Think Harder Before You Speak

Humans are commonly called "dog," "pig," "cow," "jackass," "weasel," "ape," "turkey," and other names with the intent to insult and disgrace. This process defames other animals, who are regarded as bad, while encouraging humans to see themselves as distinct and superior to the lowly, offensive other. Similarly, another way to put someone down is to call them "stupid," "dumb," "numbskull," "pea-brain," "bonehead," "idiot," "moron," "imbecile," and numerous other words that denigrate them by suggesting that they have a developmental disability — a defamation of humans with disabilities that plays a profound role in their social marginalization and victimization. — David Nibert, Animal Rights/Human Rights: Entanglements of Oppression and Liberation

Perhaps you've seen the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) PSAs titled "Think Before You Speak." The messaging of these ads was designed to discourage use of the slur "That's so gay." The ArnoldNYC agency which created the TV spots in partnership with GLSEN recently won the Ad Council's Gold Bell award, its top honor for PSAs.

There are three TV spots: one set in a drugstore, one set in a diner, and one set in a boutique. Of these three ads the first two undermine the message of the ad by promoting the ableist slurs "stupid" and "dumb" as acceptable replacements for the slur "gay." By using these terms in the lines, "Well, you know when something is dumb or stupid you say that's so Emma and Julia" (drugstore), and "Don't say something is 'gay' when you mean that something is dumb or stupid" (diner), each ad undermines its own message with ableist slurs. The third ad (boutique) avoids this by saying "bad" rather than the ableist slurs that are used in the other two ads.

Supporting campaign material also reads: "There was a time when all 'gay' meant was 'happy.' Then it meant 'homosexual.' Now people are saying 'That's so gay' to mean dumb and stupid. Which is pretty insulting to gay people (and we don't mean the 'happy' people.)"

While the ad campaign address an important issue of how nearly all queer students (90%) report experiencing verbal harassment, two of the three TV spots miss the fact that nearly all disabled people, especially those of us with cognitive, developmental, or mental disabilities, are also targets of verbal harassment. Unfortunately, the campaign legitimizes one form of harassment in its attempt to challenge another.

As someone who is both queer and learning disabled, I'm equally hurt whether someone says something is "gay" or "stupid." These ads leave me feeling torn and upset knowing that because of my disability I'm viewed as less worthy of respect. That is, the campaign frames respecting me as a disabled person as in conflict with respecting me as a queer person. But I shouldn't have to choose between respecting my disability or my sexuality. Terms like "dumb," "stupid," "moronic," "idiotic," and so on are just as unacceptable as terms like "gay," "queer," "fag," "dyke," "tranny," and so on when referring to something or someone as bad. As Nibert explains in Animal Rights/Human Rights, "The parallels in these linguistic patterns illuminate not only common motivations for the subjugation of others but also the hierarchical and ideological entanglements of these various forms of oppression."