A BENT/Disgaytalk Forum
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.
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.
let us know what you think by writing to BENT
or by joining Disgaytalk.
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.
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?
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
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.
Soare 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?
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.
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.
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.
"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.
"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 yearI'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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Spot on, Don. Here in the UK the term "black" is still used widelyand
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 itand more importantly
the way that he meant ittotally neutered it.
There was a time when I couldn't see how reclaiming words like ''queer''
could work for us, but it has.
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.
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
When I first saw the word "crip" used in BENT I was slightly taken
abackthe 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
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!
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.
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 . . .
Well, in that case, what are we waiting for?
© 2000 BENT