What's in a name?
Queer, pansy, homo, gay: When it comes to name-calling, what’s acceptable one day, is unacceptable the next. And indeed, vice versa, writes Barry Lowe.
The first time I recall someone actually calling me a derogatory name was in high school. That’s not to say nobody called me names in primary school as I have a distinct notion that ‘sissy’ was bandied about during those years, surprising really considering I was the one boy in Third Class who couldn’t sew a stitch in Craft lessons to save his life.
However, I remember the high school incident as if it were yesterday. I was seated in the school library with my best friends when the school vice-captain walked past with his entourage of mates and spat out, ‘Filthy little campers’. I had no idea what he meant except that ‘filthy’ was obviously a word with negative connotations. That aside, I’d never even been close to a tent in my life, let alone gone camping. Later, we discovered that for all our aversion to outdoor activity and said canvas habitat, we were considered as ‘camp as a row of tents’. Our tormentor had got his name-calling confused. No matter, he and his minions soon moved on to ‘poofter’.
It was exhausting keeping up with all the insulting synonyms for what I was. At least my ‘difference’ had a name at last. Apart from those already mentioned there was also ‘queer’, ‘homo’, ‘pansy’, ‘queen’ – most of which have been reclaimed by the gay community. Oh, how the bullies squealed like stuck pigs when we staked a (re)claim on another word used to deride our breed early in the twentieth century – ‘gay’. We modern poofs had destroyed a perfectly respectable word by squatting on it, they yelped.
My friends and I had to be dragged screaming into the Modern Gay Age because we were so used to the word ‘camp’, the new word sounded alien from our mouths. The death knell was sounded by Susan Sontag who popularised the new meaning as a ‘banal, frivolous, over-the-top’ aesthetic. So long ‘camp’; hello ‘gay’. Simultaneously, our bullies appropriated another term imported from the cultural hegemonic monolith that is the US, and began swapping ‘faggot’ for ‘poofter’.
Alas, ‘gay’ has now become a term of derision meaning ‘lame’ – not to be confused with the now unacceptable term for the disabled. It’s inevitable that a new word will arise – probably first in the US – from the ashes of ‘gay’ but it will take time for the community to accept and incorporate it into our vocabulary, then it will slowly filter out into the wider community.
Language is a minefield. What’s acceptable one day is suddenly unacceptable the next and, unless you got the memo, you can find yourself in some very uncomfortable situations. In my early years I had some real eye-opening experiences when I answered ‘yes’ to various men who enquired as to whether I enjoyed ‘water sports’.
Of course, minorities and other groups should be allowed to dictate the terms by which they will allow themselves to be described. Ignore those who think this is the word police, or the politically correct run amuck. Mind you, some new words catch on, some don’t. Womyn anyone?
Perhaps there should be a daily news bulletin on TV to update us as to the acceptability or otherwise of certain descriptive terms. Until then, I use as a rule of thumb, the person’s intent when they use a word or words I find offensive. In role play, naturally, I’ll accept things I would not otherwise tolerate in my everyday life. I will also accept words from gay friends that I would not accept from a stranger although, if a stranger’s offence is inadvertent, I’ll take the time to explain why.
But then, I’m that sort of bloke. Oops, didn’t Christopher Pyne, in the Federal Parliament, suggest that word is sexist? Oh, fuck me, I do regret if I offended anyone by using the term ‘bloke’.