I was talking with a gay friend the other night about banter and homophobia. I’ve been told many times by people not to take umbrage at the use of ‘that’s so gay’ to mean ‘stupid’ or any other number of derogatory things. But that always bothers me. Not that I have no sense of humour. I do, and can laugh when things are genuinely funny – making fun of homophobia is funny, because it’s a progressive way of telling a biased society how ridiculous they sound.
An old 1987 episode of Fry and Laurie, dripping with sarcasm, does this beautifully. The two men (here portraying stuck-up ageing middle-class men) talk about how the ‘decent public’ has been deprived of the everyday use of the word ‘gay’ because (shudder), now it might mean (and here they pause and think) ‘poofy’. Well, Laurie adds, the word ‘poofy’ even. Yes, now it is taken to mean ‘arse-breaker’. Yes, Fry says, take the word ‘arse-breaker’. These days it could mean ‘homosexual’. Laurie then pauses. Take the word ‘homosexual’. In the good old days one could say ‘Martha, the garden’s looking beautiful and homosexual’ and today it would mean… and the two men shudder.
Now that’s funny to me. It’s hilarious. It makes fun of all the homophobic banter about the supposed former innocence of society before us gay folks came and ruined all that. But it’s not funny to say “Damn man! It’s raining. No footie today. That’s so gay.” No that just makes no sense at all. The fact that it’s raining is somehow homosexual? Well, clearly not. So it’s synonymous with whatever homosexuality means to the person saying this sentence and considering the sentence began with “damn man!” it’s not a particularly positive connotation.
Someone once told me ‘Smoking is such a gay habit, dude’. Yeah? More gay people smoke than heterosexuals? Hardly, I’d say. At least with the people I know, the stats don’t swing that way. Oh wait, did you mean smoking’s such a happy habit? Then what was with the look of disgust I wonder? So I asked. And this girl said, ‘Oh, I meant smoking’s not cool. Sheesh, don’t take this so personally, no?’
Sure. Try telling a black person ‘Smoking’s such a black habit.’ This brings me to point two, that a friend, hereafter L, made. Homophobia, he said, is invisible racism. It’s a fear and hatred of a whole kind of people, except, unlike with race, you can’t (and yes, I maintain you can’t) tell a gay person on sight. We don’t have a different skin colour or something as definite as that. Now of course that doesn’t mean a whole bunch of clothing preferences and body language isn’t branded ‘gay’ (and necessarily less than desirable for the superior straight man, or woman).
Another annoying bit of homophobic banter is the use of words like ‘muff-muncher’ and ‘cock-sucker’ instead of ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’. To begin with, our range of activity in life is not limited to ‘munching’ (if you have to call it that) on cocks and muffs just like straight people’s lives aren’t all tied up in penetrating vaginas and being the vagina that’s penetrated. Secondly, no, being gay isn’t (however hard that is for the homophobes of the world to believe) all about the sex. Yes, the sex is important just as it is in straight relationships. But no, that’s not everything. There’s all the romance of dinners and punting and companionship and reading together. And the dream of a home and a comfortable togetherness. As L added, it’s like saying oh he’s a gay. Yes, because that’s the entire range of human experience somehow for gay people.
So here’s the thing. Yes it is offensive to say ‘gay’ and mean something derogatory. It’s like saying ‘retarded’ when you mean ‘foolish’. But we can make fun of the homophobes like the lovely Messrs Fry and Laurie and make light of the situation. Let’s do that instead of smiling politely and saying nothing to offensive jokes.