Of all the stupid and spiteful things said at last week's rally against same-sex marriage, one of the dumbest, and indeed most clarifying, fell from the lips of independent MP Bob Katter. Quoting from Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock – "Belinda smiled, and all the world was gay" – and lamenting how the terminal word is now pressed into service as a synonym for homosexual (as opposed to a perfectly healthy adjective meaning happy or merry or brightly coloured), Katter croaked, "Nobody has the right to take that word off us."
Since almost everyone reading this will recognise instinctively that the Member for Kennedy was talking through his hat (which, incidentally, was later auctioned off to raise money for the Australian Family Association), it is difficult to know where, or even whether, to begin to deconstruct this remark; with points this ignorant, generally speaking, it is as well simply to underline them. Nevertheless, it's worth just pausing to consider the muddy paddock of ignorance through which Katter had to squelch in order to arrive at this nugget of nonsense. For one thing, it tells you a lot you need to know about the kind of people to whom, and for whom, Katter was speaking when he took the platform.
The first thing to note about Katter's comment is its self-satirising unoriginality. Indeed, it was more than 20 years ago now that my desiccated history teacher made an almost identical comment, a comment that even in those days was old hat and would have earned him a severe dressing down if repeated in front of the school's headmaster, a far younger and trendier package all round. Or here, again, is Kingsley Amis, in his recently reissued The King's English (1995): "Gay. The use of this word as an adjective or noun applied to a homosexual has attracted unusually prolonged execration. The 'new' meaning has generally been current for years. Gay lib had made the revised Roget by 1987 and the word itself was listed in the 1988 COD under sense 5 as a homosexual [. . .] And yet in this very spring of 1995 some old curmudgeon is still frothing on about it in the public print and demanding the word 'back' for proper heterosexual use."
Note than when Amis wrote these words he was well into his empurpled Tory phase, and as such no friend to the tendency known (or satirised) as political correctness. But Amis was aware that language is organic, that the meanings of words are changing all the time, and that once the meaning of a word has changed no power on earth can turn back the clock. (Incidentally, the word gay, in this connection, goes back at least to 1960, where it appears in a novel by Frederic Raphael.) The word candidate once meant to be dressed in white, while meticulous meant beset by fears. Is Katter suggesting that those words, too, have been "taken" from us by some self-interested party? The very thought is preposterous.
And indeed it is that – the idea of dispossession – that is most revealing about Katter's comments. The implication is that homosexuals, having robbed "us" of the word gay, are now robbing us of the institution of marriage. Katter thinks that same-sex marriage will serve to dilute that institution, in the same way that the changing definition of gay has served to dilute the language of the tribe. But this is to get it precisely backwards. The desire of gay couples to be joined in matrimony is an affirmation of the institution of marriage. As Christopher Hitchens put it in 2004: "Make no mistake: This is an argument about the socialisation of homosexuality, not the homosexualisation of society. It demonstrates the spread of conservatism, not radicalism, among gays."
But perhaps the real reason Katter and company are so angry about the hijacking of a fine old English word is that they think that it is they, and not gays themselves, who should get to choose what homosexuals are called. Certainly Amis seems to intuit just such a feeling on the part of those who insist on holding forth on the topic, noting the "dismal clinical and punitive associations of homosexual" (in contrast to the 'cheerful' connotations of gay). In the old days, you called a spade a spade. And a homosexual was a homosexual. Or a faggot, or a poof, or a . . . But you take my meaning.
What we saw last week was an almost perfect demonstration of the reactionary element in politics at work. It was nasty and it was ignorant; and, as so often, it was our beautiful language pressed into the service of unbeautiful thoughts that revealed just how nasty and ignorant it was.
Richard King is a freelance writer. You can read his blog here: