Language Reveals Homophobic Tension

Actions speak louder than laws.

Politics is slowly but surely catching up with the nation’s growing atmosphere of acceptance towards gays and lesbians, after all gay marriage was legalized in Vermont two weeks ago’mdash;by the people’s vote rather than through court intervention, a first.

But, no matter how progressive we may feel about gay rights, we still have a ways to go in our behavior. Take, for example, something as basic as everyday language.

If you call an Asian ‘cracker,’ you’ll get a confused look.’ If you slant your eyes in front of a black guy, you won’t get a rise out of him. ‘
Call a guy ‘fag’ and all hell breaks loose.

When young Americans are seen as the most progressive group in America, more often than not in favor of gay rights compared to their elders, why is it that we use so many homophobic slurs in everyday conversation?

Every minority in this nation yokes the burden of ethnic slurs.

However, each slur has remained essentially within its own linguistic territory.

They don’t have meaning outside their particular context.’

Yet, ‘gay’ has meaning outside its literal context.’

It’s flung around like any other adjective in the dictionary.

It’s simply grating to hear people use ‘gay’ to mean stupid or pointless.

You don’t know how many times I cringe when I hear people use ‘fag’ as an all-purpose put-down.

They’ve become the ultimate insults, yet when used to describe a person who isn’t gay it literally has no meaning.
I can call my last cup of Ramen a deep-dish pepperoni pizza, but it’s still a cup of Ramen.’

The word is effectively removed from its context; why then is it such an affront to the heterosexual’mdash;particularly male’mdash;ego?’ ‘

How does it possess a gut-jerking reaction to assert one’s heterosexuality if there is no need to?

‘Gay’ and its more derogatory ilk is unique among disparaging labels because it crosses race and age, defies context and represents an anxiety within heterosexuals.

It implies weakness, deviation from the norm.

Frankly, it’s homophobia’mdash;a fear of being labeled a homosexual.

In high school, I heard young men berated for petty things like acting in a play, being a painter or simply being a dedicated, well-behaved student.

But, the word’s power cuts deeper than being labeled gay.
At its root, the use of homophobic slurs has to do with being perceived as feminine.

It goes back to old-fashioned dichotomies of man/woman, strong/weak, aggressive/passive and stoic/sensitive.

Homophobia and sexism are related issues, at least in terms of how we use language to attack others.

After all, ethnic slurs don’t work on people who aren’t of said ethnicity.

However, calling a guy ‘bitch’ provokes response, though the term doesn’t literally apply to him.

Then there’s the other old standard put-down, ‘suck it,’ which goes back to the age old construct of sexual dominance and submission.

(Guess which gender would be submissive?)

Our politics may be catching up and our attitudes progressive, but unless we start talking and behaving in a way that articulates those sentiments, we’re just as backward as before.

Derrick Austin may be reached at

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