Last December, North University Ave. became the hot spot of controversy in Ann Arbor when members of the Westboro Baptist Church showed up to protest a performance of “The Laramie Project.” The picketers, ranging in age from five to 65, represented the church notorious for hating the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community and held signs with hateful slogans like, “God Hates Fags” and “Fags Doom Nations.” While this group is without a doubt an extreme version of the anti-gay rights movement and likewise, nowhere near an accurate representation of those who vote against legislation against gay marriage, the language used on the WBC signs is not far from that spoken by an overwhelming percentage of the American population.
Just a short walk around campus or stop in a house party is enough to expose anyone to language that is degrading and offensive to the LBGT community. Terms like “gay,” “homo” and “faggot” are frequently employed by students to refer to members of the LBGT community, those who appear to be members of that community and (my personal favorite) objects or events completely disconnected from the community. (I have yet to understand how a song on the radio can have a sexual orientation.) And college students are certainly not alone in using such language – widespread usage of terms traditionally reserved for the LGBT community has been growing as the words have become divorced for their original meaning and lost their significance.
The colloquial usage of words that are degrading to the LGBT community is the result both of people forgetting the true definitions of the words as well as expressing discomfort with the LGBT community. Both reasons are equally offensive to the LGBT community and equally hard to overcome. The English language has been abused to a point where “gay” has become completely separated from its reference to a homosexual male. Worse, many heterosexual males constantly feel the need to refer to homosexual males as “fags” in an attempt to secure their manhood. (And we all know that nobody younger than 85 uses “gay” to refer to a joyous holiday party).
But last month, the British Broadcasting Corporation came up with a solution. It ruled that “gay now means ‘rubbish’ in modern playground speak and need not be offensive to homosexuals” (as reported by “The London Times”). This comes on the heels of a morning radio-show host referring to a cell phone ring tone as “gay.” It’s mind-blowing to even try to understand why it is necessary to extend a word designated for the LGBT community to mean something entirely unrelated to homosexuality. Isn’t it common knowledge that when a word intended to identify a homosexual male is extended to mean “rubbish,” that society is practically taking a step back in terms of gay rights?
Words like “gay” and “homosexual” cannot be detached from their original definitions, and only when the language designated for the LBGT community is respected and offensive slang is no longer used to refer to members of that community will cultural acceptance grow. Indeed, as time progresses, the gay rights movement has gained momentum – if not in Congress, then certainly in society. More than 75 percent of American high school seniors support some form of gay marriage, and we can expect this support to increase as younger generations grow up. But this support must translate to more respectful language, too. Whether people may realize or not, colloquial usage of “homo” continues to keep LGBT members from becoming equal members of society.
But fortunately, the future of the English language looks optimistic. A few weeks ago, Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen was fined and forced to attend sensitivity training after calling a Chicago newspaper writer a “fag” – and rightfully so. Guillen’s punishment is a good start in ousting derogatory gay-related vocabulary from the insensitive mouths of many Americans. But this is only a small step towards the ultimate goal of making “faggot” the truly objectionable “f-word.” Just as it would be ludicrous for a white American to colloquially refer to a black person using the n-word, sensitivity with our usage of English terminology must extend to the LGBT community.
Kennelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.