Words that as members of the LGBTI community, we’re unfortunately all too familiar with. Even as society moves towards a growing, genuine acceptance of the LGBTI community, language remains a battleground.
A number of recent incidents reflect the broad scope of the issue. These include the “tranny/she-male” controversy on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Wests Tigers’ Mitchell Moses being banned for two games for using a gay slur in an Under-20s Origin match and the chairman of Barilla Pasta, Guido Barilla saying the brand would never use a gay family in its ads.
Each controversy is unique and has its own set of particular challenges and issues. One thing they all share is that they sparked a massive conversation (mainly online, and mainly via social media) within our community. Many voices expressed their feelings which ranged from disgust to disappointment and indifference, as well as downright anger.
Some commentators have lately become critical of the LGBTI community and our reaction, and what they perhaps perceive to be our over-reaction, to the use of homophobic language in instances such as these. These controversies and the reactions they have provoked raises an interesting broader question – what’s the best way to deal with homophobic language online?
Traditionally, we’ve had a number of tools at our disposal. These include petitions, boycotts and protests. However, the times are a changing. The way we consume news and information is changing. Perhaps it’s a good time to consider how our response to homophobic language might need to change too.
In keeping with the modern, social media fuelled times we’re living in, I’d like to propose some new ideas for how to react to homophobic words and slurs, particularly online.
1 – Thank the hater
Our initial reaction to reading or hearing about something homophobic is understandably anger. But before you hit the comment or reply button, take a moment to calm down. Let the first words coming from your keyboard be “Thank you for this article/letter/opinion/post etc.”
In some ways, people who raise the issue of homophobia are doing us a favour. It’s the concept of enough rope. People sprouting hate filled language allows fair and reasonably minded people to realise just how off the mark their views really are. There are more and more people who are on the ‘right side of history’ and every day, the number increases.
Think about what sort of reaction the author/journo was trying to get. The cynical part of me thinks it’s probably got more to do with them courting controversy, which translates to publicity, which translates to a massive stroking of their egos. Receiving thanks from an LGBTI person or ally probably wasn’t on their list.
2 – Remove oxygen
A strategy used by counter-terrorism agencies is to deprive terrorist organisations of media attention. The term removing oxygen refers to this practice. The logic behind it is if you don’t talk about something, you deprive that topic (and the group behind it) of the oxygen they need to spread their message.
We can also do the same. If we think that a particular person or group is using hateful words for their own personal reasons, depriving them of any attention depletes them of their motivation to continuing. Maybe we need to put our heads together and come up with a list of people and organisations we will simply refuse to mention in any online media (stories, blog posts etc)?
Refuse to participate in their hate. Block them, unfollow them, do whatever you need to do to remove them from your life. And most of all, don’t speak/tweet/post about them. At all. Eventually without oxygen, they won’t be able to survive.
3 – Rise above the word
For me, I hate the word “poof”. It probably comes down to hearing it so much during a rather torturous few years of my life known as high school.
But you know what? I am not that word. I have a name, and I have an identity that is beyond that one derogatory term. It’s been difficult but with time, you can rise above words and not let them have the power over you that they once did. It obviously helps to be older and out of the immediate situation, but it can be done.
Rising above the word when you’re responding to homophobia online is an opportunity to present to the world (followers, readers, commentators) a powerful argument or opinion. We all know that calling someone a “poof” isn’t on, but what can you bring to the discussion that highlights this fact in a different or unique way? By taking the focus off the word and onto the broader issues and implications of the word, you help move the discussion forward.
4 – Don’t use hateful language as a response
A certain female Australian journalist (I won’t mention her name, see point 2 above) recently wrote an article basically criticising the decision of the NRL for punishing a player with a two week match suspension for using a gay slur. The response on Twitter from some of the people I follow was swift and angry. Many people tweeted she was an “idiot”, “moronic” and “stupid”… Is this really the best response?
Reacting to hate with more hate doesn’t elevate the argument. It doesn’t allow for a healthy exchange of opposing ideas. And it doesn’t get us any closer to reaching a mutual point of understanding.
In this country, we don’t kill someone if they’ve committed murder. We shouldn’t be taking an eye for an eye approach with language either. If someone throws hate our way, let’s respond with kindness, an intelligent response and heck, even with thanks (see point 1 above).
5 – Words reflect our world
The reason that we still see the use of hate filled words is because our world is still unfortunately, a hate filled one. While we can take comfort and pride in how far we’ve come, we still have a tremendously long way to go too.
So, while there does need to be some focus on language, the majority of work before us goes much deeper. It’s about changing people’s hearts and minds. It’s about changing the way that society feels about and treats people who are LGBTI. Addressing these issues head on will have a flow on impact on language.
Hopefully one day (in the not too distant future) calling a gay guy a “fag” will be as shocking as using a derogatory term to refer to a woman, or Indigenous person.