Let’s Talk Semantics 4: Gay
February 22, 2011 § 12 Comments
I’ve been wanting to talk about this for a while. Apparently this ad campaign has been running for at least 2 years (at least, that’s when it was added to YouTube), but it hasn’t started making its rounds to this part of town until right around the Super Bowl.
Just in case you haven’t seen it (and, really, even if you have), take a gander:
I am sick to death of people, especially young people, using the word “gay” as an insult. I hear it at least once a day just by walking through the halls. More often than not, I hear it from the mouths of young men rather than from young women, but I am not foolish enough to believe that it’s just a male problem. In fact, before I left Facebook, I remember seeing young people attempt to “pretty it up” by spelling it differently. Surely, changing the spelling to “ghey,” for instance, entirely shifts the meaning away from a connotation to imply homosexuality and instead suggests that the meaning is entirely dependent upon spelling.
So, to appease the Grande Wanda Sykes (who I utterly adore), perhaps the young men should have corrected her assumption and said, “No no, you thought we said G-A-Y. We actually said G-H-E-Y.” Yeah. That’s better.
When did this happen? I have no memory from high school of hearing people exclaim that something was “gay” when they thought it was stupid or weird or whatever. The scapegoat term then was “retarded,” which apparently has become so sinister in usage that I have even heard really young people (like…middle-school-aged) call it “the r-word.” It took me a while before I realized what word they meant. Obviously I would never condone the use of “retarded” to stand in to mean anything except in a medical sense preceded by the word “mentally” (although…is this no longer standard? I know the acceptable term is “developmentally delayed”…but as a former musician, I can’t help but be reminded of ritard to mean “slow” or ritardando for “slowing down”…”retarded” just has a different connotation to my ear, I suppose).
I suppose young people have likely always bastardized the meanings of other words to replace “stupid.”
There’s something rather despicable, of course, when the word derives original meaning from the description of a person or people. (Hell, even “gypped” is pretty disgusting, since it is derived from “gypsy.”) I suppose what makes the use of “gay” for this purpose topically offensive is that we are currently in a tumultuous, confused, and troubling argument in regards to gay rights. When young people use the word “gay” to mean “stupid,” they are not only insulting an entire portion of the world’s population (both past and present). Sadly, it’s not just about insults, Madame Sykes. Rather, the use of the word “gay” in this context degrades people while simultaneously shutting down the entire discourse before it has a chance to really get its legs beneath it. “That’s so gay [or ghey or whatever],” halts all discussion. Regardless if it’s said in a positive (which is rare) or negative (more common) context, that phrase at all generalizes, stereotypes, and ignores an entire group of people.
So, what do we do about it? We shut down the insulters. Like the ad campaign concludes, we tell them to “knock it off.” Even if it’s not our kid, not our conversation, not our battle, we make it known that that phrase is not appropriate.
Look, if you’re going to degrade something, really degrade it. And do it with class without dragging an entire group of people into it!
Methink’st thou art a general offence and every man should beat thee.
(from All’s Well That Ends Well)
That Shakespeare, he really knew how to zing ’em!