Fighting homophobia and fighting homophobic language are two different things. Often overlapping, yes, but different.
When one fights homophobia and homophobic language, one is fighting power structures that are in place. Let’s use the word “gay” as a running example, since it is the example of this type of misuse of language that I encounter most frequently in my life and my work. When someone sees an assignment they don’t like in my classroom, they most often say: “Miss, this is so gay.”
If I were going to just fight the misuse of language in that sentence, I would say: “Don’t say that. Here are some other options!” just like the poster I have hanging in my classroom:
Poster in my classroom which reads: I think I just heard you say… “That’s so gay!” Here are some other things you could say: ludicrous. naive. frivolous. irrational. interesting. curious. eccentric. bogus. weak. foolish. goofy. insipid. absurd. ridiculous. annoying. asinine. pathetic. yesterday. surreal. wack(y).
Telling people not to use that type of language because it is offensive and leaving it at that is an important part of questioning the power structures that allow people to use that type of language in the first place. The word “gay” was originally associated with a group of people outside the status quo, and as such has morphed into a word synonymous with ludicrous, bogus, absurd, or any of the other words listed on the poster above. It was this power structure – the structure that set this particular group of people outside the status quo – that led to the term being used in this other, offensive way.
It can be assumed that those of us in this blogosphere understand the way language is used and formed through the years and, therefore, we know this background information about the word “gay.” It is also well within reason that one calling attention to homophobic language should maybe not necessarily expect people within this blogosphere to know better, but should expect that they have the knowledge and resources to a) understand why it is offensive; b) find out why it is offensive if they don’t already know; and c) find another, unoffensive word to use.
This is not always how it works, however, when dealing with people outside of this particular social sphere. Let’s take a school again, for example. Instead of saying “Please don’t use the word ‘gay’ in that way; gay means liking someone of the same gender. What you mean is ‘bogus'”, well-meaning teachers often say “Don’t say that.” This latter statement, while fighting homophobic language, actually further marginalizes people who are gay because it silences the concept and any discussion about it whatsoever. More often than you’d think, you end up with kids talking about, for example, Holden Caulfield, and wondering if he is gay. Instead of saying: “Miss, is Holden gay?” they say: “Miss, is Holden bogus?” I say: “What do you mean?” And they point to that aforementioned poster and say: “Well, we can’t use that word, so I used another one.”
Opening up the dialogue about power structures and the language that perpetuates those power structures is vitally important to make real changes in our society. However, shutting down use of a word with no other reasoning besides “It’s offensive and I don’t want to hear it again” can sometimes do more harm than good.