by Kevin Hague
Oh all right then.
The issue with using the word “gay” in the way the PM did is that it works as a put-down only because it taps into and reinforces a bunch of negative ideas about homosexual people (actually, I didn’t think weird was one of them).
As an adult gay man who has been working “in this space”, as the marketing people say, for around 30 years now, it’s water off a duck’s back to me. However it’s a different story for a young LGBTI person, or an older person who is in the process of coming out or is otherwise feeling insecure or isolated. A young gay person will most likely every day hear the word that describes them used to mean pathetic, sad, terrible, inappropriate, wrong and maybe even weird. It has no effect on me, but it has a big effect on them. That is why LGBTI community organisations and student and teacher groups are working to increase understanding of the effect of the word.
I absolutely take the point that most of the people who use the word “gay” as a pejorative descriptor – including the Prime Minister – intend no offence by it. But the point is that regardless of their intentions, harm is caused. Words matter, as Sir Ian McKellan says.
The Prime Minister has said that he heard his son using the word in this way, and has copied him (to try to perpetuate his cool, everyman image, no doubt). Actually the right thing to do when he heard his son using language that way (and I mean to use words that describe any minority group to hurt or marginalise) was to teach, not copy.
The Prime Minister’s behaviour and language have a big impact, and I don’t think our country’s Prime Minister ought to be legitimising a practice that is mindlessly harmful. See, for example, Mark Reason’s comments in the sports pages this morning.
Having said all that, I also want to say that John Key as Prime Minister has done a number of things that have been really helpful for my community (for example, his comments around the marriage equality bill, and commitment to support it into law, have been very valuable), and I don’t think he set out to cause offence. That’s why my public response has been to try to make the necessary serious point while retaining a sense of humour.
All he needs to do is say that he shouldn’t have said what he did, that he understands language can be hurtful and just like everyone else, he is always learning. And he could really save the day by wearing a red top himself!