Dirty Words?
A BENT/Disgaytalk Forum

Disgaytalk is the online discussion group associated with BENT, where men discuss their cripgay lives. Like all such lists, the quality of the discussion ebbs and flows, but often the sparks fly.

From time to time, with the cooperation of the participants, BENT will present an edited version of an exchange we think will interest a wider audience.

Please let us know what you think by writing to BENT or by joining Disgaytalk.

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This month's Forum began with the following news item:
In response to pressure from activists, Merriam-Webster announced it would remove offensive synonyms for the word "homosexual" that had been included in a thesaurus on the company's website and America Online. Words included as synonyms for "homosexual" included fag, faggot, fruit, homo, invert, queer, uranian and uranist.

BOB: Erasing words, no matter how offensive to some, from a reference source, strikes me as intellectual Fascism. These are words that people use or have used and it's important that they not disappear from the historical record. If we're concerned about a younger generation stumbling across them without context, we do what any responsible reference source does, we label them "slang," or "usually derogatory," or "offensive." Any thoughts on this topic?

MAX: I remember starting a training sensitivity seminar by getting people to list synonyms for gay. We had a real long list and the conclusion was that not one of them was positive. The sensitivity training started from that point. I like the notion that saying the words destigmatizes them.

BOB: Exactly. If we don't have access to the words, we can't even question our assumptions about the qualities they describe, which means we can't defend ourselves or even engage in reasonable discussion.

DAVID: So—are crip, gimp, wobbler, etc. in the updated Merriam-Webster dictionary, at least? [grin] Hmmm, it seems, off the top of my head, that there aren't nearly enough derogatory terms for us crips, but maybe people only call me crip behind my back... Shouldn't Bent develop the definitive list?

BOB: David, brilliant! We hereby initiate the Official Bent Search List for Derogatory Terms for the Disabled. Or should it be for disabled queers? Contributions encouraged.

MAX: OK: There must be some lavender limpers out there. Or lavender legless. Is a gay midget a Gidget? I love the idea of listing all the possibilities. Is a learning and physically disabled person a Gump gimp? Lets not forget that in my day a man with CP was called a spaz.

BOB: I couldn't resist checking the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, which tells us that the first recorded use of "crip" is in 1893 in Owen Wister's novel "Out West," where a man lame from being shot in the leg is called "Crip Jones." So, we have a venerable history.

JOHN: "Spaz" was popular with my friends when I was a teenager, and I used to get angry with them for using it. They couldn't see why I was offended, since I wasn't a "spastic" myself! In my opinion slang synonyms develop when people are looking for a new word to use because they either find the original distasteful or want a new insult to fling about. In any case, slang terms are rarely positive.

BOB: "Spaz" is a good example of just how slippery meaning and intent can get. It was popular when I was a kid, too, and we used it to refer to somebody who was clumsy or nerdy/jerky, but I don't think I had any idea that spastic referred to someone with a disability. Maybe it's akin to how young kids today (or at least last year—I'm probably out of date already!) use "faggot" as one of those generalized schoolyard slurs that has nothing to do with sexuality. What happens when a word gets that distanced from its source like this? Does it lose its power to offend?

BLAINE: I'd like to enlarge the discussion. In the '60s and early 70s, liberals were still a "force to be reckoned with." I know it's hard to believe, but in those days the government actually spent money to help the oppressed and deal with social problems collectively; discussion about spending more money was not uncommon.

By now, American liberals and progressives have been on the decline and on the defensive for almost 30 years. Other than in pockets like San Francisco and Manhattan, their ideas and values are held in very low esteem. One result has been that what's left of the American liberal/left tends to focus on issues that don't need a popular consensus. So we get demands by politicians, academia and the media for more sensitivity to minorities While this is a noble intent, I think people can and have gotten carried away to dangerous extremes of zealotry or defensiveness.

To me, the ultimate bitter irony is the superficiality of it: elected officials can and do fuck over minority people constantly, but as long as they avoid saying "nigger" or "fag" in public, their actions barely raise an eyebrow. Witness Junior running for President, full of sweet talk for blacks and Mexicans. My guess is he'll do precious little for them if he gets into the Oval Office.

BOB: That kind of political background is useful, Blaine. John asked me recently what all the Political Correctness fuss was about, because it's not the same in England, so I think your explanation of its roots is helpful.

JOHN: I confess I've never understood why some people think Political Correctness is so wrong. Maybe it's just that it's never been taken to the same extremes here in the UK that I gather it has in the States, though there have been a few cases. To my mind there's nothing wrong with taking care not to offend people when you talk to (or about) them. Like anything it can be taken to ridiculous extremes, but as a general principle I don't see a problem with being PC. Some words have strong negative associations and are generally understood to be insulting. What's wrong with trying to avoid using them? Am I missing something?

