“Whaddarya?” or to How to Describe a Bender
In 1980, a former junior All Black called Greg McGee finished work on a stage-play he called “Foreskin’s Lament”. I never saw it, because I was barely 10 and it featured extended scenes of male nudity, an odd reason in hindsight.
The play dealt with conflict within an archetypal kiwi rugby team, usefully coinciding with the monumental sociocultural carnage of the 1981 Springbok Rugby Tour of New Zealand. “Foreskin’s Lament” earned McGee great plaudits for his timely unmasking of complex and conflicted Kiwi masculinity, hitting a pitch-perfect climax as the title character repeats over and over again, pleading as much as asking: “Whaddarya?”
I met Greg McGee about five years later, by which time his celebrity had faded a great deal, even in a country where a little fame goes a long way. I was the youth representative on a panel McGee was chairing to assess dreadful scripts by talentless young writers (predominant theme: straight men and white people are arseholes). If McGee had been an ageing pop star instead of a playwright, this was like performing at the opening of a refurbished Bunnings. The winning script, which may have been called “Straight White Men are Arseholes” for all I remember, was given the chance to be “workshopped” which, even at 15, I understood to be a polite way of saying “drowned in bath”.
“Whaddarya?” remains an excellent question, however. It popped into my head over the weekend during the course of several conversations with friends visiting from New Zealand. They had run into a protest in favor of gay marriage outside Flinders St. station and encountered a strident lesbian (seriously: is there any other kind?*) shouting “Equal Rights for Queers!” or something of that ilk.
My friends queried the use of the term “queer” to describe gays and lesbians, which they found objectionable. I explained that it is a classic, and by no means unique, example of the counterintuitive adoption of terms of abuse by the victims of such abuse as a way to assert identity. I went on to point out that, within academia, it is the preferred term to describe the broad category of people who fall outside heterosexual “norms”, otherwise known as GLBT or GLBTQI or some other acronym that always reminds me of bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches. I had bored myself mid-way through this explanation, so the fact that it fell on deaf ears is hardly a surprise. “I just don’t like it” came the response, which generated murmurs of consensus among the others.
Fair enough, too. The naming of homosexuals is a fraught and dreary subject. The word “homosexual” itself is troubling, and depends very much on who is saying it. The Queen Mother, were she with us, could use the word without offending anyone:
My staff are, by and large, homosexual — as one could probably guess.
From the mouth of a southern Baptist preacher in a fit of moral indignation, the effect is noticeably different:
This God-fearing nation is under siege from those who promote and promulgate a socialist, secular, HOMO-sexual agenda.
In the Queen Mother’s version, you want to ask the gay people in question whether your shirt-tie combination works; in the latter case, you would be more inclined to bludgeon them to death with a baseball bat.
This demonstrates both that words matter and that they don’t much. George Orwell, my hero, was mortified by the tendency of power to corrupt language so that the nexus between the thought and the word breaks down. This is the most important observation ever made about the state of rhetorical universe.
In the case of gay identity, Orwell would argue that the use of the terms “queer”, “fag”, “poof”, “whoopsy” or “nancy-boy” are far less important than the thinking that lies behind them. John Howard was taught to use the word “indigenous” in public. Tony Abbott manages to say “women” without noticeably wincing.
In response to McGee’s “Whaddarya?” challenge, the danger is we fixate on perfecting the language, not to illuminate and clarify our thoughts, but to prevent the words themselves from offending anyone.
*Lesbians are awesome. Please don’t hurt me.