipulate it. But make no mistake about it: this changing of the word ‘gay’ to mean something undesirable is fuelled by hatred. It is not just another seamless change of the English language. It is a deliberate and direct corrupting of it in order to continue to make gay people feel abnormal, revolting, strange and unwanted. It has come about via a wave of unchecked and unchallenged homophobia that is usually presented as ‘banter’ (a term people frequently use to excuse repulsive hate speech against women, gay people, Jews, and those from non-white races). This follows a worrying trend in altering words so they become verbal weapons intended to wound and psychologically maim. Even the word ‘homosexual’ has been turned into ‘homo’, a term of playground abuse that has found its way into film, television and, more regularly, song lyrics.  

I am not trying to restrict freedom of speech. I am not trying to demonise everyone who uses the word 'gay' in this context. Quite often they don't even know they are doing it. However, when one is confronted by a world where 23% of young gay or bisexual people have tried attempted suicide and 56% have harmed themselves, it is important to look at the causes. Being a teenager is difficult for everyone. But if you are a young person trying to get your GCSEs whilst you classmates frequently use the word that describes your sexuality as an insult or derogatory adjective, the experience becomes even harder. This use of language promotes an environment where gay people feel persecuted, as if their sexual preferences are in some way synonymous with all the bad things in the world.

Unfortunately we live in a culture where people either don’t think about the words they are using or they simply don’t care. The belligerent homophobia of Todd Philips’s The Hangover trilogy is a good case in point. Within the first couple of minutes of the first film one of the central characters (indeed, the one portrayed as good and kind and sensible) uses the word ‘gay’ to describe the act of sending a text. Think about how many script read-throughs that film would have had. How many editing processes and rehearsals and checks before it became a finished product to be sold to an impressionable and largely teenage audience. Why didn’t someone pick up on it? And if they did, why was nothing done about it? 

Another example, this time from just a few months ago, saw Madonna (yes, Madonna!), in mind-blowing moment of ill-judged humour, the singer and gay rights campaigner used to word, seemingly without irony, to describe food she doesn’t like.  

Last year the singer Will Young, writing for The Guardian, hit on exactly why language is so important in helping gay people escape from a culture of discrimination. Our language is littered with anti-gay rhetoric. As he says, people “tolerate” gays, people “admit” to being gay, and describe double maths lessons as “so gay”. The slant towards each of these examples is that being gay is a negative thing, rather than just another variant of normal sexual behaviour.

And so we get back to Louis Tomlinson. For all I know, he may have no bad feelings towards homosexuals. He may have close friends or family members who are gay. I don’t know. But the language he chose to use when searching for a derogatory term to describe One Direction merchandise and books, helped reinforce attitudes that suggest the complete opposite. Attitudes that encourage homophobic bullying in schools and make it that little bit harder for young teenagers to tell their friends or parents that they fancy people of the same gender as them. We may live in 2014, gay people may never have had it so good, but we must be aware of how evil – and yes, it is a form of evil – can so easily sneak in to casual discourse. It’s time we put a stop to it.  

 

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