In today’s Web-suffused culture, we’ve become simultaneously desensitized and delicate. For every graphic hate crime caught on camera and blasted across our Facebook feeds, there is a trigger warning preceding a perfectly tame article on bullying. For the delicate among us, I’d like to take this opportunity to warn you: In this article we will be discussing the awful, hateful words that haunted us as children, when it’s justified to call in the language police, and when we should let words roll off our backs like so much water off so many ducks.
I’ll stipulate that words have tremendous power. I also think it’s challenging to balance a respect for the significance of language and a sense of humor. We have a responsibility to educate people on how we like to be spoken to, but I’ve seen these conversations turn ugly quickly, with people who fundamentally respect and support one another bickering over the meaning of words. I think it’s worth noting that I’ve mostly observed the intricacies of what words, pronouns, or phrases are homophobic, transphobic, sexist, or racist debated among allies; you won’t find many Donald Trump supporters holding each other accountable in this way.
For this piece, I was asked to consider a number of potentially homophobic and transphobic words and phrases, such as “that’s so gay,” “hot tranny mess,” and “butthurt.” To better understand the meaning behind the words on this list, I sought out the expertise of Doug Bigham, assistant professor of linguistics at San Diego State University. According to Bigham, the majority of the words on this list “have definite, mostly clear, origins in acts of demoralizing and demeaning people who aren’t straight, white, middle-class, and male — but some of these words have since been reclaimed (to greater and lesser effect and by no means across the entire community).”
It’s important to note that finding a consensus as to whether a word has been “reclaimed” or not is impossible, and that opinions about the offensiveness of a term vary from individual to individual. I was surprised to learn that the earliest usage of the word “gay” “applied to ‘wanton women’ and only later to gay men, and only later still to the LGBTQ community in general,” and that the word “has never, ever, never in the history of English, been a polite synonym for ‘happy.’ It always carried the connotation of ‘debauched’ or ‘wild.’” Conversely, the term “butthurt,” while occasionally used in a homophobic context, “is only as old as the late 1990s, in reference to spanking an unruly child,” and Bigham believes that renouncing the term based on a few homophobic trolls adopting it “would be irresponsible linguistics and irresponsible history.”
Ultimately, I think we need to put down the pitchforks when dealing with people that have fallen behind the times. I'm not advocating excusing the Donald Trumps of the world, and I’m not discounting the damage caused by microaggressions — I experience them on a regular basis as a gay man and regularly have to choose between calling out offensive language and keeping the peace in social situations. To this day I find it very hard to stomach rappers’ use of terms like “faggot” and “no homo” and get frustrated when my straight friends turn a blind ear to offensive lyrics. I don’t, however, accuse my friends of homophobia, because their actual crime is thoughtlessness. Being able to turn a blind ear to language that offends a marginalized group is a marker of privilege but not a deliberate act of aggression, so I do my best to explain why something bothers me, without insisting that they smash their favorite records. I think it’s important to be patient with our allies. This is a burden all people share, to a degree, but minorities are disproportionately tasked with keeping the peace because their experience is singled out as the exception, rather than the rule.
The English language is both subtle and blunt. The meaning behind certain words is indisputable, while others rely entirely on context and intent. Far too often, Internet social justice warriors leap to conclusions based on word choice rather than stopping to assess the speaker’s intended meaning. The truth is, no one has a perfect grasp of the language, especially considering how quickly our language evolves; we’re all inarticulate, messy translators, doing our best to divine the messages coded in our native tongue.
KIT WILLIAMSON is an actor, filmmaker, and activist living in New York City. He best known for playing the role of Ed Gifford on Mad Men and creating the LGBT series EastSiders, which recently premiered its second season exclusively on Vimeo On Demand.