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Philip Patston on… Words that don’t come easy

Mon 28 Aug 2006 In: People View at NDHA

Philip Patston I've always been strong on the belief that words matter. For me they sit between thought and action in the creative process – we think, communicate and then do stuff. So words are symbols of beliefs, values and ideas that, in turn, inform behaviour. But over the past week I have begun to change my thoughts about words. I am beginning to think that that it is not the actual words that matter as much as our understanding of them – our common, collective understanding. This evolves over time and, indeed, can be caused to change. Now, I'm no Max Cryer, and I'm not about to launch into a lecture on the development of language – that would be tiresome and without doubt inaccurate, given my lack of academic background in the derivation of the human idiom. But allow me to elaborate on the past week's happenings and my subsequent reflection. It all began when my dear friend and colleague Victoria Maxwell, a talented and sought-after Canadian playwright, actor, consultant and survivor of bi-polar disorder (manic depression), emailed me: “I am ‘blogged' about – they are debating the fact I call myself a bipolar princess and titled [my] play “Crazy for Life”…[and] whether I was re-traumatizing us mental health ‘consumers' using those words.” Indeed they were – in fact they were tearing strips off the poor darling: “Victoria is one of a number of well-meaning experiential mental health advocates who use words like “crazy,” “bonkers,” “psycho,” “nutter,” etc. in fighting stigma. It's perhaps endearing to some…Call me crazy, but I don't understand how slurs are empowering and doubt that “psycho” and “mad” will achieve what “queer” did for gay pride.” (Psych Central, 11 August 2006 <> Clever puns aside, I struggle to accept that, in this case, what can be good for the gay goose cannot benefit the gaga gander (excuse the “offensive term that insults somebody's mental abilities” used for solely alliterative purposes). But “Depressed Queer” agreed: “Since I'm both gay and depressed, I'd like to comment on the differences between the “queer” and “mad” movements to take back stigmatizing terminology. I have no problem being openly gay at my workplace, and likewise, use of the term queer is fine with me. However, I am NOT out about my depression at work, as I fear the stigma, judgment, and questioning of my job performance.” Oh really, DQ? Well, I wonder why? I answered my own rhetorical question: “The reason Depressed Queer can identify as Queer but not Depressed at work is because hundreds and thousands and millions of gay people were brave enough to start calling themselves gay and then queer back in the days when it felt as awkward as it does now to call yourself crazy or bonkers.” This is how I see it: The understanding of a word like “queer” changes when it becomes associated with new meaning, which is defined by experience. As the civil rights movement emerged, the mainstream (they/them) experienced a new generation of people, previously connected with labels like “queer”, “poofter”, “faggot” and “dyke” and everything the words stood for – the stereotypes of homosexuality. But these new people were “gay men and lesbians” – not “homosexuals” – and we were dutifully employed, living next-door and aware of our rights. We were no longer the dirty scourge of homosexual deviance of previous generations. The new words – gay (Good As You) and lesbian (woman of Lesbos) – described who we were and, strangely, we were much more like them than they thought “homosexuals” were. The new words espoused new ideas to help shift the mainstream idea of what it was like to be "homosexuals". Once that had happened, the old word “queer” could be "reclaimed" and re-branded with the newly updated connotation. That process has not been completed yet in the disability/mental illness realm, hence DQ can be openly queer at work but not openly depressed (poor love, what an affliction). Another way to think of it is that the word “queer” has simply been re-branded. Jennifer Rice [] refers to branding in terms of reputation and, in a clever article about re-branding branding, she suggests that a word associated with a brand can be killed and filled with a new word, or “we can reframe the word with new meaning.” Well, I'd convinced myself, until I read religion columnist, public theologian, and motivational speaker Rev. Irene Monroe, who chastised: “Language is a representation of culture, and it perpetuates ideas and assumptions about race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation that we consciously, and unconsciously, articulate in our everyday conversations about ourselves and the rest of the world – and, consequently, transmit generationally.” (The Advocate, 2 August 2006 <>. She seemed to be suggesting that meanings are locked into words, ad infinitim, and who am I to argue with such a literarily established woman (presumably lesbian) of the cloth? Except that she contradicts herself somewhat by referring, on more than one occasion, to “queers” – a word the use of which is criticised and disowned by some gay men and lesbians because of its historical connections of abuse and stigma, yet by others, as I've discussed, it has been reclaimed, re-branded and reused for positive effect. While she argues that we should never use “any kind of hate speech, sugar-coated with humour or irony or not, “ does not the reverend do the very thing she preaches against, by using the word queer, albeit in a casual and accepting manner? I am not arguing she is wrong to use queer, merely that she is inconsistent in her argument. In fact, given the success with the re-branding of queer, I believe we should be using, more and more, other tarnished words like “poofter”, “faggot” and “dyke” with constructive connotations and in situations that help them continue to lose the connection with “homosexual” and become associated with the new images of “gay and lesbian” – or perhaps even better ones! And with that bold statement, this vegetarian, lentil-eating, poofter, crip, faggot, gimp jester rests his shaky case.     Philip Patston - 28th August 2006

Credit: Philip Patston

First published: Monday, 28th August 2006 - 12:00pm

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