I won’t be watching Bravo’s new show, “Queer Eye For The Straight Guy” — there’s only so much reality television I can handle, and between “The Amazing Race” and “I’m With Busey,” my doctor tells me I’m getting enough unscripted TV.
But what I find interesting about the Bravo show is the use of the word “queer.” I thought that word had been banished from the language. Maybe not as bad as The N Word, but certainly to the point where gay people were never to be referred to that way. Queer, fag, homo, dyke — they were all out, not in a fit of political correctness, but simply because they were patently offensive.
And yet, we now have two TV shows with “queer” in the title (the other being Showtime’s “Queer As Folk”) and neither of them has raised the hackles of any of the usually vocal interest groups you’d expect to scream loudly about this kind of offense.
It turns out that “queer” actually is very much like The N Word, in that it’s okay for members of the group itself to use it, but not okay for anyone else. In other words, gays can refer to each other as queer, just as blacks can call each other The N Word (although in rap lyrics, the word is spelled with an -a at the end instead of -er), but if you’re not gay or black, your use of those words is deemed offensive.
What made this concept so confusing to me is that in my particular minority, Jews, we’d never think of doing this in our everyday life. You’ll never hear one Jew call another a “kike” or “heeb.” My wife doesn’t even like to hear someone referred to as “a Jew.” She prefers “a Jewish person.”
Maybe it’s the centuries of hatred and name-calling from others that we’ve been forced to endure that makes us so sensitive to derogation. But if that’s the case, why would another long-oppressed group like African-Americans use The N Word so casually?
That’s not to say that stereotypes can’t be played for laughs. Otherwise, Mel Brooks wouldn’t have had a career — and I wouldn’t have been able to do a “Star Wars” radio parody two decades ago called “Return Of The Rabbi” which, ironically, only brought complaints from non-Jews.
Similarly, John Leguizamo, a comedian of Colombian ancestry, did a one-man comedy show in 1993 called “Spic-O-Rama,” and no one flinched. But I have more respect for someone like George Lopez, who created a TV show about a Mexican family which does not go around referring to each other as “wetbacks” or “greaseballs.”
In fact, George told me this little story (he’s been a guest on my show several times). When ABC was interested in buying the show in the first place, they suggested that the family’s kitchen have a tortilla maker on the counter. George told them he didn’t know anyone who had one of those in their kitchen, and asked why the network wanted it there. They explained that the viewers would need something in the room that was easily identifiable as Mexican. George paused for a moment and replied, “What about the fact that the people in the room are Mexican?” He won that battle and, to his credit, steadfastly refuses to debase himself or his heritage with cheap stereotypes.
We’d never think it acceptable to do a reality show called “Jewboy Financial Corner.” That would be as deplorable as Asians doing something repulsive like “Slant-Eyed Math Lessons.” Or a Food Network show called “Old Black Mama’s Fried Chicken and Watermelon Recipes.” Or an Irishman doing “Big Dumb Mick’s Drunk Again.” Or even the whitest guys in the country on “Honky Hotel.”
The way to avoid the continued use of odious words and concepts is for the offended group to take the lead and stop using them, too. If you’re gay and don’t want straight people referring to “Will & Grace” as “that queer show,” then you can’t either.
Instead, you should refer to it by its proper slang name, “Rick Santorum’s Worst Nightmare.”