Same-sex marriage has been a fact of life in Canada for so long now that many of us have long forgotten the silly hysteria that led up to it. Yet, alas, anyone reading future history books will find that the mere discussion of allowing equal marriage rights for same-sex couples had prompted all kinds of vitriol about homosexuality in general throughout media and politics.
And so I draw your attention to Australia, which is currently entering the same silly throes that inevitably lead up to our equal rights.
Bob Katter, an independent MP, made all sorts of attention for himself last week when he declared that same-sex marriage deserves to be “laughed at and ridiculed.” An odd assertion on its own, but it was his comments on English semantics that elicit some very special ridicule today.
Speaking to supporters in front of the media, Katter waxed nostalgic about the time when the word gay meant “cheerful.” Quoting some old poetry, Katter called it “one of the most beautiful words in the English language,” before finally lashing out at gays: “No one has the right to take that word off us!”
Poor, poor Katter. Such trauma. Such injustice. What words are left for him to use in place of gay? Besides happy. And nice. And cheerful… Jolly, chipper, glad, jaunty, upbeat, lively, merry, pleasant, sunny, rosy, perky—you know what? I’ll just refer him to a thesaurus.
You see, no one has actually taken the word gay from anyone. There weren’t any regulating body offices for us gays to storm, after all. And dictionaries only ever report on existing usage patterns. No, the meaning of gay, like many, many other words, changed organically, evolving from popular usage. Gay people might have started using the word as a secret code in the 1960s to refer to each other, but it was the heterosexual majority that popularized that code into its full, modern meaning.
Of course, all this sentiment for the old meaning of gay is disingenuous to begin with. We clearly haven’t lost any expressive capabilities in this specific instance (again, please consult your thesaurus), and I highly doubt anyone could argue that changing words are inherently problematic. (When’s the last time you saw anyone lament that “terrific” no longer means “terror-inducing?”)
Here’s what Katter’s real beef is: The man resents homosexuality and doesn’t want any “nice” words to refer to us. People like Katter thinks they should be the ones who should decide what to call us. Well, tough beans, Katter. You already have an ample selection of nasty words for us at your disposal. I assume you’ve used them in private, and would be very interested to see if you’re ever brazen enough to use them in public.
Not to suggest that word gay will never change meanings again. English evolves, after all, but I expect that’ll only happen to “gay” again when gay people are finally fully accepted for who they are. One day, when there aren’t old coots like Katter around who are afraid of being associated—even fleetingly—with all things gay simply by using the word in other contexts, perhaps, then, other contexts will emerge. Until then, here’s a very special word that accurately describes Katter, and whose meaning has also changed radically within the past few decades: Douchebag.