When my junior high school buddies and I referred to someone or something as “gay” or “queer,” we weren’t referring to homosexuality.
Or at least we didn’t think so.
Both words referred to someone profoundly uncool, with a layer of priggishness (what our folks might have called a “goody two-shoes”). Being seen with your parents at a movie theater was gay. Bow ties were gay. Every kid in the “Family Circus” comic was gay.
Girls could be “gay” for being too girly; boys could be “gay” if they actually studied during study hall.
It had nothing to do with sexual orientation, but of course it did. “Gay” had entered our vocabulary as a negative adjective at the very moment that gay men and women were claiming it as their own. Maybe we thought we weren’t using the word “that” way, but it was shorthand for out of step, different, aberrant — and not in a good way.
Sensitivity to words and their impact is often missing in the tiresome debates over “political correctness.” In the usual course of such things, a public figure says something offensive, the offended group demands an apology, the perpetrator either denounces the “language police” or offers a tepid apology to those who “might have been offended.” Pundits draw up sides, and no one appears to learn much of anything.
That’s why it was so refreshing to read the extensive, and eloquent, apology issued by actor Jason Alexander after being called out for remarks he made on Craig Ferguson’s late-night show.
As a guest on the show, the former “Seinfeld” star was expected to tell an anecdote — this one about sports. As Alexander subsequently explained to his Twitter followers, he reached for a bit he had recently done in Australia about the game of cricket and how it is “a bit gay.” He illustrated with a prancing pantomime.
Fans took notice, and offense.
At first, writes Alexander, he “could not understand why” anyone would be offended.
The next step suggests why the Jewish educators who prepared the young Jason for his bar mitzvah can be proud. Alexander actually asked his gay friends how his “silly generalization” could be seen as hurtful. They explained that his joke was built on the premise that gay men are effeminate or abnormal. That these are stereotypes that lead gay adults and children to be marginalized, stigmatized and abused. And that his “silly” comedy bit plays into the assumptions at the root of the bullying crisis.
“It is not a question of oversensitivity,” writes Alexander. “The problem is that today, as I write this, young men and women whose behaviors, choices or attitudes are not deemed ‘man enough’ or ‘normal’ are being subjected to all kinds of abuse from verbal to physical to societal. They are being demeaned and threatened because they don’t fit the group’s idea of what a ‘real man’ or a ‘real woman’ [is] supposed to look like, act like and feel like.”
Alexander concludes that he now “gets it.” “[W]hen a group of people are still fighting so hard for understanding, acceptance, dignity and essential rights — the time for some kinds of laughs has not yet come. I hope my realization brings some comfort.”
Maimonides famously speaks of three stages of teshuvah, or repentance: acknowledgment of a sin, remorse and a resolution to avoid the same transgression in the future. Alexander takes all three steps in his apology and adds another by demonstrating the process that led from confusion to remorse, and adds yet another by helping any kid understand how words can be used as weapons, inadvertently or not.
And if they still don’t get it, they ought to listen to an interview with comedian Todd Glass on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. In the course of the interview, Glass came out of the closet as a gay man after years in the business and explained all the pain he endured because he didn’t challenge fellow comedians who made gay jokes or used “gay” or “queer” as synonyms for uncool.
Glass’ argument was simple but profound: You may not think you are insulting anybody, he suggests, but that doesn’t help the closeted, confused teen who dies a little inside when he or she hears the word tossed about as an insult.
Andrew Silow-Carroll is editor-in-chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.