There has been a surge in thought about the treatment of gay individuals in our society particularly as a result of the death of Rutgers student: Tyler Clementi. Clementi was filmed by his roommate engaging in sexual activities with another man, an occurrence that was posted on the internet. As a result, Clementi committed suicide. The treatment of homosexuals in general, as well as the usage of the term gay, has been scrutinized more closely ever since.
The term gay has come to embody many meanings. Traditionally it meant happy, more recently it has come to mean one who is a homosexual, and in modern slang it has come to mean lame or stupid. In recent weeks, the slang usage of the word has come under fire. It has been argued that the word is insensitive and inappropriate. This has been argued to be because of the homophobic origins of the slang word, and is especially inappropriate following the upswing in bullying against gays. All of these issues will be examined.
With regard to the usage of the term gay in media, some recent incidents pose opportunity for examination. In a preview for the Vince Vaughn movie ”The Dilemma” a clip has the character stating that “electric cars are gay”. This line caused outrage and eventually coerced the film company to drop the line from the preview at the insistence of GLAAD (The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). A recent episode of the sitcom “The Office” featured a tirade against a gay character insinuating promiscuity and stereotypes of homosexuals carrying diseases. This episode drew no comment from GLAAD.
This response would appear to be backwards. While it is true that in the clip from “The Dilemma” the use of the word gay is used to connote something that is lame and stupid, it stands as nothing more than a poor joke. The purpose of comedy is to push limits and the institution is not typically concerned with being appropriate, nor should they be. The use in “The Office” appears to be more directly offensive, but GLAAD did not take note simply because the word itself was not used in a negative connotation. This discrepancy shows the confusion over the slang use of the word gay as to when, if ever, it is appropriate to use. Currently it seems that to use the word gay to mean lame is offensive whereas using the term gay to refer to one who is a homosexual, even if followed by questionable or stereotypical statements, is somehow acceptable.
Using the word gay as to indicate something as bad is certainly rooted in a homophobic culture. However it has entered the common usage and is losing its original connection with homosexuality. This does not mean that it can not do harm, only that when used in a particular context it carries a new definition, much like the term “lame” and other curse words. At one point these words were connected to a particular definition, yet nowadays this no longer applies in the contemporary usage of the terms. As an example of changing definitions in relation to the word gay and how it still can be a loaded term,
“A 2006 BBC ruling by the Board of Governors over the use of the word in this context by Chris Moyles on his Radio 1 show, “I do not want that one, it’s gay,” advises “caution on its use” for this reason:
|“||“The word ‘gay’, in addition to being used to mean ‘homosexual’ or ‘carefree’, was often now used to mean ‘lame’ or ‘rubbish’. This is a widespread current usage of the word amongst young people… The word ‘gay’ … need not be offensive… or homophobic … The governors said, however, that Moyles was simply keeping up with developments in English usage. … The committee… was “familiar with hearing this word in this context.” The governors believed that in describing a ring tone as ‘gay’, the DJ was conveying that he thought it was ‘rubbish’, rather than ‘homosexual’. … The panel acknowledged however that this use… in a derogatory sense… could cause offence in some listeners, and counselled caution on its use. “|
Examples such as the one just provided show a growing understanding that the evolution of language is ongoing and older connotations lose sway as time passes. It is recognized that many people, especially among youth, can and often will use the term gay to imply something as stupid, but without associating it at all with homosexuality. Thus it is clear that use of the word gay as a description has been largely removed from its original connections to homosexuality. This has occurred much in the same way that other words have been removed from their original meaning, it is a natural part of a language’s development. Just because a word used to have one meaning or implication by no measure means it carries the same meaning now, even subliminally.
As an example:
“Nice used to be an insult and meant foolish or stupid in the 13th century and it went through many changes right through to the 18th century with meanings like wanton, extravagant, elegant, strange, modest, thin, and shy or coy. Now it means a good & pleasing or thoughtful & kind.”
However, it can be offensive when perceived to be in connection with the sexual orientation, and especially in light of ongoing struggles by the gay community to be treated as equals. Bearing these issues in mind, should in fact the usage of the word gay as a slang word be suspended, at least until there is less incidence of gay oppression? There are arguments for and against these possibilities, including some relevant historical precedents.
There is and has been a consistent policy of discrimination toward homosexuals in government and in social spheres, particularly among the religious. Religions such as Judaism and Christianity, which claim to be morally based, show utter disregard for the basic human rights of the LGBT community. A recent example comes from the a respected authority in Jewish religious circles of blind hatred and disregard for the lives of gay people.
The Rabbi was quoted as saying: ”Homosexuals are better off dead than alive, unless they can be readily ‘cured.’” Though such an extreme position is not likely to be readily adopted by a majority of any of the major religion’s followers, it demonstrates the negative implication homosexuals face already without even adding in the word gay as a commonly used slang term describing something as bad. It is particularly distressing that a Rabbi would promote such hate, considering all the persecution Jews have been through throughout history, you would think he (and his followers) would not replicate such a Nazi inspired view of a social group.
Omitting words or using restraint with loaded topics does have a historical basis as well. During certain periods of racial tension in places such as Boston, officials have sometimes refrained from having events or showing films that would likely prod at the unrest or discrimination being experienced. When September 11th was still in immediate memory, references to and videos of the World Trade Center were suspended out of sensitivity to the relevant issue. Thus historically there have been efforts to be sensitive to ongoing issues that could deteriorate or cause emotional harm. This lends support to the suspension of gay as a slang term socially and in the media.
In defending the right for the term to remain in usage, there are a few points to be considered. First of all there is the understanding as mentioned previously that languages naturally change, and the term when used as slang no longer carries with it the original reference to homosexuality (despite such a history being obvious considering the word “gay” still means homosexual). With regard to its usage in media, in particular with comedy, there should always be concern when restraint is applied. It is our freedom of expression that is one of our most basic rights and should not be censored unless absolutely necessary. As an example, in response to the criticism of his line in “The Dilemma”, Vince Vaughn was quoted as saying,
“Drawing dividing lines over what we can and cannot joke about does exactly that; it divides us. Most importantly, where does it stop.”
Reacting to particular words with discomfort only reinforces the negative connotation that it previously carried. It is not society’s position to impose regulations on the etymological development of words. This is evidenced in a similar way such as the terms of copyright regulations for words that enter common usage. By people referring to photocopying as “xeroxing” or adhesive bandages as “bandaids” in everyday language, the word becomes public, and in fact would cause the original creative source to lose rights to the term. Though the slang term for gay is not a copyright issue, this is an example of neologism, and it helps show how when a word like gay comes to carry a different definition and is being used by the general population, it becomes the right of the people to continue using it.
In a final evaluation of the issue, the conclusion appears to be two-fold: First of all, society has a right to use the term as a slang, especially when considered as an issue of creative expression. Secondly, from a look at both historical precedents and current issues faced by the gay community, it would be appropriate to suspend such language in most if not all mediums, if only for a period of time. The topic of gay rights is very prominent in America today and thus is an issue on most people’s minds from whatever perspective they may hold on it. It would be fair to say that the slang term, though not carrying the original definition, can and will be perceived by some as offensive, and because of the high visibility of gay issues in politics, should be avoided as much as possible. It is also equally fair to say that this suspension should not be invoked lightly or seen as an example of a type of censor that should be used frequently. Censoring should only occur when really necessary. It is never good to impose values on freedom of expression, and it should be understood that if the term is to be temporarily “banned” it should be done only as necessity to promote tolerance on an issue that may suffer from a result of its use.