Casual homophobia and The Gay Word

Maisie Barker

23 year old student dividing her time between Manchester and London. Studied English and Creative Writing, hoping to pay the rent with it one day.Likes horror films, reading and spending my student loan on clothes. Dislikes spiders and people with topknots.

‘I hope you hang yourself with your H&M scarf
While jacking off listening to Mozart
You bitch and moan about LA
Wishing you were in the rain reading Hemingway…
You’re so gay and you don’t even like boys.’
Katy Perry

So writes Katy Perry, former Christian gospel singer and current wearer of kitschy brassieres. One could be forgiven for thinking that this was an ignorant attempt at ‘edge’ written by a young musician. But no, this is from 2007 and written by a 23-year old woman.

So what’s the problem? Is this, as has been said, ‘social commentary’, ‘boyfriend-skewering’, a dig at ‘straight guys who can’t handle her edge’? Or is this indicative of the casual homophobia that comes from our appropriation of the term ‘gay’ to mean something negative?

Fellow Vada contributor Amy Ashenden has recently completed a documentary that discusses the word ‘gay’ and its use in youth vernacular. Is there something to be said for the fact that ‘gay’ is a word used so casually in negative situations that it’s almost devoid of its relation to the LGBT community?

In the above song, Perry describes all the ways in which the object of her ire is pretentious, vacuous, and mean whilst continuously relating these aspects to how ‘gay’ the person is. Thus, a direct link is created between negative personal attributes and homosexuality.

Gay men* aren’t the only marginalised groups who have their identities appropriated and twisted. Men are frequently told not to ‘be a pussy’, because the notion of ‘woman’ is synonymous with weakness. The term ‘ghetto’ is similarly used to describe something that is considered cheap or low, despite its meaning as an area of poor socio-economic status inhabited by ethnic minority groups, usually as a result of racial persecution.

It isn’t enough to just understand that these terms are used negatively. We have to examine why that is. Why is it that out of all the words available to us to describe something bad, we instead use gay?

The Human Rights Campaign found that 40% of gay men and 47% of bisexual men have experienced sexual violence other than rape, compared to 21% of heterosexual men. Until recently, same-sex marriages were not afforded the legal safety nets awarded to heterosexual couples. Being gay is punishable by death in 10 countries and illegal in many more. And the callousness of heterosexual people to the plight of gay men has no greater example than the attitude of governments to the AIDS crisis on the 1980s.

By using ‘gay’ to mean something negative, we are implicitly stating that being gay is in itself a negative thing. Part of being a supportive ally to marginalised groups is to recognise the power than language has.

It is really that big of an ask to reconsider the words we use and how we use them? Is it really worth alienating our gay friends just so we can use a word that doesn’t really mean what we want it to? Why is it so important for us to be able to complain about something by describing it as gay?

*(Note: though gay can also refer to gay women, the term ‘lesbian’ is usually used and has its own history of manipulation. Thus, in this article the author refers predominantly to gay men.)

#WATCH: The Gay Word

You can watch Amy Ashenden’s video below:

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