You Just Can’t Take a Joke: The Privilege Behind “That’s So Gay”
Feminspire | On 14, Aug 2013
NOT SAFE FOR WORK: Includes frank discussion of obscene language.
It seems that ever since high school I’ve been in a constant struggle to redefine language. When I was 16 or so, my friend told me that when I said, “That’s so gay,” it was hurtful to him. I stopped using it right then and there. When I got a little older, I realized what “That’s retarded” really meant: “This is so silly and ignorant it’s the equivalent of a mentally retarded person.” I stopped saying it. When I went vegan, I realized that calling people “chicken,” “cow,” “scaredy cat,” “rat,” etc. used Nonhuman Animals as objects of insult. I’ve started cutting back. About a year ago as I started to find my feminist voice, I began to realize that “bitch” and “cunt” were no longer so easily articulated. Fortunately, the “N word” has never crossed my lips.
Derogatory language has the power to uphold inequality. A lot of this language is either used by folks who are fully aware of the hurt behind it, or folks who are honestly unaware and have never stopped to consider the meaning of their words. Fair enough. However, when someone is presented with the reality of that hurt and the logic behind oppressive language, and they continue to dig their heels in, then I really have a problem. Now it’s no longer about ignorance, it’s about privilege.
When I was visiting Scotland last year, my then boyfriend and one of our colleagues had a very annoying habit of calling any person they didn’t like a “twat.” After about the 100th time of hearing it, I finally said something. I explained that they were using a crass word for my genitalia as an insult. Basically being a female is lower — if they think something is bad, they insult it by calling it female. Following this observation, I was dragged into a 20 minute debate: Me, the woman vs. two British men who were convinced if they just explained to me what the word “really means” and that it “really means” nothing at all, it’s just something they say all the time, it’s always been that way, etc., then I’ll suddenly give up and realize the word isn’t sexist at all! And after all, don’t we use “dick” as an insult? As though we live in a post-gender utopia where men and women are represented equally and fairly …
Earlier this week I was included on a listserv email with a bunch of local musicians. They began joking with each other, using the word “gay” and “fag” as an insult. I responded letting them know that I had no desire to see their homophobic slurs in my inbox and to please unsubscribe me. The next day I unfortunately found myself in their physical presence. A tirade of jokes at the expense of LGBT individuals ensued. At one point one man was videotaping another man who bashed on a drum cymbal and bowed, speaking in an exaggerated Chinese accent. Each time one of them made a jab at minorities, they would all look to me as though they were testing me. Before long, I found myself under attack by six older men who were insistent that I was just not able to “take a joke,” that they’ve “always said this,” “it doesn’t mean what I think it means.”
It was explained to me that because I have never seen Karate Kid, that’s why I didn’t get their racist jokes. I asked one of them if he would ever use the “N word,” he said absolutely not, he’s uncomfortable using it. I asked what was so different about the other slurs? And apparently because some LGBT individuals call each other homophobic slurs and because someone’s gay aunt laughs about homophobic jokes, well, there’s nothing wrong at all here! And don’t people of color call each other the “N word”?
Yesterday, an administrator for a Nonhuman Animal rights organization Vegans for Reason and Science adamantly defended the use of “stupid,” “insane,” “loons,” etc. as valid insults. I asked if they would ever use “faggot” or “gay” as an insult, they said absolutely not, and they would call it out if they ever heard it. I asked what was so different about using disableist language as slurs? I was reading it too literally, they defended.
The vulnerable groups in each situation may have varied, but there was one similarity between the people defending this language: Their privilege. For the most part, I was up against men who were middle class, heterosexual, non-disabled, and white. They are the chosen few in our society that are granted the ability to create language and define meaning. This is how power works: through the construction of meaning and the validation (or invalidation) of others’ existence and their social worth.
People of privilege should not get to decide what language is or is not hurtful to vulnerable people. I don’t care how many gay aunts you have, or how long you’ve used the words, or how “figurative” they are. If someone says they hurt, stop using them. Don’t use the identity of oppressed groups as an insult. There are about 171,000 words in the English Language, I don’t think it will kill anybody to retire a few. I know it’s not easy, these words are habitualized and continuously reinforced by our peers and pop culture. But I think we can do it.
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