How often do you hear “That’s so gay”? What about “faggot”, “dyke”, and “queer”? Here’s a less comfortable question: how often do you yourself use these words? While terms like these permeate our language, they are seldom challenged let alone recognized as a significant part of our popular discourse. Perpetuating this language without rigorous consideration of the connotations it holds is part of what enables a culture of ‘casual homophobia’—something that characterizes our contemporary society, even at times below our level of conscious awareness, and which has detrimental effects for sexual minorities.
Dr. Kristopher Wells, Director of the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta (iSMSS), and Wade Davis, former American Football player and Executive Director of the You Can Play Project, joined a panel discussion on the problematic nature of homophobic language, and the initiatives they started in an effort to dismantle this ‘linguistic violence’. Their advocacy is centered on addressing how homophobia, transphobia, and sexism continue to be tolerated in prominent social institutions like schools and sports, and the necessity to facilitate public conversation around the ubiquity of this ‘microaggression’. In particular, Wells’ No Homophobes campaign (which has garnered significant and popular support from news sources and celebrities) utilizes social media platforms like Twitter and QR codes to highlight this point. Indeed, as seen in the image here, the combined number of times the words “Faggot”, “So Gay”, “No Homo” and “Dyke” were tweeted since midnight before this event took place surpassed 14,000.
So why is this so important? After all, many would maintain that words are just words, and they are not always motivated by some sort of malicious intent, nor constitute deliberate bullying. Wells responds:
“Language is not neutral; it holds power and has consequences. Demeaning language validates marginalization…it constructs and regulates our identities”. His presentation drew upon personal accounts of youth affected by casual homophobia, including these:
“It makes me even more angry, and since I can’t express that anger it turns inward”. “It can crush people on the inside. You eventually fade as a person as it changes you, it rots you”.
Following Wells’ presentation, Davis further discussed how casual homophobia reveals the subtle workings of heteronormativity which reinforces a status-quo that has personally affected him all his life. His own story of repressing his identity as a black gay man from adolescence to his time as a professional football player touched the audience in profound ways. Spaces like locker rooms continue to be hotspots for oppressive language and even physical abuse, and we can’t pretend like homophobia is no longer a problem in a society that appears to be more accepting of a diversity of sexual identities and orientations (insert your Will & Grace and Modern Family references here!). Davis’ You Can Play Project goes inside high schools and colleges across the United Sates, seeking to create an environment free of homophobia and sexism among athletes, and has garnered great success.
The panel discussion by Wells and Davis illuminated a number of key issues around sexual identity politics of today, and the omnipresent issues that oppressive language carries along.