Category Archives: Opinion

Homophobic Language: Intentional and Unintentional

Homophobic language is a widely used and offensive pejorative in our culture. Common forms of homophobic language are “that’s so gay,” “you’re so gay,” or any use of the word “gay” to mean something is bad, uncool, or annoying. It is becoming less common for you to hear the word “gay” thrown around as a derogatory term, but kids especially still use it. Young people are increasingly using the expression “no homo,” after they’ve said something that might cause others to perceive them as gay. Other everyday expressions have a homophobic history or carry antigay connotations you might not realize. I want to discuss five common words and sayings with roots in homophobia.

The term “bugger” is not a term used in the United States very often though it was used in Colonial times and in the early years of the Republic. It is, however, quite common in Britain frequently used as an exclamation as in, “Oh, bugger! while “buggery” is synonymous with the act of sodomy. The modern English word “bugger” is derived from the French term bougre, which evolved from the Latin bulgarus or “Bulgarian.” The Catholic Church used the word to describe members of a religious sect known as the Bogomils who originated in medieval Bulgaria in the 10th Century and spread throughout Western Europe by the 15th Century. The Church used it as a term of offence against a group they considered heretical. The first use of the word “buggery” appears in Middle English in 1330 where it was associated with “abominable heresy” though the sexual sense of “bugger” is not recorded until 1555. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology quotes a similar form, “bowgard” (and “bouguer“) but claims the Bulgarians were heretics “as belonging to the Greek Church, sp. Albigensian.” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary gives the only meaning of the word “bugger” as a sodomite, “from the adherence of the Bulgarians to the Eastern Church considered heretical.” When someone is called a lazy little bugger, they probably don’t mean to accuse them of being a Bulgarian sodomite!

The term “nervous Nellie” borrows from “nelly” and “nancy,” archaic derogatory descriptors for gay men. The words imply gay men lack masculinity because of their sexual orientation. The phrase was popularized in the 1920s when it was used to refer to Secretary of State Frank Kellogg, a notoriously timid politician according to “Hatchet Jobs and Hardball: The Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang.” Needless to say, it is as offensive to link homosexuality with timidity as it is offensive to criticize a meek politician as “gay” or “girlish.” These days, this term probably isn’t the best way to refer to an antsy or jittery friend. Typically, ‘nancy,’ ‘nelly,’ and others including ‘fag,’ ‘sissy,’ ‘fairy’ are used to perpetuate homophobia These slurs usually target people with male-sexed bodies who do not act sufficiently masculine. They are inherently sexist and frame femininity as an insult meant to emasculate men.

On the down low” is a specific term rooted in the Black community. The phrase first referred to Black men who had secret homosexual relationships; it was later adopted by Black men who weren’t closeted, but who rejected white gay culture. Men first started claiming the label in the mid-1990s. Back then, the culture was completely under the radar, and DL men lived ostensibly heterosexual lives (complete with wives and girlfriends) while engaging in secret sexual relationships with men. The phrase remains rooted in paranoia about homosexuality, and the belief these men were spreading HIV/AIDS to heterosexual girlfriends and wives.

If you’ve recently been around male elementary school students, you’ve probably heard a lot about what “sucks.” And what does suck? A penis, of course! Expressing your distaste for something in terms of a blowjob equates it with a sexually submissive woman or man forced into a homosexual act. The notion that oral sex is inherently shameful also reflects a generally skewed view of sexuality in which sex acts entail one party being belittled by the other. Using sexual submission as an insult is essentially the same thing as calling something gay; it implies that fellatio is gross, degrading, and punishing particularly when it is performed by a man.

It is common knowledge that “faggot and fag” are offensive, but it’s worth revisiting why especially if you’re tempted to use tamer-seeming phrases like “fag hag.” The English words “faggot” and “fagot” come from Old French and first referred to bundles of sticks used as firewood. In the Middle Ages, men were burned alive at the stake for engaging in homosexual intercourse as well as other acts of heresy. By the time the Inquisition finished its work in the 17th Century, several million heretics and homosexuals had been burned at the stake. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) revealed the words’ first uses referring to “a bundle of sticks, twigs, or small branches of trees bound together […..] for use as fuel” and “with special reference to the practice of burning heretics alive, esp. in [the] phrase, fire and faggot; to fry a faggot, to be burnt alive; also, to bear, carry a faggot as those did who renounced heresy.” According to the OED, in the early 20th Century, the term was adopted in the United States as a derogatory way to refer to homosexual and effeminate men. Curiously, the word “faggot” was not commonly adopted in the British Isles in the same sense; indeed, a “fag” in the United Kingdom is usually a slang term for a cigarette or used in the phrase “fagged out,” meaning exhausted.

