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Focusing on language will not solve the problems

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IS it demeaning, degrading or insulting to insinuate someone is gay? From a politically correct position the answer is "no." But in the real world and apparently in the Manitoba Legislature, the answer is a resounding "yes."

For the last 20 years and more, the enlightened have been convincing us that a same-sex orientation is a normal feature of human society and any negative connotations which were previously associated with this characteristic should be negated. This development has been embodied in anti-discrimination laws, the acceptance of same-sex marriages, the adoption by same-sex couples, gay-pride demonstrations and the characterization of gay people as normal citizens of our society with no negative baggage to bear. We have come a long way from the days when homosexual acts were defined as criminal conduct and were punishable by imprisonment.

But wait a minute. Last week in the legislature one of the MLAs referred to one of his opponents in another party as having a "male friend." All hell broke loose.

The offending member immediately made a profuse apology. The member to whom the attack was directed was offended but accepted the apology.

It didn't stop there. The NDP caucus disciplined the offending member and penalized him by denying some of his parliamentary privileges.

Clearly something is amiss in this scenario.

If homosexuality is a totally acceptable human condition why is it considered insulting and degrading for someone to be imputed to be gay?

Why would MLA Dave Gaudreau feel it was necessary to apologize for having made, at worst, a mistake in attributing homosexual conduct to a heterosexual colleague, but not insulting him?

The reason is it is the regrettable truth many, if not most males, would consider it insulting to be called gay. Gaudreau knows this and the NDP caucus knows this. Furthermore, when the remark was made it undoubtedly was intended to be an insult.

It follows that all of the best intentions have not obliterated what years of cultural history have engrained in our thinking. Despite changing the language and legislating against prejudice, the fact remains that homosexuality is not simply accepted as normal by many in our society.

This is the second occasion within a month an MLA has been brought to account for engaging in politically-unacceptable language. Brian Pallister is accused of having referred to a NDP MLA as a "retard." Pallister denies he used the word but the real argument centers on whether the word itself is acceptable.

"Retarded" was a word which had been used professionally to describe what is now referred to as "intellectually disabled" or "mentally challenged." In the same way, the word crippled has given way to "physically disabled."

The improved language is a commendable way to describe conditions affecting human beings who happen to be saddled with these conditions.

But it is important to appreciate the conditions exist and require special consideration. Merely changing the language will not resolve the problems associated with the condition.

The situation is best illustrated by the story about the law firm of Rabinovitch and Gorenstein. After practising for some years, Rabinovitch decided that he could increase his clientele if he changed his name. Being the fan of a late president he chose the name Kennedy. He was an immediate success. His partner decided that he too could improve his business if he changed his name. He too was partial to the name Kennedy and also adopted it. The firm became Kennedy and Kennedy. The phone rang and the secretary answered, "Hello, Kennedy and Kennedy." The client responded. "I would like to speak to Mr. Kennedy." The secretary asked, "Which one, Rabinovitch or Gorenstein?"

The same situation prevails with regard to the euphemisms we have created to more positively describe some of our diverse characteristics.

There is a distinct danger, however, when people say "physically challenged," some people hear "crippled." When people say "mentally challenged or disabled," some people hear, "retarded." When people say "gay" some people hear "queer."

The condition doesn't change with the language. It is important it is the condition which is respected regardless of the nomenclature.


Sidney Green is a Winnipeg lawyer and former NDP cabinet minister.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 20, 2013 A9


Updated on Tuesday, August 20, 2013 at 9:41 AM CDT: Corrects spelling of Dave Gaudreau

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