On using homophobic slurs: Yes, you're being oppressive

Alec Baldwin is not a homophobe. He's just a progressive, tolerant person who happens, sometimes, to use words like "cocksucker" and "queen" in anger to insult straight people. That was the gist of the first half of Baldwin's diatribe in New York Magazine last month, his defense against allegations that he had called a paparazzo a "faggot." And, while Baldwin has taken a fair amount of heat for his hair-splitting approach to homophobic terms, his rationale is really nothing new or unique.

"When are homophobic words not homophobic?" is a question that's been debated to death by the millions of people, though particularly straight males, who toss around words like "cocksucker," "faggot," "queen," in supposedly inoffensive ways on a regular basis. We heard it in 2012 when then-Toronto Blue Jay Yunuel Escobar was caught with the phrase "Tu Ere Maricon," (translated roughly as "You are a faggot") written on his eye black. And you've almost certainly heard it from a friend, a relative, maybe even coming out of your own mouth.

It's always the same entitled justification: in the lexicon of the straight man, "gay," "faggot," "cocksucker," et al. have nothing to do with sexuality. They are just words that convey our hatred for something. As long as they aren't used in direct reference to an LGBTQI person, these terms cannot be homophobic. Baldwin added an extra dimension -- a new approach for the 21st Century liberal -- that "faggot" is unequivocally homophobic and wrong, but the more general "cocksucker" and "queen" are flexible. Right...

Of course, when you stop to think a moment about why any of us use these words, the justifications and qualifications fall apart. We use homophobic language to refer to anything we consider unpleasant, uncool, weak or cowardly. Anything distasteful, really. The implication is that gay is bad, and to be thought of as gay is a repugnant prospect. "Cocksucker" may not be singularly related to homosexuality, but it gets used as an insult by straight men against straight men specifically because the implied accusation of homosexuality will be humiliating.

In a recent interview with Salon, author and sex worker advocate Melissa Gira Grant talked about the misconception that so-called whore-phobia was limited to the abuse aimed directly at sex workers. Rather, she said, it's a product of a more general whore stigma or slut shaming, which is applied to people from all walks of life, though especially women and trans persons, be they sex workers or not.

There's a similar dynamic at work with the use of common homophobic terms. Even the abstract use of the slurs sustains the culture of stigma and shame that we've been laying on the LGBTQI community for years.

Now, all language is fluid, words are malleable and definitions can change according to popular usage and interpretation. It's why Merriam-Webster now idiotically defines "literally" as "figuratively." It's shortsighted to say that words can't evolve. But it's willfully ignorant not to recognize the lasting acidity of words that have been used for so long to injure and demean.

Take "queer," for instance, a term that many within the LGBTQI community have re-appropriated to refer to themselves. Despite largely being considered a politically correct term, "queer" is just as menacing, just as offensive when spoken with indignation by a person not from the LGBTQI community.

Chris Rock has this great line, that when he heard people were trying to ban the n-word, he told his accountant to buy 800 shares of "coon." The point is that the arbitrary value we assign to specific words doesn't matter. Bigoted words are just vessels for bigoted ideas. We can try to rank or qualify those words, ban certain ones and keep using others, but they all carry the same bitter taste of discrimination. The end result is still a culture of division based on sexuality or gender or race or what have you.

The underlying message in all the defensive parsing and justifying of homophobic terms is that the users are tolerant people. As Baldwin tried to argue, you can be a progressive person and still sometimes slip into the lazy use of homophobic terms, as long as you're not trying to insult a 'homosexual' person. But that's a little dishonest, a kind of a cheat, not to mention utterly untrue.

Homophobia is far too prevalent (and our culture's acceptance of homosexuality still too tentative) for anyone to ignore the hyper-potency of a gay slur, no matter how it's used. At a certain point, the self-styled progressive has to stop preaching temperance from a barstool, as someone once probably said.

It's not about censorship, or political correctness or nitpicking. It's about fulfilling the pledge of the progressive, to extend dignity to all people.

Peter Goffin is a journalist living in Toronto. He has written for The Toronto Star, This magazine, and The Huffington Post, and contributes a weekly column to Torontoist. He also tweets at @petergoffin.

Photo: activist toolkit

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