Back when I was a kid, a handy way to insult another kid was to call him gay. Before we even knew anything about sexuality, we knew “gay” connoted something un-masculine, which was enough to make an insult.
One sign that times are changing has emanated from a court in New York State, which has held that falsely calling someone a homosexual is no longer defamatory and thus can’t constitute slander. Kids still disparagingly call people and things gay, but in the prevailing culture of the adult world the suspicion or fact of homosexuality is no longer considered shameful.
Recently (and not very originally) I referred to same-sex marriage as the civil rights issue of our time. But marriage is just one piece of the action. While the struggle to legitimize gay marriage continues, a more fundamental (if hazy) sort of human right, the right to be considered a normal person, has been successfully asserted while most of us weren’t even paying attention.
However, to be reminded via an official ruling that in society at large “gay” and “homosexual” are no longer pejoratives is also to be reminded how easy it has always been, and still is, to use such terms thoughtlessly.
The court’s ruling reflects the fact that the dominant culture of the U.S. no longer considers homosexuality a perversion or a sickness; for the most part, the law leaves alone what consenting adults do in the privacy of their home, and psychiatry has ceased classifying homosexual behavior as a disorder.
But as the fury and controversy over cases like Tyler Clementi’s make clear, neither de facto nor de jure recognition of certain basic human rights wipes out prejudice and bullying, any more than the adoption of the former pejorative “queer” by the gay community does. All it does is make us recognize those hostile feelings and behaviors for what they are.
Progress? For sure. But with many steps yet to be taken.