Richard (“I’m not anti-gay”) Littlejohn made the following “joke” in his column in The Sun: “All sorts of wackos and weirdos took to the streets of Manhattan to demonstrate against the Republicans. What unites them, apart from hatred of Bush, is a total lack of humour. My favourites were a bunch of lesbians wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan DYKES AGAINST BUSH. Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? I can’t help wondering if I missed an affiliated group of homosexuals protesting about the Vice-President Cheney: GAYS AGAINST DICK.”
Now, as jokes go, it isn’t bad, I suppose. If it were told with affection, I might even laugh. But somehow it just isn’t funny when Richard Littlejohn tells it, because when he says it, it’s riddled with sneering contempt and is intended to humiliate.
So what should our reaction be? Be contemptuous right back? Ignore it entirely? Or complain to the Press Complaints Commission that it is ‘offensive’?
I ask this question, because last month some gay people complained to the television regulator, Ofcom, about a remark by Richard Madeley (of Richard and Judy fame), after he used the term “dyke” about one of his guests.
Now, Richard and Judy are just about the least homophobic people you could meet. They give a lot of space, airtime and sympathy to gay people on their show. Richard said he thought he was being “hip” by using the term, but others didn’t agree. Even though he apologised the following day, there were still some who would have liked his scalp – Kilroy-Silk style.
This sparked a lively debate about just what can and can’t be said about gay people by people who aren’t themselves gay. It kicked off in the Daily Mail, which helpfully gave us a brief history of the word “dyke”. “It is not clear where it originated,” the paper said, “but one theory is that it was derived from the name of the Celtic queen Boudicca (Bou-dyke-ah).”
If that doesn’t convince, then the paper offers: “Others surmise that it comes from the use of the word dyke as barrier and was used by men to describe women who did not want a relationship with men. The term has tended to be seen as offensive and is usually used in a derogatory way but it has recently become more acceptable as the gay community has started to use it.”
Ben Summerskill of Stonewall told the paper about the etiquette of using a word like dyke. “In some senses among people who are gay it can be appropriate and is used a bit like the term of affection ‘darling’. But if it is used by a stranger to someone who is homosexual then it could be seen as very derogatory and could cause offence.”
Angie Jezard expanded on the theme in a letter to The Independent: “As a dyke/gay woman/lady homosexual/lesbian/queer… I often don’t know how to refer to myself and friends never know what’s ‘in’ among the out. However, the reclaiming of words like ‘dyke’ and ‘queer’ by the gay community is similar to blacks using ‘nigger’ to turn a derogatory word on its head.”
Well, poor old straights, they don’t know which way to turn, trying to be right-on and simply putting the people they’re trying to connect with right off.
But Carol Sarler in The Daily Express doesn’t like this little game. She came to Richard Madeley’s defence. “His reportedly offensive remark happened in the same week that Diva, a new magazine for lesbians, is launched – with ‘dykes’ splashed across the cover in clearly clubbable appeal to potential readers… Integration of race, caste and sexuality is an admirable aim. But I have no time for those who protest against exclusion on the one hand while demanding exclusivity on the other. In language or anything else.”
(By the way, Carol, just for information, ‘new’ Diva has just passed the 100th issue mark.)
In The Independent, Martin Kelner was sympathising with Richard Madeley’s old geezerish attempts to connect with a younger generation that is rapidly disappearing into the distance.
Mr Kelner tells of the time that he was hauled in front of the Broadcasting Standards Council for saying the word “bugger” on air. In the North, where he comes from, he says bugger is a term of affection (in such phrases as “you daft bugger” for instance), but he was still made to justify his use of the word because some “pathetic, humourless loser” had complained about it. Eventually, after many wasted hours, the complaint was dismissed (just as it had been in the Madeley case). “I thought then,” wrote Mr Kelner, “that the way to get round this problem [of ‘piffling’ complaints] is simply for Ofcom and all the other regulatory bodies to employ someone specifically to tell all such complainants, irrespective of race, creed, disability, body shape or sexual inclination, to go boil their head (in those exact words).”
On the BBC News website, Jonathan Duffy was trying to make sense of terminology, what’s in, what’s out, what you can say and what you can’t. He first gives us a little glossary of lesbian-connected terms: Boy/boi – is a boyish gay man or boyish lesbian; Heteroflexible – is a straight person with a ‘gay’ mindset; Hasbian – is a lesbian who’s gone straight, and so on.
Mr Duffy explains that: “At the heart of these disputed words is what’s known as a lexical gap – where the official language has failed to keep pace with real life. Slang and sterile, academic words sit either end of the spectrum, with nothing in the middle.”
He quoted Tony Thorne, editor of the Bloomsbury Dictionary of Contemporary Slang. “These are contentious issues which have only started to be discussed in the last thirty years – not long enough in our culture for language to find fitting words.”
Some words have succeeded better than others at crossing over into the mainstream. “Gay” for instance in now almost universally used for homosexual, but some people still blanch when they hear the word “queer”.
Tony Thorne thinks that “dyke” has such a long history of “negative connotations” that it will fail to make the transition into everyday language. For lesbians in New York, says Mr Thorne, the term ‘dyke’ is already passé – the preferred term among them is “boys”.
So should we – as the members of the gay community – relax now, and stop getting upset about straight people using “our” words about us? Have we come far enough for it not to matter if a straight TV presenter – who, let’s face it, has a fag hag for a wife – says ‘dyke’ or ‘queer’ in order to seem (God help us) ‘hip’?
Perhaps the answer is given in an article in The Times by Patrick Neate, who was commenting on the present hoo-ha over dancehall singers singing homo-hating lyrics. Everyone thinks it’s terrible – or at least they do when gay activists point out to them that it is terrible. If Outrage! hadn’t drawn attention to these incitements to murder, most straight people would simply have accepted them without demur.
Mr Neate says that: “I’m guessing here, but … while I would swear it’s true that most British people don’t believe in attacking homosexuals, I would also swear that a huge number (perhaps even a majority) are more or less homophobic.”
Mr Neate says he is intrigued by the way a ‘perceived consensus’ may not be the majority opinion at all but that of a ‘cabal’ of successful pressure groups. Therefore, whatever people may say when under pressure to be politically correct, the fact is that “taunts like ‘poof’ and ‘queer’ are still in the playground top ten.”
So, perhaps words are important after all. But perhaps we should cut a bit of slack to our well-meaning straight friends – like Richard Madeley – while continuing to give Beenie Man and his murderous mates hell.