Please chill the f@#$ out.
I know, you've been busy rooting out hateful and offensive language. I have to admit, I've been impressed with your results eradicating the "N-word" and other ethnic or racial epithets from common conversation. Cheers and well done! All of our lives are better with those words banished to the dustbin of history.
I also give you props for cracking down on the use of language that is demeaning to women. There's no good reason to refer to women as "girls" or "b*tches", or to use coarse sexual terms in mixed company. Women deserve respectful treatment as equals. Kudos for helping us clean up our act.
Your successes have given you some free time, and I know you've started a project to shield gays and lesbians from linguistic abuse. As a gay man, I appreciate your efforts to eradicate the "F-word", which more often than not is hurled as an angry or hate-filled barb. But, we need to chat a little about the word "gay".
It seems over the past three or four years that "gay" has become the term kids in their teens and early twenties use to indicate something that people my age would describe as "lame". Yes, there is a negative connotation. Yes, this particular usage appears to be mildly offensive, insofar as the term suggests that something "gay" is something undesirable or bad. But let's get a little perspective.
Last week, UFC fighter "Rampage" Jackson was interviewed about his role in the upcoming movie version of The A-Team (a favorite TV show in my distant youth). Unfortunately, the first part of the article focused on Rampage's rather indelicate language, including a declaration that, "Acting is kind of gay." Rampage also reportedly commented that, "Vancouver strikes me as a San Francisco-kind of place," and used a "gay slur" (likely the F-word) when yelling at someone on set. Based on these reports, you decided to prosecute Rampage for felony verbal bigotry, and convicted him in under two media cycles.
The problem is, I think Rampage got a bum rap. Reading his explanation of the events, it seems pretty clear to me that Rampage undeniably has a lockerroom gutter-mouth, but he doesn't seem to use "gay" with any intent to be hurtful or offensive:
Let me teach you a little something about me cause I know y'all don't really know me. I am a black man from Memphis Tennessee who grew up in the south where I faced discrimination my whole life. I know very well how it feels for someone to judge you for something you have no control over so having gone through that I know how it feels. I took a vow that I didn't even have to say that I would never discriminate against anybody for anything other that how they treat me or others around them. So not only DO I NOT HATE gay people, I actually accept them for who and what they are. They always seem happy and most of them I met are very kind and nice individuals. Yes, and like most straight guys I joke around with the whole gay thing and I see it as comedy, not saying that's right or wrong but I don't do it out of hate. ...
I hear the word "gay" used a lot these days in its "lame" connotation. I hear it at the poker table when someone takes a bad beat ("What a gay river!"). I hear it when my friends' high school kids are joking around (and their parents invariably shoot me a worried glance when they overhear their kids). During a fantasy football draft last fall, one of the guys described a couple of draft picks as "gay"; he gave me a call the next morning to apologize profusely for a slur I hadn't perceived at all. I see "gay" used in blog and discussion board posts. My Ironman pals throw the word around from time to time (but in the case of Sahara and his shirts, it is the only word that is an adequate adjective). I'll confess that I have even used the word on occasion.
I know your intentions are pure. I realize that many gay teens face enormous pressure trying to figure out who they are while also trying desperately to be accepted and to fit in. In a school or youth sports setting, I think a gentle admonition about appropriate language use can be a valuable teaching moment when "gay" gets thrown out in a callous manner. But I think we also need to be aware of linguistic and social context. Frankly, the usage of "gay" nowadays is in many cases almost wholly divorced from its sexual meaning; in fact, kids often use "ghey" to convey "lame" without a negative attitude towards gay people. Polls show an overwhelming majority of today's youth are accepting of and comfortable with gays and lesbians. Even among people nearer to my age, I rarely hear "gay" used in a manner that indicates any negative, hurtful, or offensive intent.
When used in a joking context, "gay" is rarely meant to be hurtful. To the contrary, I think society's growing acceptance of gays and lesbians is actually reflected in good-natured joking about gays and lesbians. There is a distinct difference between being the target of a mean-spirited put-down and the butt of some joshing among friends. In fact, I think the use of "gay" as slang for "lame", or some friendly "gay" joking among straight people is actually evidence of increased acceptance of and comfort with gays and lesbians, rather than a symptom of hidden hatred and bigotry that must be punished with a scornful rebuke or drowned in a torrent of righteous indignation.
Look, as gays and lesbians are accepted as a normal part of everyday life, there needs to be some room for straight people to adjust how they talk and act. The focus should be less on words, and more on attitudes and actions. Rampage Jackson actually gets this just right in his response to the controversy—he has no mean intent, and his actions reflect a man against discrimination in any form. Rampage—and millions of other straight people—use the word "gay" as slang or a joke, yet in their hearts they have love and acceptance for gays and lesbians. By contrast, a minority of Americans remain hostile to gays and lesbians; they are usually marked by their use of the F-word, or an insistence on using "homosexuality" as their preferred terminology. These are the folks who commit violent acts against gays and lesbians, or want to keep gays and lesbians in a second-class citizenship status. I think an occasional "gay" comment or joke really is rather harmless in the grand scheme of things.
So, can we make a deal? Let's focus the word policing on those who want to harm or oppress gays and lesbians. But the overzealous crackdown on our friends who use "gay" on occasion is really rather silly and pointless. In fact, it may even be counterproductive by depriving our straight friends of a comfort zone in how they interact with gays and lesbians. To be blunt, calling out people for using "gay" as slang or as a joke is, well, gay.
So please, when it comes to the casual use of "gay", chill the f@#$ out.
P.S. My straight buddy and fellow Ironman Santa Claus has long declared that he supports gay marriage, "because gays should be able to be just as miserable as straight couples." In Santa's honor, I present the following video—if you laugh at least twice, you have my official dispensation to use the word "gay" without fear of reprisal from the gay mafia.
EDITED (9 June 2010) to change the video link (hat tip to reader JHO who provided a new link in the Comments. Thanks!). YouTube is perilously close to #taserlist status. That is all.
ADDENDUM (9 June 2010): Some of the commentors have correctly pointed out that the usage of the "F-word" is also evolving, and its use does not necessarily imply a hurtful or mean-spirited intent. In fact, in the right social context, it frankly has a similar innoccuous usage as "gay", meaning an inconsiderate D-Bag. (South Park addressed the "F-Word" issue with good humor last season: recap and full episode). The F-word requires a little closer monitoring, as it still has a strong association with schoolyard taunts and gaybashing incidents. But allowing the F-word to be used in a joking or innoccuous manner actually may help strip away its ability to be used in a more hateful manner. So, in the right social context, the "F-word" can get a free pass from me as well.