I’ve been a fan of the NPR program This American Life for years. I subscribe to the podcasts on iTunes and donate money to the show when I can afford the ten bucks. I used to be a professional dog walker, and could regularly be found strolling through local parks appearing to talk to myself and/or giggle for no reason, iPod buds in my ears transmitting the latest TAL episode.
That’s why I was so surprised and disappointed to hear Jeanne Darst’s choice of wording during Act Three of “#439: A House Divided,” originally broadcast on June 24. I was at the copy machine at work listening to the show–hooting aloud throughout Jullian McCullough’s hilarious Act Two about his un-hilarious burst appendix–when Darst’s story about her divorced parents started. She hadn’t gotten very far when she used a phrase that made me pause the podcast, rewind, and check to confirm that I wasn’t hearing things. Sure enough, here’s what Darst said: “[T]he women’s clothes were the most outdated, buttoned-up, queer [bleep] imaginable.”
I have to say, the timing here is extraordinarily bad. In an episode released over the last weekend in June, when Gay Pride is typically celebrated across the country, TAL included a story in which an apparent profanity was bleeped out but a profane use of the word “queer” was not. Unsettled, I immediately turned off the podcast. I won’t be listening to the remainder of the episode, and I sure as [bleep] won’t be tuning in to any of Darst’s future work, written or otherwise. Saying queer on a national radio show in the year 2011 when you really mean bad or ugly–not cool, Gay Pride weekend or not. So not cool.
Now, I’m not writing this response out of any supposed sense of “political correctness,” but rather as a lesbian writer who genuinely believes in the importance of language. The increased media and community attention recently afforded incidences of suicide among queer, bullied youth has been commendable. However, queer kids have been driven to kill themselves for at least as long as their classmates have been joyously and vociferously participating in games of “Smear the Queer,” and probably just as long as their teachers have looked the other way when it comes to straight-on-gay verbal and physical attacks. Language is one tool among many still wielded by our anti-gay culture, and may appear from the outside to be the most innocuous form of homophobia. But as a lifelong lesbian—my second grade teacher outed me to my parents, according to my mother, and not in a good way—I can personally attest to the sneaky, lingering power of homophobic insults, particularly on the sensitive among us.
Episode #439 leaves me questioning my allegiance to TAL—or rather, to be precise, TAL’s allegiance to queer folks. Was Darst’s problematic usage of the word “queer” questioned by the show’s producers? Was there a specific decision to allow the story to run as is, or did the issue not even cross TAL’s radar? And is Darst actually unaware that using the word “queer” in a negative sense promotes a derogatory attitude toward GLBT people, or does she simply not give a [bleep]?
Until now, I’ve always believed that TAL’s producers cared about language and social justice as much as I do. But unlike the average kid on the playground, the producers and contributing writers at TAL very much know better than to equate gay with stupid and queer with ugly. Or they should, anyway.