Back when I was a freshman, my buddy and I liked to play a little game. Late at night on weekends, after coming back from parties, we’d go to our hall’s whiteboard and erase letters in the messages written on it to spell out offensive phrases and curse words. We thought it was a really funny game. One night, I came back late and, seeing a detailed message written out on the whiteboard, erased letters to spell out a homophobic slur (I think you all know it, but if you need a hint, it’s three letters and starts with an ‘F’).
A little over a week ago, a gay friend of mine deactivated from his fraternity, joined by three of his friends. They left due to feelings of disappointment stemming from the use of this same pejorative in casual conversation and due to the blunt refusal of people to excise it from their vocabulary.
This topic arises all too frequently because certain derogatory terms have become so culturally embedded that it is difficult to consciously abstain from using them. The discussion of what constitutes appropriate speech is often polarizing–while one side wants to be protected from disparaging slurs, the other side wants to protect its ingrained expressions without being portrayed as homophobic or bigoted.
The side that wants protection is right: people deserve to live in environments where they don’t feel marginalized by hate speech. The dilemma is much more complex than it initially appears to be, though. The question revolves around where to place the brightline between sensitivity and intolerance.
I grew up in a liberal area. I went to an international school. I lived next to a gay neighborhood. This heterogeneous melting pot created a community of people comfortable with their identities and open enough to joke about them. In effect, everyone I grew up around was politically incorrect to some degree because it was acceptable in such a diverse society. I have gay friends I can crack gay jokes with and black friends I can make black jokes to. My friends and I often joke lightheartedly about my Serbian heritage.
There is a point, however, where jokes are not jokes. Everyone has undoubtedly been given the talk on crossing the line into offensive territory. Why, then, is it so hard to discern how to remain inside the realm of innocuous jokes? The answer is because that realm is context-specific. The term queer was first applied to gay people as a weaponized slur. Then, groups like the Stanford Queer Coalition adopted the term to circumvent its harmful power as a pejorative. Though it is acceptable to refer to Queer Formal, singling someone out by yelling the word at them is unacceptable.
It seems like the difference boils down to one of usage. If you want to determine what constitutes offensive speech, try substituting in a word that fulfills the same function as the term you would normally use. If, in a sentence, you could easily substitute the word “homosexual” for “gay,” chances are that it’s inoffensive. If the word “lame” could be substituted, it might not be so innocuous. Unfortunately, the brightline isn’t that simple: sometimes, even when you could substitute “homosexual” for “gay,” the two terms both make reference to the same concept in a derogatory manner (e.g., “Man, that outfit is so homosexual”).
In the end, it’s not these words that bother people, it’s the mentality that these words signify. The proliferation of terms like “gay” as pejoratives betrays an underlying mentality of the speaker: namely, that they view homosexuality as undesirable, disgusting, or simply wrong. Most people who use “gay” as a slight would be quick to assert that they are not homophobic. I fell into this group of people accustomed to saying “gay” while also considering themselves proponents of the queer agenda. There are two problems with this defense. One is that this common vernacular creates an unconscious association that, ultimately, makes people mentally comfortable with degrading homosexuals. The other is that, regardless of the intent behind innocently used slurs, the effect is the same: people are marginalized by these terms.
When I erased that whiteboard as a freshman, I lived in a hall with gay friends I would never want to hurt or offend. I could have told them this. I could have noted that I was drinking and had a lapse in judgment. I could have blamed it on my sense of humor. None of that mattered. What did matter was the impact that word had on people around me.
Maybe we all need to take pains to evaluate what is and is not contextually appropriate. When in doubt, maybe we should err on the side of caution. And when it comes to words like the three letter F-word, we have to realize that using it is never appropriate.
Will next week’s column be more lighthearted? Man, I hope so. Tune in to find out. firstname.lastname@example.org.