In September last year, a Melbourne primary school was responsible for a reprehensible anti-gay hate crime. And while I never thought I’d write the following sentence, the innocent victim was not a child, nor a teacher or parent. It was a kookaburra.
We all know how the song goes: Laugh, kookaburra, laugh / how gay your life must be. It’s a cute song about a native bird who is either very jolly or a raging homosexual. Both options should be completely fine with all of us. But when a Melbourne school principal recently discovered his students had cracked up laughing during the “gay” part of the song, he was mortified.
In a panic, he insisted teachers change the original lyrics to “how fun your life must be”. The decision puzzled both parents and journalists. “All I was doing,” the principal said sheepishly, “was substituting one word, because I knew if we sing ‘[how] gay your life must be’, the kids will roll around the floor in fits of laughter.”
Kids laugh. It’s what they do. And the last time I checked, it’s a school’s responsibility to educate them. Didn’t the principal or teachers see this as a perfect opportunity to talk to kids about the multiple meanings of the word ‘gay’? That, for an older generation, it used to mean “happy”, but nowadays, referred to people attracted to the same sex? Maybe a frank, honest discussion would have stopped the kids from—quelle fucking horreur—giggling in the classroom.
It’s not like the song goes: Laugh, kookaburra, laugh / how you must totally enjoy getting pole-axed up the arse by your fellow male kookaburras. It’s just a gay kookaburra. Gay people exist and so do gay animals. It’s just a truthful, non-political, uncontroversial fact of life. Even the principal eventually agreed that he should’ve spoken with the kids more directly. “In hindsight, that is what I probably should have done. I wasn’t trying to incite or insult gay people, or trying to violate the copyright of Larrikin Music,” he said.
In my early teens, the word “gay” was hurled around as an insult before any of us had even met an openly gay person. Yo-yos? They were gay. Tamgotchis? Totally gay. Maths was gay. Sega was gay. Jump Rope for Heart was gay. Our drama teacher was gay. (Actually, this turned out to be true.) But the point is, no adults ever stepped up to talk to us about what “gay” actually meant, so “gay” just became synonymous with being crap, lame and shithouse. Which isn’t exactly great for kids who suspect they might be actually be gay.
Language is a funny thing, isn’t it? We call someone a “pussy” for being weak, even though vaginas contain incredibly strong muscles capable of pushing out human beings that weigh over three kilograms. When someone does something brave, we say they have “balls”, even though testicles don’t seem to do much except hang around, produce sperm and get squeezed out the side of briefs as a gross party trick. It’s not like testes are particularly heroic.
It’s also puzzling why “gay” should be an insult, considering gay history. Take the American gay rights movement. In the late 1960s, gays, lesbians and drag queens in New York’s Greenwich Village had one of their favourite bars raided by police. Frightened, the patrons put up with the horrible treatment at first. But when a butch lesbian was viciously clubbed by an officer, everyone spontaneously revolted. Drag queens scratched the police with fake nails, and lesbians elbowed them in the face. Gay men formed a marching phalanx, linked arms and paraded with high kicks. The message was clear. You do not fuck with queer people. They’re fierce and awesome.
This is why I cringe whenever straight people use “gay” as a derogatory term, especially when it’s clear they’ve never met a gay person in their life. It’s not so much offensive as embarrassing, like seeing a spotty white teenager wearing a FUBU outfit and calling his friend “nigga” when not a single black person lives within a 50 kilometre radius.
And yes: I use the word “gay” to lovingly dump shit on my queer friends, and jokingly call my friends “faggots”. But that’s because I am one. And until you’ve got some homos for friends, listened to their coming out stories, slammed down a homophobic comment in the workplace and signed a petition for us, you haven’t earned the right to do the same.
Next time you deride something—like, say, a movie—as “gay”, ask yourself: “Was that film actually, literally gay?” Because unless you were watching Brokeback Mountain or Cum Guzzling Twinks VII, you’ll probably find the answer is “no”. But hey: if you were watching either of those films, please contact me the next time you have a DVD night. I trust we’ll have an wonderfully gay evening together. And by “gay”, I mean “enchanted”.