In the last months of 2013 there were a few choice op-eds and journalistic pieces that displayed a worrying ignorance of thought on social matters. Boris Johnson figured twice in quick succession, first with his Telegraph comment piece 'We should be humbly thanking the super-rich, not bashing them' and then in his 'Greed can be good' lecture to the Centre of Policy Studies at the end of November, invoking the spirit (and vision) of Margaret Thatcher. In both instances, the 'affable buffoon' Mayor of London and would-be successor to Cameron displayed an understanding of modern British society that seemed at best woefully misguided and at worst committed to ushering in a Conservative-lead framework for an ever inequal Brave New World. But the piece that most riled me personally was Brendan O'Neill's Telegraph blog post 'Gay now means rubbish. Get over it'.
O'Neill's piece is an almost entirely ill-thought out, insecurely patriarchal and downright offensive polemic against a recent campaign by Stonewall designed to tackle homophobic language in schools. The campaign, entitled 'Gay. Let's get over it!', aims to stop the usage of the word gay as a negative noun in our schools. O'Neill's objections to this idea are twofold - firstly, he considers it impossible, and secondly, that using the word gay in such a way is not homophobic and anyone who does so is 'no more being homophobic than a person who uses the word "black" to mean depressing ("it was a black period in my life") is being racist.'
If one analyses intellectually and etymologically the above line its point is almost immediately waylaid. 'Black' to mean dark, of despair, reaching a depth, has been in the English language since Chaucer, and its meaning corresponds to the inner feeling of an absence of light and buoyancy. 'Black' as a descriptive noun for people of Afro-Caribbean origin, began being used in the 1600s. There is no connection between the two, separated by centuries of linguistic evolution.
'Gay' to mean rubbish however is explicitly intertwined with its meaning of sexuality. How do I know? Other than the acutely short time of half a century in which gay has gone from meaning 'joyous' to 'attracted to the same sex', and picked up its connotation of virtually anything negative in the past couple of decades, I grew up with this development. I saw the dark - black, if you will - clouds coagulating, full of smothering dust. And smothering I use very pertinently here, because when gay is used in this context it smothers young homosexual people from admitting themselves.
It began with the notion of camp behaviour, and it being bad. Any gesture or walk too flamboyant, that didn't conform to a demanded hetero-normativity of masculine boys and feminine girls, could result in the accusation: 'you're so gay.' Gay as used here was very much meant as an insult. It was a perception you did not want to be identified as by others. And from here its meaning blossomed, cloud-like, into including all instances of annoyance, dislike and the definitively uncool, resulting in strangely oxymoronic phrases such as 'my parents are so gay.'
Stonewall's stance is that this usage constitutes a form of homophobic bullying to young gay people, as outlined in a measured comment piece by Will Young for The Guardian. O'Neill dismisses such a stance as 'nonsense'. 'In the vast majority of cases,' he writes, 'this language is not directed at gay people, in order to make them feel inferior - it's simply used to describe things.' Yet describing things as gay because they are bad can't help but make gay people feel inferior. It is creating resonances within a word that intertwine like thorns around a burgeoning sexuality, and echo and linger well on into adulthood. To say 'I am gay' in an environment of youth culture is not just to say 'I am attracted to the same sex', it contains also indelibly the message: 'I am rubbish. I am lesser. I am inferior.' How terrifying a declaration to make, and how brave a young person must be to state it aloud. It's hardly a wonder that many don't.
Where O'Neill is right is when he says '[young people] are always changing the meaning of words.' Of course, and it's an exciting, volatile, lava-like process to once have been a part of and to now witness from afar. As adolescents discover their sexual identities, they discover also autonomy of the self and the tongue, a control over the tool of language that is not, and cannot be, confined by the rules of the previous generations. Anthony Burgess understood this when he constructed an entire fictional slang for the youths of A Clockwork Orange so it would not date too quickly; only this year did an academy in London get it so massively wrong when they tried to ban slang.
What O'Neill fails to see is that once these meanings are changed they are not codified. Youth culture has created the change, and youth culture can change it again if it wishes. Perhaps what is saddest about O'Neill's vision of our youth is that he paints our next generation as one lined with an inevitable cruelty, without empathy and hope.