The lingering power of derogatory language

Actor Alec Baldwin was recently caught on camera referring to a photographer with a horrific slur meant to demean the LGBTQ-plus community. This is nothing new for Baldwin, who has a history of using homophobic language. For those familiar with the actor’s politics, it is a puzzling scenario. Baldwin is one of the most outspoken advocates of same-sex marriage in Hollywood. Everything but his language would suggest that he is a friend to the LGBTQ-plus community.

As with most derogatory terms targeted at specific groups, gay slurs have become commonplace insults that have little meaning to the people using them. What is most damaging about these empty signifiers is the legacy and cycle of marginalization that they perpetuate.

The term Baldwin used conjures images of hateful messages spread by groups like the Westboro Baptist Church. Sadly, these are not images of a bygone era. Though it is far more stigmatized, the term Baldwin used is still actively used to subjugate the LGBTQ-plus community.

When Baldwin used this slur, he may not have been reflecting his personal feelings for the LGBTQ-plus community. By using that term in a derogatory context, however, he reinforced centuries-old stereotypes.

Language reflects the cultural zeitgeist. The slur Baldwin used comes from a time when it was commonplace to think of the LGBTQ-plus community as weak or “soft.” That slur was borne of a culture that deemed the community unfit for society. It wasn’t until 1974 that homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Using that word today harks back to a far less enlightened time.

That is why it isn’t enough if you support same-sex marriage or if you have a gay friend who’s totally cool with you saying gay slurs. When you use words crafted to subjugate a population in a derogatory context, you are endorsing that subjugation. There is really no room for irony or subversion. These are words that have no place in modern society.

Think about the world one hundred years ago. Racial slurs were as prevalent and accepted as any other word. Today we wonder how that was ever acceptable. We have to realize that terms like the one used by Baldwin must be treated with the same indignation.

Baldwin does not get a “pass” for his words because of what he has done to support the LGBTQ-plus community. He only displayed his ignorance of the power that language carries.

Rather than offer a proper apology, Baldwin has cowardly said that he actually said “fathead.” He, and others, would be behooved to listen and try to correct their problematic behavior rather than offer lame rationalizations.