Driving home from the supermarket a few Saturday mornings ago, I switched on the radio to discover a female chef talking very enthusiastically about her collection of knives. I couldn’t place who she was but was suddenly more interested when out of her mouth popped the phrase:
“Anyone who uses a serrated knife for anything other than tomatoes is totally gay.”
I turned up the radio hoping to check what I’d heard was really what I’d heard but there was only silence, as if the chat show host and other guests were deliberating over the need to pick up on the chef’s use of the term gay.
It wasn’t long before listener complaints rolled in. The show’s host repeated one which asked: “Did I hear that right, gay being used as a derogatory term?”
In response to defend herself, the chef bluntly told listeners to get over their concern because the term ‘gay’ had evolved in its meaning and as a lesbian herself she didn’t think her use of it was offensive at all.
And the radio show left it at that, bar making apologies for any offence the comment had caused. But I couldn’t help pondering on the subject further because I’ve witnessed the phrases ‘totally gay’ and ‘that’s so gay’ being used fairly often, both inside and outside work. I’ve also heard the phrases ‘big girl’s blouse’ or ‘girl’s skirt’ being used to reference something being flighty, insubstantial or useless and therefore unfitting for our driven environment.
These phrases are usually delivered in the context of friendly banter and for the large part they go unchallenged, reflecting a growing acceptance, I think, that they’re really only meant as a bit of a laugh. Something the chef on the radio seemed to imply.
Yet I do have to question whether they are just a bit of a laugh. If someone used equivalent language that referenced a racial group being useless they’d quite rightly be judged racist. So why is it acceptable to use this form of language to reference gay people and women? Is there enough acceptance of this humour amongst gay people and women as those using it might think?
The days of extreme political correctness are behind us, it seems, and large corporations like our own have become pretty settled on inclusive language that appropriately accommodates a full diversity of people. Yet in our day-to-day conversation and banter phraseology can often creep in that proper consideration would show is inappropriate to employ.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that the language we use is something we all have to keep check on, not just our HR and legal teams. Because language plays a fundamental part in the truly inclusive culture we’re working towards here. So please – this is a gentle reminder – let’s be thoughtful about the words we do and don’t use.