Wednesday, June 07, 2006


The BBC governor's clearing of Chris Moyles' use of gay in its modern sense has sparked a bit of outrage from the gay theorists: Most notably, Tim Lusher writing in The Guardian is pretty upset:

What is surprising, though, is that the BBC has once again leapt to the defence of their £630,000-a-year, strike-busting star (last May he chose to break a 24-hour strike by BBC staff over job cuts). First the BBC told us that the racist moment wasn't actually a racist moment; now, after a listener complained that Moyles' ringtone comment last July was homophobic, the board of governors has declared that the word gay "was often now used to mean 'lame' or 'rubbish'. This is a widespread current usage ... among young people".

Intrestingly, Lusher is quick to make it clear that he doesn't believe Moyles to be homophobic - he points out that Moyles and Will Young text each other, for example.

The problem, of course, is the shift in the meaning of the word from being "homosexual" to "a bit crappy." Lusher goes further, suggesting that it would have been okay in a younger man:

While it is true that since the 1990s the word "gay" has become a youth-speak synonym for stupid, second-rate and feeble, that doesn't make it a good thing. In fact, in case Moyles is still unaware of this, the casual use of "gay" - when used other than to accurately describe homosexual men and women - is cruel and derogatory.

The BBC may argue that Moyles (age 32) is supposed to be down with the teenagers - that's who the show is meant to appeal to. But that doesn't necessarily mean that he should behave like one. [...]

Tony Thorne, head of the languages centre at King's College, London, believes that the gay/rubbish linguistic connection is one that only the under-28 age group can make comfortably. "It is true now that it is very widespread among young speakers and it is not used with any homophobic intention at all - and that is difficult for people to get their heads around," he said yesterday. "Even if a person does not mean to be homophobic I do not think there are many gay people who would be able to laugh it off. A lot of people have not caught up with it yet. Many people over 30 are surprised to hear young people use the term in this way."

So, were Moyles four years younger, it would have been okay, but as he's past the (presumably scientifically arrived-at) 28 year-old cut-off point, he's overstepped the mark?

Apparently, the age of the governors is also an issue:

Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall, agrees that the offence is probably unintended, but adds drily: "He's not especially homophobic because, as Halle Berry pointed out the other day, he's racist as well." Summerskill says he's unsurprised by the BBC governors' response given the "inexcusable" lack of an openly gay board member. "They are presuming to be down with the kids. It's like a dowager duchess turning up at a dinner party in a rubber mini-skirt and pretending she's hip."

It's interesting how the negative stereotyping of homosexuals is wrong, but it's fine to create lazy stereotypes about older people.

This railing at the shift in the meaning of language is, amusingly, reminiscent of the frothing of the right when queer people started to use "gay" to define themselves - it's only a matter of time before someone from Outrage pops up to wail over the loss of a good, old-fashioned English word.

Moyles shouldn't have described the ringtone as gay, not because it was homophobic to do so, but because the shift in usage hasn't travelled far enough to allow the new meaning to be tossed around without causing offence: He can be accused of thoughtlessness rather than offensiveness.

What's fascinating, though, is the struggle on the part of some politicalqueers to try and shore up what was in itself a temporal slang term: maybe you should let it go, and fight the more important battles, people?

Lusher shows why his focus on this small spat, and the confusion of a shift in language with a cause that needs fighting, when he cites the taunting and murder of a child in the context of a silly spat over one word on a radio programme:

Does any of this matter? Is it so bad if the meaning of "gay" changes, if the intent is not homophobic? Damilola Taylor comes to mind, bullied at school and called "gay boy".

(Taylor was murdered, by the way, in 2000; long before the new 'gay' became part of the lingua franca)

The bullying of Taylor was a terrible thing, certainly: but is Lusher really trying to tell us that when they called him "gay boy" they were having a go because they thought he was rubbish? No. Taylor was the victim of homophobic bullying - and it's that which needs to be addressed. It doesn't matter if 'gay' means good, bad, or even 'liable to write think pieces in the liberal press.' The bullies will find words and fists to use to attack those who don't match up to their version of normal. Homophobia isn't created by the change in the meaning of a word - and more than it was ended by the re-defining of the word "queer."

And while kids are having their lives made miserable in playgrounds, you're sitting around debating if its okay for a dj to use a phrase already in wide circulation to describe a ringtone.


Anonymous said...

(Taylor was murdered, by the way, in 2000; long before the new 'gay' became part of the lingua franca)

I don't know about that. The word "gay" was used in this context loads when i was younger - and i'm 28 now. Mind, I went to an American high school (lived abroad) so maybe it's an American thing that's recently caught on over here.

Anonymous said...

surely the problem with all this is that the idea that gay=rubbish is derived from the fact that (some) people feel that being gay makes you less of a man. things that are effeminate are, in some eyes, rubbish. therefore, gay=rubbish.

it's still loosely homophobic.

Anonymous said...

It must have been homophobic originally, but etymology is different to definition. The "lame" definition of gay (speaking of which - lame must have originally been offensive to disabled people) would be a misnomer rather than homophobic. Misnomers are not words that are used incorrectly, just ones with a dodgy etymology, and because etymology is separate to definition the word "gay" could be used in this sense without being homophobic, but only if both meanings are in common usage. Personally, I used to be offended by gay being used in this sense, but am not now, so in the UK it still seems to be borderline.

Whilst the cut off age of 28 is ridiculously specific, it's still a fair point. Defending yourself by saying that all the teens are doing it doesn't really work if you're 32. I'm 23 (and in the UK) and I still feel too old to use the word in that sense.

Though, saying all that, it still feels wrong to see a bunch of linguistic experts and people at the BBC, with all the market research in front of them telling them what's offensive and what isn't, going on about what gay men are and aren't offended by these days, when an actual gay bloke is telling them differently.

Anonymous said...

The BBC response is as credible as me arguing that as an older person for me to call Moyles a useless fucking whore isn't mysogynist because it's a widespread usage.

This sort of use of 'gay' has overtones for me of the use of the word 'pouffy' when I was at school in the sixties. Depending on context and inflection it could be either directly or indirectly homophobic in effect even though that wasn't necessarily what was intended.

Me and I my school friends spent a lot of time throwing homophoic abuse at one another (some of which we barely understood). I took this all home and applied it liberally to my younger siblings. Years later when one of them came out it all took on a rather different complexion.

What's particularly depressing about the Guardian piece is its inability to see that just as much of a problem as the (directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously) homophobic implications of this sort of usage of 'gay' is its active use in delimiting a competitive and compulsory heterosexism.

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