Of Semantics, Sexuality and Sensitivity

How sensitive is too sensitive when it comes to the use of language and its affect on people? Added to that, how many people need voice their offense at the use of a particular word or phrase before we demand its removal from the language?

Yesterday the following status update appeared on a facebook page supporting Gay Marriage:

“FYI: When talking about coming out and the process of learning to embrace your sexuality, please don’t use the phrase ‘coming to terms with your sexuality’. Finding out your best friend died or being diagnosed with cancer is something you ‘come to terms with’, not being gay. Lets embrace our sexualities and use language that reflects that we are proud not simply tolerant of our sexualities.”

Since then, the ensuing argument amongst the group’s followers has gone from people simply disagreeing with its offensiveness, to people offended by being told what they should and shouldn’t be saying, to people who appear so relieved to find someone equally offended that they sound a little, err, orgasmic with excitement.

Personally, I found it a bit of self indulgent waffle from someone who wanted to say something profound but came of sounding a bit glib. There again, maybe it’s just the opinion of someone who had it a whole lot easier than I did. Being gay was definitely something I had to come to terms with, as did the people around me, and I did “just have to deal with it” – another phrase they derided further into the argument. Of course you have to deal with it; otherwise you end up unhappy, closeted, maybe suicidal, or stuck in a marriage you aren’t suited to. Worse, you might end up a member of the clergy.

But I digress. Most interesting to me was that much of the feedback was along the lines of “who are you to tell me what I can and can’t say, particularly since I came out during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s?” Now this opinion I really am intrigued by. Not because of its validity or otherwise, but because of the meaning of words in relation to time and society, and the era you’re living in. And it’s kind of ironic (I say ‘kind of ironic’ because there’s always some wanker ready to point out that what you’re saying isn’t actually ironic – usually it’s me to other people, so consider this a pre-emptive strike!) that this argument of semantics is happening on a site that supports changing the meaning of marriage to include same sex unions.

I love the fluidity of words, and their ability to morph over time. Take the word ‘gay’. I can’t think of another word in the English language that has travelled such a very long way in a relatively short amount of time.

The last couple of years has seen quite a movement against the expression “that’s so gay”, a phrase that just doesn’t rate with me. I mean, I get why it annoys people, I really do. I fully understand why people find it offensive to hear kids using so nonchalantly. But I am personally not insulted by it, because as far as I can see, the intent to offend isn’t there.

Which isn’t to say that it’s not what started gay being used this way in the first place. I’m sure it was. But I feel that the use of the word has taken on a life of its own and moved very quickly to mean something else entirely. My brothers have used the expression ever since they can remember (they’re both in their late 20s) and I know I said it when I was at school, which is an astoundingly long time ago. For me, its offensiveness has worn away to the point that it’s just another benign saying.

In my lifetime, my awareness of gay has travelled from hearing my grandmother describe happy kids playing in the park as “gay”; to seeing Enid Blyton’s Noddy & Big Ears no longer able to enjoy “gay times” together; to meaning what I told my parents 15 years ago, “I’m gay”.

In much the same way as bad became something to aspire to in the 1980s, and sick now means good, a word that once meant happy now means something’s a bit crap. For a while, somewhere in the middle there, it also meant queer (another word that once meant something else), but it seems that as we’re becoming more aware of all the variations in sexuality, gay is being used less and less by the very community it’s meant to be describing. In fact, it’s pretty much only heterosexuals who aren’t sensitive enough to distinguish between gay, homosexual, lesbian, transgender, intersex, bisexual, camp, pansexual, queer and whoever else I’ve missed out, isn’t it? It’s still just the Gay Mardi Gra to the greater public, far as I can tell.

So why don’t we just let the word go? If they want to use it, let them use it. Except, wait, we will need to come up with something new for the homosexual boys. Maybe poof? That used to mean a footstool, even if it was hijacked from the French and spelt differently. Actually, there’s an idea! Why don’t we give gay two different spelling? Gay as in Elton John, and ghey as in “that’s so ghey”. Problem solved! Genius, even if I do say so myself!

Still, if the majority are offended by its modern usage, who am I to deny them their view? If it’s offensive to the majority, well then…I’ll shut up on the subject. I suppose I am blasé about gay because although I am gay, I don’t really identify as such. Lesbian sums me up a lot better, albeit one with very camp tendencies. But gay is such an all encompassing term that if I want someone to know something about me purely through words, I don’t think gay effectively pinpoints the way I see myself.

For my part, I’d rather focus on abolishing the use, particularly by media outlets, of the phrase “admitted they were gay”. Nothing shits me up the wall more than when I hear this used to describe a celebrity’s coming out. To admit to something means to confess to some wrong doing, and for a media outlet to run a super hyped story about someone finally admitting they’re homosexual just reeks of salacious gossip and whispers in the parlour room. I don’t like it at all. To allow it to be used to describe the often painful process of coming out is to perpetuate the belief that there is ultimately something wrong and unnatural about any sexuality that falls outside of the heterosexual ‘norm’.

The worst part? I’ve heard three people this week say it about a mutual friend’s recent coming out. “Did you hear ____ finally admitted he was gay to his parents?” For Pete’s sake people, what is there to admit to? What is this insinuation of guilt we’re encouraging? What is there to be guilty of in my case? Sucking the odd nipple? Touching a few vaginas? Right then – Dad & my brothers, I’ll see you kids in hell!

It’s bullshit, so I’m on a mission! I never want to hear that damn word used again, unless it is without connection to someone’s sexuality, because the very next journalist to announce someone “admitted they were gay” will wind up being admitted to hospital with injuries that I will later admit in court to causing.

Tracy Grimshaw – I’m watching you.

by caz.

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