Hello Dear Reader, and welcome to a full(er) and more unexpurgated(…er) version of a discussion I’m no longer allowed to have elsewhere. Ironically enough, the topic for today is ‘censorship’. This really is irony. Alanis Morrisette should take note (the only ironic thing about the song is that it in fact contains no examples of irony. It’s probably postmodern, or something).
I’m going to be talking about the word ‘gay’. I’m not dealing with the social aspects per se, this isn’t a discussion about gays in the military, gays in the media or even gays in the church. This is purely about gays in the dictionary.
I belong to a model railway forum where, signing off a comment about what it is I actually do all day, I explained that my PhD thesis was going to leave me, in some sense at least, “an expert on sex and violence”. The forum’s auto-censorship routine kicked in, leaving me “an expert on **** and violence.”
I hate, really hate, unthinking censorship. I accept that there may well be occasions on which comments need to be removed, and I am on board with the thought of there being words that do not enjoy any validity in social discourse (although there aren’t as many of these true unmentionables as you might think. There are ‘four-letter words’ which I think have perfect validity in some circumstances). But reading and writing all the time about Northern Ireland, one of the themes that becomes fully and horrifyingly apparent is the extent to which cant replaces conversation: because the discussion isn’t held, people wander around in ignorance, and there can be no progression. Talking about things is how you begin to make them better. You want to decrease the spread of AIDS in South Africa? Get people talking about how it works and the importance of barrier-protected sex. You want to prevent a resurgence of measles, mumps or rubella? Get people talking about how the MMR vaccine actually works and how the studies that purported to link it to autism were catastrophically flawed. You want to start healing the divide in Northern Ireland? Get people talking about what actually goes on in the country, and why it happens. No one is entirely right, entirely innocent, entirely victimised. Here’s my point: discussion is vital, because education saves lives.
Anyway, back to the forum. Having had the word ‘sex’ edited out, despite it being in an entirely innocent context, I raised the issue of the word ‘gay’. Gay is also automatically edited out. I am not sure why this is the case. It certainly smacks of homophobia, in the worst, ‘Section 28’ manner. Someone who wishes to introduce themself on the ‘tell us about you’ page as being gay is prevented from doing so by a piece of software that considers their orientation offensive. That is discrimination. Fairly blatantly so.
The forum in question deals with model railways, so one’s sexual orientation is not such a hot topic of conversation. Although – hilariously – one of the famous locomotives to run in Britain was a Gresley A3 (like the Flying Scotsman) called ‘Gay Crusader’, and I know someone on the forum has one…but isn’t allowed to talk about it by the software!
Anyway, having raised the issue of the inherent homophobia in the censorship, I sat back to await fireworks. One of the more unfortunate of my character flaws is an inability to see blue touch paper without patting my pockets in the search for matches.
A defence was mounted. An odd one. I was told that the word ‘gay’ no longer meant ‘homosexual’, it meant ‘rubbish’. It had originally meant joyful, then it was used unfavourably to describe homosexuality, and now it meant ‘lame’ (hence Armando Ianucci’s brilliant construction that forms the title for this little essay). Others supported this view.
Dear reader, here is my response, amended slightly to include additional information obtained for me very kindly by Dave Wark who, as an employee of Chamber’s Dictionary, has access to their databases chronicalling semantic shifts:
“The evolution and reclamation of words is a fascinating topic in its own right (there’s a particularly intriguing one going on at the minute with ‘bitch’, which is in the middle of evolving from a term of abuse reserved for women and subordinate homosexual partners to a more general expression of contempt for those people one considers inferior – although there is no clear consensus yet on what ‘inferior’ refers to – its ‘terms of engagement’, if you like.) However, I disagree that “the word ‘g ay’ has long since departed from a psuedonym in which to describe homosexuals or homosexuality”. I don’t believe this to be true, and for very good reasons. I’ll get to them in a moment, but first, I will acknowledge the evidence which supports your contention (hey, I may be an arts student, but that doesn’t mean I’m down on the scientific method!).
“Perhaps the most public signal that the word in question is in transition is the ruling in defence of Chris Moyles, the Radio 1 deejay, who dismissed a mobile phone ringtone as being gay. After a number of complaints were received, the board of governors announced that the word gay “was often now used to mean ‘lame’ or ‘rubbish’. This is a widespread current usage … among young people”. I accept that this may be the case – although I would also, in the interests of balance, point out that it is in the governors’ favour to come to the conclusion they did: it means no apology is required, and there is no prospect of a fine being levied. More interestingly, the Chamber’s neologism database actually uses this statement, and the newspaper article in which it is quoted (here), as the first time it appears in print (2006). This is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“However, in support of my argument, I would point out that the word gay has had sexual connotations since at least the seventeenth century, when it wasn’t confined to homosexuality (a ‘gay woman’ was a prostitute). Gay in relation to homosexuality goes back to the early 1900s, but crucially, it was the word chosen by those who were homosexual themselves. It was not conferred upon them: it was the euphemism (not pseudonym) they chose to adopt. As such it was an empowering, enfranchising device. It was encoded, certainly, but that was due to the prevailing social condition whereby homosexuality was regarded as perverse. Gay was a word chosen, not a word inflicted; and in defence of that argument I would merely point you to the large number of LGBT (hey! It even gets into that acronym too!) organisations that foreground it with pride. Gay Pride, if you like. Go to Wikipedia, type in ‘list of LGBT-related organisations’, and start counting. You will be there for some time.
“This leads to a further, more serious and more problematic discovery. If the word gay was selected by the homosexual community as an empowering label (‘This is who we are’), then its transmutation into an insult referring to ‘lameness’ or ‘rubbishness’ is an attack. It is a disempowerment, a disenfranchisement, of that community (“You say you’re gay. That literally means you’re rubbish. Hey, now we can persecute you again!”). The theft of an identifier is a serious thing (just look at what has happened to the word ‘Teague’ in Ireland). It is something that I take seriously – but then again, my day job involves mapping out the sensitivities and polemic surrounding the deployment of particular words.
“Gay is not, in terms of usage, primarily a pejorative description, and it is a mistake with serious consequences to assume as much. I continue to find the censorship of the word troubling.”
It was at this point that I was told by a moderator that this was not a suitable discussion for a model railway forum (fair enough) but perhaps a forum on censorship would be more appropriate? Again, I don’t think there was any deliberate attempt at irony. I emailed the moderator explaining that I would leave the topic alone on the forum, but that I still had serious concerns. I also said that while censorship in general might be a topic for a censorship forum, censorship on the model railway discussion boards was still very much his problem. I’ll let you know when (if!) I get a reply.
Words are important. They tell us who we are. As soon as we start taking them away from people, we change the people in question. We need to remember that.