I recently had the unpleasant experience of being reminded that some adults still use the term “gay” as a derogatory term. It can be easy to dismiss this kind of usage as simply ignorant or perhaps a reflection of immaturity, but it should not be so easily passed over. The use of “gay” as a derogatory term, as an insult, is far more powerful than it might initially appear.
The reason the use of “gay” as a derogatory term is such a problem (beyond its surface- level insensitivity, that is) is that language has an interesting way of informing reality. Some would argue, and I believe their is strong reason to support this argument, that language effectively creates reality. This idea is not new, of course, if you’ve studied any manner of poststructuralist theory, but in many ways, it’s still working its way into the general consciousness outside academia.
Without getting too theoretical or abstract, we use language to communicate with others (and with ourselves, to some degree) about the world around and within us. The way we talk about the world has a substantial impact on the way we view and understand that world, and also the way others view and understand that world.
This can be seen clearly by studying languages separated greatly by geography. Let us look, for instance, at English and Japanese. Both languages are used by powerful globalized nations, but both come from very different cultures and contain vastly different worldviews. English, especially American English, is pervaded by a deep sense of individualism and a valuing of the unique. We see it in everything. It’s good to stand out; it’s bad to be “just another face in the crowd.” “Last man standing,” and “look out for number one” are a couple examples of the individualist philosophy that so strongly informs our language use, and therefore, our cultural point of view.
Japan on the other hand, tends to have a more collective sensibility exhibited in its language, a trending towards conformity, rather than uniqueness. 出る杭は打たれる。 (Deru kui wa utareru), literally translates as “the stake that sticks out gets hammered down.” Here, conformity is clearly valued over individualism and uniqueness. These differences are even more interesting because of the great amount of values that both American culture and Japanese culture share, like hard work and perseverance, for example.
These are clearly generalizations, but the point is this: cultural reality does not only inform language, but the language informs reality. So the language we use not only informs the way we view the world, but the way others do as well. Each and every time the word “gay” is used as a derogatory term, it sends the subtle message that homosexuality or queerness in general is to be despised. After a time, this subtle message becomes less subtle. The small reflection of homophobic discomfort morphs into downright hatred. It doesn’t take long until comments are made like the one made by Russian TV star Ivan Okhlobystin. About queer people, he said he would “burn them all alive in ovens.”
I do not think that all 16-year-old boys who call their friends “gay” as a joking insult support queer genocide, but I do think their usage of the word works to create a worldview that includes a hatred of queerness, and for that reason, it’s quite dangerous.
In this country, we have freedom of speech, and it’s one of the most important qualities in a free society, but with that freedom comes the responsibility of using language mindfully to cultivate the kind of world we want to live in. So, stop using “gay” as a derogatory term. You’re saying and doing a lot more than you realize. Not only are you revealing your own homophobia, but you’re working towards creating your world. What kind of world will your language create?