By Matthew DeMello
Photo courtesy of Doug Vinson.
A few weeks ago at the GLAAD Media Awards, producer, writer, and star of VH1’s Transform Me Laverne Cox gave the audience this illuminating bit of perspective into TV’s newfound affection for the transgender community. Specifically, she talked about Orange Is the New Black, a Netflix original series in which she co-stars:
“I don’t think Jenji Kohan when she was writing the show came up with the idea that she was going to change the way transgender people were represented on TV. I think she said, ‘I just want to tell human stories.’ I think that should be the goal for everyone, that we tell diverse stories… each and every one of us has the capacity to be an oppressor. I encourage each and every one of us to interrogate how we might be an oppressor, and how we might be able to become liberators for ourselves and each other.”
For any given twentysomething, it’s not all that difficult to remember a time when it was a lot easier to be an oppressor, at least in the way that Cox is referring to. Little do we remember in the brave, new, and more open minded world of 2014 just how homophobic almost every strata of American life used to be in the late 1990s and early ‘00s.
First, anyone in search for hard evidence needn’t look further than the passing of the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996–a classic piece of draconian social legislation that was thankfully overturned by the Supreme Court last year in a decision still considered quite historic. Although America’s new found acceptance of the LGBT community in the form of George Takei’s Facebook page or the overturning of state gay marriage bans on a near monthly basis is wonderful and all, let’s also appreciate just how young it is.
Along with the return of Monica Lewinsky last week, more than one news story has been giving me (probably) unnecessary flashbacks to my adolescence right at the turn of the century, but few are more humbling than Cox’s.
If the marginal virtue of derogatory language is perhaps that its cultural familiarity tends to have a short half-life, the term “faggot” (a word, to me, as heinous as the unspeakable “n-word,” but thankfully not given such a faceless designation) is still one any millennial can recognize; though perhaps not always as an “othering” of an unfamiliar sexual preference as much as an obnoxious guardian of “manhood.”
For the schoolyards of any ‘90s childhood, bearing that label probably meant you couldn’t hit a baseball to save your life, as it often did for me. It also could have meant you were too eager to be friendly with teachers, or had done something clumsily. None of which had anything to do with anyone’s sexual preference, but this is how oppression works.
I don’t say so because I look on my experience as being particularly terrible. Sure, a bit humiliating at the time and nothing all that out of the ordinary from the experience of so many other less-than-athletic young men in the time since, for sure. But it’s one that has always endeared me to the plight of the LGBT community–“queer” itself, a reclaimed insult from our parents’ generation.
Which is also not to say I’m in a place to claim any real moral high ground against my then peers. I may remember finding myself more frequently on the receiving end of somewhat harsh teenage social experiments, but I think any straight man would be hard pressed to claim that he never defended his own self-image in an equally cowardly way.
The term “faggot”, like so much language beloved by adolescents, also represents a taboo with which to be played. As much as its use may be toxic among serious people, there is a use of it that is merely inspired by the fact it is forbidden in polite company. The pop culture peripheries of which can be found in the early seasons of South Park and those Eminem records from before he went to rehab.
In the midst of the continued backlash of Eminem’s liberal use of the other f-word, now on his latest record, Marshall Mathers told Rolling Stone that he does so having come from the Detroit rap scene, where the word had no realistic baring on anyone’s sexual preference. It’s a defense he’s used before.
Instead, calling another rapper a “faggot” in the heat of contest “was more like calling someone a bitch or a punk or asshole,” said Mathers. “So that word was just thrown around so freely back then. It goes back to that battle, back and forth in my head, of wanting to feel free to say what I want to say, and then [worrying about] what may or may not affect people.”
Yet in contrast to all the support that can be found in hashtags when the Supreme Court undoes the injustice of laws like DOMA, in some ways–even for Generation Twitter–it appears that very little has changed.
A little over a year ago on my current events podcast on BTR, Third Eye Weekly, I hosted Dr. Kristopher Wells of the University of Alberta. Dr. Wells is a researcher at the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services, and the founder of NoHomophobes.com, a site that tracks the use of homophobic language on Twitter. Checking Wells’ site on a regular basis is enough to shed the skin of even an optimist’s faith in “kids today.”
Based on the results of 10 years of research by the institute, Dr. Wells told me that “upwards of 70 to 80 percent of LGBT youth hear those derogatory or negative phrases, like, ‘that’s so gay’ everyday in schools… 10 percent of the time they’re coming from teachers themselves.”
Such language policing like that demonstrated on NoHomophobes.com might come off as slightly invasive or overly sensitive, but a recent ad by the institute that appeared on Canadian television demonstrates just how unequal “offensive” language is treated by censors:
In effect, the video shows us the very frontier of oppression as Laverne Cox defines it–in what words we deem unacceptable and why we do so. If we demonstrate any sensitivity at all to the language we use in a public space, be it fuck or faggot, let’s remind ourselves why they are in fact offensive to hear.
Humor and art that deals in taboos tends to do some from the vantage point of questioning the authority that gives them that designation. In 2014, we are only just beginning to realize that it is not some prickly manners police who tell us “not to say that” when we resort to our adolescent tendencies, but rather a brave band of victims whose voices are finally being heard.