The pejorative gay

Where I grew up, in upper Bucks County in Pennsylvania, (though I’m sure this is true elsewhere) it was commonplace to use the word gay pejoratively, as a synonym for lame or lousy. It was an unfortunate habit I certainly picked up and have had to stifle ever since. In my mind, I pretend the word, when used pejoratively, has nothing to do with homosexuality, the same way fags can be cigarettes. But obviously the force behind the disapproval expressed when I declare “Coldplay is gay” or “Those capri pants are gay” or “We need a less gay bass line for that middle section” comes from the societal disapproval for homosexuality, the suspicion with which it is held and the alleged strangeness strenuously associated with it. Though I’m not out to express any disapproval for gayness at all, I’m perfectly happy to appropriate the contempt others feel for it and then relay that to European walking shoes or the lingering smell of cologne in an elevator. Even when I don’t use the term out loud, I’m correcting myself in my mind. So in a way I’m relying on something I otherwise detest to give my offhand remarks rhetorical efficacy. I really have to knock it off.

But what to say/think otherwise that will give my comment kick, to put force behind my disapproval (when I don’t have the thinking to back my feelings up, especially)? It’s laziness that makes me reach toward hate speech, just as un-PC comedians are always lazy. (Anyone can get a laugh by breaking taboos, or pricking someone’s notion of offensiveness.) We have these societal pools of hate and bigotry to draw energy from to render things abject, occult, abnormal. The pejorative gay in particular implies a falseness, a phoniness, an inauthenticity, again as if there was something insincere about homosexuality that then lends the epithet its potency. It means something distinctly different from another dubious epithet, retarded. In the forbidden nomenclature of my mind, it’s “retarded” when someone makes a turn without signaling, yet it’s “gay” when someone stops in the middle of the sidewalk to whip out their BlackBerry.

What might replace that stand-by source of social energy (the energy of social exclusion, of class antagonism, of xenophobia) to use to rhetorically reject or fence off things in one’s mind? Is that energy something we all use in different ways to order categories of things in our psyches? Does everyone, every culture, have their equivalent of “gay”? Multiple equivalents?

Gay carries with it at the same time the threat that homophobes feel at the idea of cultural permission — they think, If those guys can kiss right there on the street, then anyone could — meaning, of course, that they themselves could, a thought that apparently troubles them deeply. So when I call something gay, what I must mean at some level is that it shouldn’t be permitted: Coldplay shouldn’t be allowed on the radio. I don’t think this means, however, that I secretly want to listen to Coldplay, but maybe it does; I don’t want to allow the solace that other people feel in hearing music like that because I don’t allow it to myself, don’t allow myself to swept up into such stuff with no questions asked, simply because it is on the radio. Instead I have to call attention to it — “Gay” — and try to proscribe it. I wonder if I use gay pejoratively only for those things I suspect others of having a secret pride in, a pride that for whatever reason I want to deny them. At the root of it, it’s gay that everyone is not exactly like me.