Some in the gay community have reclaimed these terms, but that doesn’t make them fair game for everyone else. In fact, I don’t even like hearing them being uttered by gay people. When people use offensive language in their own community and claim it is only offensive when other people use the terms, that, in itself, is offensive. The words gay (used in a demeaning fashion), fag, sissy, fairy, queer, faggot can do psychological damage to a young person especially when used in a degrading way. These terms emphasize there is something wrong with being homosexual. It was one of the reasons it took me so long to acknowledge my own sexuality. Everything associated with homosexuality was deemed “bad,” an “abomination.” When the gay community normalizes these words, they don’t know the traumatic affect it can have on someone younger. I cringe whenever I hear these words. I don’t care who speaks them. I will never hear the word “queer” without hearing it in my mother’s voice filled with disgust. Other disparaging, homophobic slurs also bring back the torture many of us received from bullies while growing up. 

 In conclusion: the next time you start to use these words, take the time to think how they might affect those around you.

While we are on the topic of how words affect LGBTQ people, see the second half of this post where I have a few things to say about the language too often used concerning HIV and STI.

“Master” (De)bates

On Monday, CNN did a story on everyday words and phrases which have racist overtones. The story noted they are so entrenched in everyday use that Americans don’t think twice about saying them. Some of these terms, however, are rooted in the nation’s history of chattel slavery while others evoke racist notions about Black people.  But with that said, IMO, CNN is only partially correct. Following are words and phrases CNN used as examples: 

  • Peanut gallery
  • Grandfathered in
  • Cakewalk
  • Lynch mob
  • Uppity
  • Sold down the river
  • Master bedrooms/bathrooms
  • The Masters Tournament

Peanut gallerygrandfathered incakewalklynch mobuppity, and sold down the river have clear racist origins. The term “peanut gallery” dates back to the vaudeville era of the late 19th century and referred to the section of the theater where Black people typically sat; now the phrase usually refers to the cheapest seats in a theater and informally describes critics or hecklers. “Grandfathered in” comes from a law passed by Southern states during Reconstruction. The law stated anyone who was able to vote before 1867 was exempt from the literacy tests, property requirements, and poll taxes needed for voting. Enslaved people were not freed until 1865 when the 13th Amendment passed. They weren’t granted the right to vote until the 15th Amendment passed in 1870. Effectively, it prevented former slaves from voting. “Cakewalk” comes from slave owners holding contests in which enslaved people competed for a cake. The cakewalk originated as a dance performed by slaves and was intended to be a mockery of the way white people danced though plantation owners often interpreted slaves’ movements as unskillful attempts to be like them. Thus, the term “cakewalk” became associated with an easy victory, or something that’s easily accomplished.

The term “lynch mob” has such blatant connotations I shouldn’t have to explain it. It refers to the lynching of Black people for the smallest of offenses. “Uppity” is another term used as an epithet by white people in the Jim Crow era to describe Black people they believed weren’t showing them enough deference. This word has always been in common use with racists. No one who uses the word when describing Black people, can legitimately claim they did not know of the word’s racist origins especially those who leveled the claim against the Obamas. And finally, the phrase “sold down the river” is just what it sounds like. Slave traders traveled along the Mississippi River selling enslaved people to plantation owners further south.

Therefore, I have no problem with these everyday words and phrases being said to have racist connotations; they absolutely do. However, I do have a problem when someone tries to associate all uses of the word “master” with chattel slavery. The reporter pointed out that master bedrooms/bathrooms and the Masters Tournament (golf) evoke slave masters from the South. The phrase “master bedroom” first appeared in the 1926 Sears catalog and referred to a large second floor bedroom with a private bathroom. Some realtors insist that “master” in master bedroom is related to the assumed superior status of the man of the house, be it race- or sex-based. But if this were the case, the room would be called the master’s bedroom not the master bedroom. Likewise, the term Masters Tournament, which was intended as a reference to golfers with great skills, is now being called racist by some sports writers simply because it takes place at a Southern golf course. Not all uses of the word master have connotations of chattel slavery. I have a master’s degree in History which signifies I have mastered the discipline of History; if a golfer plays in the Masters Tournament, he has mastered the game of golf. 

The American lexicon is filled with derogatory terms used in everyday language. Some of them are more offensive than “master.” Do not get me started on homophobic words in everyday speech. That will be a topic for tomorrow.

