Language: The devil is in the detail

Guest writer, Hadley, discusses the ramifications of a controversial decision by a Paris tribunal in a case of homophobic language in the workplace.


I was left shocked and angered by a French tribunal’s opinion of a certain homophobic workplace incident. Here is a summary for all those unfamiliar with the story that made international headlines: a tribunal in Paris decided not to prosecute a hair salon manager for using the word ‘faggot’ against his gay employee. The rationale for this decision? The fact that hair salons frequently employ gay people, therefore in context, this word cannot be deemed homophobic.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one left a little perplexed by this decision and the frank lack of understanding of homophobia on the part of the tribunal. Irrespective of whether or not hair salons employ gay men, the word itself is still homophobic. And if we want to put things ‘into context’, the context in which the word was used shows that it was intended to cause offence to the employee. It seems that this particular court has taken language evolution to a whole new level, implying that a homophobic word or slur used within a group in which many gay men are present should be acceptable.

My thoughts turn towards how we as a community seem to have reclaimed some of these homophobic words, which were originally intended to cause offence. Some gay men may well decide to claim back the word ‘faggot’, as a means of regaining some semblance of power over a word that was designed to marginalise them from the rest of society – a move which isn’t always met with approval, however, given that many gay and bisexual men still consider this word to be something that doesn’t form part of their vocabulary. For many, the use of the word brings back memories of bullying, violence and social isolation.

Personally, I wouldn’t wish to reclaim any homophobic words, except for maybe the word ‘gay’ itself, which seems to be pulled increasingly away from the hands of gay men and women and thrown around as an insult for anything that is worthless or doesn’t conform to the status quo. Perhaps an interesting question would be this: is the term ‘gay’ homophobic? Returning to the tribunal’s rationale, context is important. If I choose to use the word ‘gay’ to describe my sexual orientation, does that make me homophobic? If I were to say that my friend is ‘gay’, does this suggest that I don’t value him as a person?

I can see where the tribunal was going with their idea of ‘context’. Perhaps in an age where the LGBTQ+ community is looking at reclaiming words and slurs that have been used against us for years, we’ve given people carte blanche to use them. In fact, I would argue that although we may think that we have taken ownership of the word ‘faggot’, the meaning lurking inside remains as powerful as ever. What’s more, even if we were to embrace every single homophobic, biphobic and transphobic slur out there, the context and the emotive impact of these words could still hurt.

Follow Hadley on Twitter (@wordsbyhadley)

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