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All About Everyday Manners

Why Can Neil Patrick Harris Say That's 'Too Gay' and Straights Can't?

How can we expect the nongay community to stop saying things like “that’s so gay” or “he’s such a fag,” when many in our own community use those same words? Why is it O.K. for two gay men to refer to a third as a “girl” who’s “one hot mess,” but not O.K. if a straight man says the same about a gay man? It feels similar to the challenge the black community has, fighting against the N-word as an insult even as it’s become commonplace in rap music and in casual conversation among black friends. Do I get a pass to use whatever gay insult I want, just because I am gay? — Name withheld, Calif.

I was contemplating your question as I watched the opening number of this year’s Emmy awards, where I heard the uber-gay host, Neil Patrick Harris, decline Jimmy Fallon’s invitation to join him in a song-and-dance number because “that is far too gay.”

Honestly, I both laughed (because I thought it was humorous) and cringed (because I’m sure the “wrong” people will take it as license to repeat). For those who may have missed some recent L.G.B.T. history, the phrase “that’s so gay” has become a slur, used synonymously for “dumb,” “nerdy” and “stupid,” and its use contributes, especially in schools, to a hostile environment and bullying.

I’m not doing a virtual tap dance when I draw a distinction between actual slurs and the campiness we call “lavender linguistics.” Words like “Mary,” “girl” and even that commonly used B-word are sometimes used as terms of endearment among gay men, notably those of our generation. Even so, it does matter whether you’re gay or not — a straight man who calls a gay one “Mary” is on thin ice.

As for actual slurs like “That’s so gay,” they’re offensive and it’s hurtful to use them in mixed company. Period. You are correct when you draw the parallel between racist and antigay hate speech: Language used within a community is not fair game for those outside. As the old joke goes: (White friend) “We’re good friends. You know my heart. If I call you the N-word, would you be hurt?”: “No. But YOU’D be hurt!”

“Insider” language used in public at the very least confuses those not in the group. At worst it legitimizes such language. Remember the recent example of Paula Deen’s foot-in-mouth disease? You’d think someone old enough to remember the civil rights struggles of the 1960s would know better than to use the N-word. Part of her justification was that African-American members of her kitchen staff did so regularly. I don’t buy it because, really, any white person in 2013 (especially boomers who came of age when and where she did) should know better than to use such racially charged language.

Apparently, though, not everyone knows better than to use words like “queer,” “tranny” and others, which so frequently carry not only a highly negative connotation but also a history of oppression, even violence. The use of those words remains verboten outside the gay community, even if some L.G.B.T. people use them as a way to take out the stigma by owning them. In response to my posting this question on Facebook, one reader wrote:

“It has become acceptable for a historically oppressed group to ‘re-appropriate’ a derogatory term for its own internal use. Members of the group can use it within the group without penalty, but those outside the group cannot, as their use cannot be considered re-appropriation.”

To test my theory about exempting lavender linguistics from the slur category, I also asked my Facebook followers to weigh in on the use of “she” and “Mary” and similar words some gay men use to refer to one another. Most agreed that camp doesn’t carry the same verbal TNT that slurs do. Using female language to refer to themselves is well embedded in gay male culture and has a long history of helping forge an overt social identity. An outsider using that same campy language is very different. It’s insulting not only to the target (because he’s not a “real” man) but also to women (because to insult a man by calling him a woman is pretty much saying that women are inferior).

Camp for insiders, though, has staunch defenders. One reader posted:

“Over many decades, gay culture, often for protection, developed the art of high camp, which usually includes biting sarcasm and deprecation. While I am happy we are shedding some aspects of gay culture through our mainstreaming (like closeted sex in airport bathrooms), we shouldn’t lose that. It’s our heritage, and it’s funny. Some people just need to get over themselves.”

As I’m sure you know, what’s funny to one person is not funny to everyone. So my advice would be: Do not use campy language in mixed company, and be sure even in gay company that you are among like-minded friends before you call one Mary. And no, you don’t get a free pass to use antigay slurs in any company simply because you are gay.

Finally, I noted in your question that you referred to all these terms as insults. I would caution that context and emotion are critical in determining whether or not a particular phrase is offensive. Language matters, but it’s the hate that hurts the most. Kind-hearted people may make gaffes. And the most P.C. speaker in the world can be filled with hatred.

Originally published in The New York Times, October 22, 2013

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