Laughter in an Age of Pandemics

This is an article by Michael A. Genovese, a Director for the Institute for Leadership Studies in the Loyola Marymount University (Los Angeles, CA) that I wanted to share with you.

In the 1941 movie classic Sullivan’s Travels, successful movie director John L. Sullivan, played by Joel McCrea, laments the fact that in the midst of the misery caused by the Depression and War, he is making frivolous films such as Ants In Your Pants, 1939. Sullivan rebels. He decides to pose as an average citizen and go out among the people to see what they are like, what they want, and how he can be of service to humanity. After a series of troubles along the way, Sullivan happens upon the sound of laughter. He searches for the source and finds a group of down and out men hysterically laughing at a silly cartoon. Eureka! Sullivan realizes the error of his ways. The people don’t want serious, ponderous social criticism, they want to laugh, escape, lose themselves for just a few moments, forget about the troubles they face and have a good time. The movie’s point is driven home by Sullivan in the final lines of the film: “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”

During World War II, the commissioner of baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, sent President Franklin D. Roosevelt a letter offering to cancel the baseball season if the President so wished. Roosevelt, in a January 15, 1942 letter, told the commissioner that baseball must go on. The people needed it in the midst of the troubles of the war. Baseball brought joy to millions of anxious Americans. The game had to go on.

When things go from bad to worse, we have essentially two choices: let it defeat us or rage against the madness and laugh. Laughter is good medicine for virtually anything that ails us. And in this age of pandemics, where social distancing removes the tactile from our daily lives, and forces us to hibernate in isolation, we social animals hunger for the embrace of others. Stripped of the direct contact with others, we search to fill the void. Laughter helps. True, things aren’t very funny just now, but life remains ironic, silly, discombobulated, and downright hysterical – if you wish to see things that way. And if you do, it will help see you through this insanity. In a world where the Trump Covfefe Panic Index has exploded off the charts, we all need distractions from the misery that surrounds us. And speaking of distractions, I find myself suffering from Kardashian Withdrawal Syndrome. My social grounding has been torn out from under me.

As our politicians inadvertently spread fear and anxiety, we search for security and hope. There was a time when FDR could remind us that the only thing, we had to fear was fear itself. But today, watching Donald Trump bumble and fumble his way through a press briefing on the coronavirus, we are left dumbfounded and with a feeling of “Oh Dear Lord, all is lost if this guy is in charge.” Yes, we get the occasional chuckle, as when Dr. Fauci stands behind as the daily press briefing while the President is speaking, shakes his head, looks down at this feet and invites us to imagine the thought bubble over his head that reads “What the [bleep] is wrong with this moron?” But that is little consolation. Trump, who is wrapped tighter than an airport sandwich, actually inspires fear and anxiety every time he opens his mouth. His credibility has disappeared faster than cupcakes at a pot party, and as each member of Team Trump – crammed together in a very non-socially distanced way – goes up to the microphone, bows and makes the ritual “You are doing a wonderful job, Dear Leader” before delivering the bad news about a pandemic out of control, we cringe and think, “Life under Trump is like running through hell wearing a gasoline bathing suit.” Trump’s disappointing response to the coronavirus has been as welcome as an ingrown toenail. Our president who used to say “I alone can fix it” has been revealed as a fraud. He does however have the Midas Touch… everything he touches turns to mufflers.

This president may be a joke, but it is no laughing matter. In this, Marx was right. Of course, I refer to Groucho Marx, who said that the problem with political jokes is that they keep getting elected. Can President Trump lead us out of this crisis? That’s about as likely as Mike Pence marrying Cardi B. And while the President says that he is doing a tremendous job (and that is why I do not let my students grade their own exams), and that he would give himself an “A” grade for his handling of the crisis, in reality the case for Trump handling this crisis well has fallen apart faster than a third-grade science project.

If President Trump cannot provide decisive leadership in this crisis, at least we can laugh, and at this time, laughing at and not with President Trump is a tiny bit comforting. Our hope is that governors and mayors can lead us through the crisis. President Trump is AWOL on this, and perhaps we are all the better for that (OK, we aren’t better off for that, but if he can’t lead the least he can do is get out of the way).

We are all struggling, and we all need the distractions that only absurdity can provide. If we take President Trump seriously, we are lost. And so our only option is to turn away from our president and turn to each other for comfort, solace, and hope. Social distancing makes that a bit harder, but we are a strong, resilient people. We have been through worse than this. So, laugh now and then; see the silly, the absurd and the comic in life. And remember, always remember, we are all in this together and we can get through this together. Reach out to your friends, your neighbors (at a safe distance, of course) and spread hope. It is better than despair.