An interesting discussion took place recently in one of the screenwriting courses I teach. I shared an older script with my students that featured several characters referring to one another as "gay" in order to insult them. None of the characters was actually homosexual, and the author wasn't making a statement about their ignorance for using the word; it was simply part of the characters' vocabulary, and they might as well have been calling one another "dumb."
After we finished the script, I mentioned the homophobic remarks and suggested to my class that, instead, a writer ought to only use derogatory language, be it homophobic, racist, or misogynist, if he or she wants to draw attention to something about the character or the world of the story; offensive language shouldn't be thrown around haphazardly. In previous years, when I've made this note, my classes have agreed with my position, and we've moved on in the discussion fairly quickly. This year, that didn't happen.
Several students were quick to take offense to my suggestion that an author "censor" himself or herself for the sake of social responsibility. Others acknowledged that the usage of the word was homophobic but felt it was acceptable since that's how people talked back then; they likened it to the racist language used in Django Unchained and saw it as simply an example of the time period and the culture.
I was flabbergasted. Try as I might, I couldn't seem to convince my students of my position, and after a bit of discussion, I started to see why.
My students saw the homophobic language as obviously offensive, in the same way most people see racist language as obviously offensive. It wasn't something anyone, including the writer of the material, needed to point out to them. To do so was, in their mind, a waste of creative energy. Unnecessary. Perhaps even old-fashioned, like a heavy-handed morality tale. On the one hand I found this refreshing: A new generation of young people seemed to have collectively taken a step toward post-sexuality and walked into my classroom already believing one of the things I've worked to convince people of for years. On the other hand, this discovery was also worrisome.
My students didn't grow up during the 1980s, as I did, when film characters tossed around words like "faggot" with ease. At the time, most moviegoers wouldn't bat at eye at words like that. Instead, they provoked a chuckle from straight audience members, who often agreed wholeheartedly that homosexuals were bad -- or, at best, very silly -- and to be called one was one of the worst insults a person could receive. At the same time, the non-heterosexual members of the audience hung our heads in shame and disappointment.
My students have mostly come of age in a time of increased gay visibility and acceptance -- in movies, on television, and in their everyday lives. By the time they moved away from children's programming, they found Will and Grace firmly established on prime-time TV. Movies like GBF and television shows like MTV's Faking It present "being different" as "being cool." And just this year we've seen the tide shift dramatically on same-sex marriage in this country -- a far cry from what was happening when I was my students' age. This progress is incredible, and I'm pleased by all of it. But it does come with a potential negative side effect.
Enjoying the benefits of a modern, tolerant society is wonderful, but it can lead to complacency or a blind eye toward life outside its bubble. When I informed my students that many people in the world (including the U.S.) still equate the word "gay" with an insult, some of them found it very hard to believe. They seemed totally unaware of the fact that even though attitudes and laws in the United States continue to move toward equality, the opposite is happening elsewhere. Young people in the U.S. overwhelming support LGBT equality, but the same cannot be said for other parts of the world. The regressive anti-LGBT laws recently enacted in Russia will, if they persist, ensure that new generations of young people come of age in an environment that promotes bigotry and intolerance. This is also true for people living in India and many parts of Africa that have recently outlawed homosexuality.
I make my living training future filmmakers in the art of storytelling. I sincerely hope that all my students are successful in their career pursuits and go on to create art that reaches millions of people, not only in the U.S. but worldwide. Even a student film uploaded online can potentially be seen across the globe. While I'm not suggesting that artists and filmmakers censor themselves or solely create unrealistic, idealized LGBT characters, I do think they should recognize the power they wield and the responsibility that comes with it. In a film, a note of disapproval toward bigotry may not be strictly "necessary" to young people in the U.S., Canada, or the UK, but it can mean a lot to a young person struggling with his or her sexuality or gender identity in a more repressive culture. It might very well be the only such disapproval he or she ever encounters.
I continue to be impressed by the capacity young people in this country have for progressive thought, and nowhere is this more evident than in the entertainment they consume and create -- but they can't afford to forget the past or overlook the reality that most of the world does not enjoy the same freedoms as them. Homophobia in fiction, just as in real life, can be promoted, ignored, or discouraged. Promotion is obviously unacceptable, but accepting it as a way of life, tolerating it for the sake of civility, or simply ignoring it, can be just as dangerous.