I read an article recently, written by another student at my university, preaching to us all to use more ‘common sense’ regarding sensitive vocabulary. He aimed to draw attention to the power words hold and to the devastating effects to a person’s career if used unwisely. All this, I agreed with. However, the conclusion of his piece was that the intention behind words is the most important thing, that if they are not used maliciously then the speaker is innocent. The example he used was harmless ‘banter’ between friends where both parties jokingly use increasingly daring and offensive slang to rile the other up.
I understand that what he wants is for there to be less drama about the sometimes ridiculous degrees of political correctness, but I also understand that words, whether they are intended to be hurtful or offensive, can still be damaging.
When I was midway through my secondary school career, I watched a television programme called ‘Sex Education’. It was a very popular series with people my age focusing on the more taboo sides of sex. One thing that it covered was the use of the word ‘gay’ as meaning something negative. I admit to being guilty of the occasional ‘my phone is being so gay’ when it was too slow, and laughing at my friends’ exclamations of it, too. It felt like the show was calling me out for being homophobic and cruel, regardless of my intentions, asking the viewers to consider what an actual gay person might feel when this phrase is bandied about around them. Horrified, I was quick to check my behaviour and remove it from my vocabulary.
Since, I have never repeated the phrase. Not once, and so it has become glaringly obvious when someone else does. At first, I would be too embarrased to call someone out for it, wary of sounding like a ‘prude’; like most people at secondary school, I just wanted to fit in. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had to tell myself that ‘yes I am an adult now and I shouldn’t feel silly for calling someone else out on something offensive’. Because that’s what it is: offensive.
As a straight teenager, I was made aware of the potential insult to the gay population with the use of that horrible phrase. As a gay adult, I continue to be so.
For me, coming out has been a gradual process, the fact of my sexuality being dropped into casual conversation with people rather than announced to all my nearest and dearest. As such, the people who know are not necessarily aware of how very aware I am when I tell them. It is a deliberate, and often very scary, thing to tell them though I have engineered it not to appear so to others. So when these same people come out with something like, ‘that shirt is so gay’, I am offended. On part because it is an offensive phrase, no two ways about it, but also because of the betrayal. Some may call this irrational, but logic wouldn’t stop that jolt of hurt that accompanies the saying.
This conundrum reminds me of the lesson that J.K. Rowling taught us all in the first Harry Potter novel when Neville Longbottom is rewarded for standing up to his friends in order to do the right thing. The point being that it is infinitely more difficult to call out your friends on their behaviour than it is to do the same to strangers. This is the struggle that I have had to come to terms with in order to feel morally just with myself; I can’t preach equality if I’m not willing to enforce it to my closest friends.