BOB: Yours is a question we need to pay serious attention to, John, but I see plenty of rearguard boneheads hiding behind the legitimate PC banner in order to foster narrow-minded, anti-humanist thinking, like those people who might "protect" us queers by demanding that Merriam Webster delete "offensive" synonyms for the word homosexual.

Also, there have been a host of well-publicized cases here in the US in which academics have been censured or removed for using historically legitimate language, or language for creative/artistic ends, that caused offense to students or colleagues of limited intellectual means, so the positive intent of PC gets turned inside-out.

DON: Blaine's comment about "dangerous extremes of zealotry" reminds me of a big news story from about a year ago that illustrates how a "slippery slope" can lead to a cliff: Somebody on the mayor's staff in Washington, DC was fired for using the word ''niggardly'' in a meeting, as being "racially" insensitive!

BLAINE: Thanks for reminding us of that one, Don. Perfect example of PC run amok, but that case was unusual only because it made the headlines.

DON: This topic stirs up many feelings and contradictory opinions for me. John, I fully agree with your earlier statement about not wanting to offend anyone, to respect others' sensitivities. To this end, PC has been good and necessary. Your observation that the sting has been mostly removed from words like ''crippled'', through reclaiming and embracing, raises the other side of the issue for me. Source and intent determine the way we receive words.

JOHN: I did get called "cripple" as a young kid, and that used to hurt, for all that the word has been partly reclaimed now and is fairly harmless. The reason it hurt wasn't the actual meaning of the specific word, but the way it was meant by the person using it, so you're right about intent. It was just that someone using my disability as an insult reinforced any insecurities I felt, that being disabled made me somehow inferior. Being a kid I was particularly sensitive about it, and the kids who said it, being kids, were particular insensitive to the way it affected me. So I guess I'm not a big fan of all these synonyms.

DON: Yup, "intent" again. For example, inside the African-American community, ''nigger'' can be a term of endearment, even intimacy. Example: "He's my nigger,'' whereas ''black'' was always used in a negative way, until the late 1960's when we ceased to be ''Negroes" or ''Colored,'' and became ''Black and Beautiful." Some of us had a big problem with that at first. With time, and usage we became so accustomed to it that the old appellations now seem somewhat offensive, but becoming African-Americans was a difficult transition for some.

JOHN: Spot on, Don. Here in the UK the term "black" is still used widely—and used proudly by British blacks. But a (white) friend of mine still uses "coloured," because he grew up with it and can't get out of the habit. I'm as certain as it's possible to be that there's not a racist bone in his body, and I've stopped wincing when I hear him say it. It's odd that such a simple choice of words can carry such an emotional charge. Language is constantly evolving to meet the changes in our social structure as well as things like technology. It's fascinating to observe the changes, but sometimes it feels like you're walking through a minefield, worried about accidentally using the wrong word. I think that's where the "intent" part comes in.

I've just had a plumber here working on my hot water system and he was commenting on how hard it was for me to reach some of the valves. He asked, shaking his head in disbelief, if the people who'd installed it knew I was "an invalid". Not a particularly strong word, but still one with some negative associations. But the way that he said it—and more importantly the way that he meant it—totally neutered it.

DON: There was a time when I couldn't see how reclaiming words like ''queer'' could work for us, but it has.

JOHN: I'm not sure if there's a difference between the way that word is accepted here and in the US, but I always think "queer" is just slightly confrontational. Because it's still used as an insult, when a gay man or woman uses it positively there seems some element of a "do you want to make something of it?" undertone. Which isn't a bad thing, since it's challenging people's prejudices. I guess that's the "source" part of your "source and intent" statement, but it seems to me intent plays a part here as well.

DON: And, for me, even the use of ''crip'' in BENT's subtitle has taken the shame out of it, made it part of the celebration of this incredible community.

JOHN: When I first saw the word "crip" used in BENT I was slightly taken aback—the word "cripple" had such strong emotions for me. But now I see it exactly as you describe, part of celebrating who I am. And that's an important change in the way I see myself and the world.

BOB: John, it's rewarding to hear you describe that personal transition. Remember, BENT's tagline is "BENT aims to provoke, delight, amaze and offend you." From my perspective, the "provoke" part means to open up fresh ways of thinking. But if "crip" is losing its punch, I'll need to come up with something freshly offensive!

DAVID: I don't have any more derogatory names to add. I guess I'm weird, but I've always felt that if someone has a problem with my disability, well screw them. I am happy in the knowledge that 35% of all ableds will at some time suffer a disability and 20% of those disabilities will end up being total and permanent. Maybe that is God or fate, but what come around goes around. I have other more important things to do than fret about being called names.

BOB: One last corollary to that observation: Have you noticed that there are a ton more insulting synonyms for "gay" than for "disabled?" I'm certain that that's because we're more threatening as queers than we are as crips. Queers threaten the established social order, while crips are objects of pity. Until, of course, we start becoming Uppity Crips . . .

BLAINE: Well, in that case, what are we waiting for?

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© 2000 BENT

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/November 2000