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Gumtree comes over all queer in blocking 'offensive language'

Ad site highlights sticky issue of self-definition

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Comment Online small adster Gumtree appears to be a bit squeamish about ads containing words such as "queer".

In the week that New Labour set out to advance the cause of equality in the UK with a dubious Equality Bill removing a number of existing rights from gay and religious groups, Gumtree demonstrated its solidarity with the cause by rejecting an ad containing the Q-word.

At least, that is our understanding of why the ad, headlined "PA/ support worker Sth Manc working direct for queer disabled person" was rejected, since at time of writing, all efforts to contact our "local community online", both by El Reg and by the person who placed that ad, have proven fruitless.

In the process, Gumtree may have inadvertently highlighted the knots that society is tying itself in by attempting to pass laws ensuring that no one is ever offended by anyone else again.

The issue begins with legal protections put in place for what is loosely referred to as the "LGBT community" – shorthand for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual. These protections have included laws that outlaw discrimination on grounds of "sexual orientation" - or the gender of the person you relate to sexually in the case of LGB – and gender identity in the case of T, as well as legislation against "hate speech".

Although a recent attempt to tighten up this law to limit the "discussion or criticism" of issues around these sexualities was killed off in the House of Lords, it is now not permissible to make offensive or inflammatory comments about individuals on grounds of their LGBT-ness.

As a long-standing term of anti-gay abuse, "queer" is most definitely out. Or at least it was, until certain more militant elements within the gay rights movement set out to reclaim it – in much the same way as some black rights activists have sought to reclaim the N-word.

This creates a situation in which the word is offensive to some members of the gay community, and celebrated as a badge of pride by others.

Further muddying the waters is the evolution of Queer as a sexuality in its own right, with the emergence of a small number of academic institutions in universities across the UK dedicated to "Queer Theory" – or inevitably "queory".

As an academic explains: "Queer theory - or to be a queer theorist (as it is very much a mind set in my eyes) - is to challenge notions of cultural stability and identity. To find where the kinks (pun intended) are and exploit them to encounter different perspectives and identities."

It may be, but is not necessarily, connected to sexuality. Unfortunately for the law – and to the amusement of Daily Mail readers – this leads to Gumtree-type situations, or even incidents such as that reported from London, where police ordered a group marching in support of gay rights to take down a banner because it displayed the potentially offensive slogan "Queers support Gay Pride".

A spokesman for Manchester Police assures us that, at least on their patch, any intervention based on language used by an individual would be "on a case by case basis" and any action taken “would depend on the context in which it was used”. Self-identification is unlikely to invoke the full force of the law: nonetheless, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that increasingly, we are living in a world in which language is being policed irrespective of meaning and context.

Previous outbreaks of language policing have included a student accused of causing "harassment, alarm or distress" for calling a police horse "gay" – and in 1999, David Howard, an aide to the Mayor of Washington DC was fired merely for using the word "niggardly" (which doesn't mean what people seem to think it means). There is as yet no record of how the UK police are reacting to the use of the appalling neologism "ghey", to mean "lame" without homosexual connotation. ®

Bootnote

Meanwhile, Labour was under fire this week, and its credentials in supporting those of an LGBT persuasion were looking decidedly "lame" – as they pushed the Equality Bill, through its final stages in the Commons before sending it off to the Lords.

Although the Bill has been promoted as standardising what is at present a fairly complicated picture when it comes to equalities legislation in the UK, critics such as Peter Tatchell are up in arms about the way in which it creates what amounts to a two-tier situation for minority groups – with LGBT and those of a religious persuasion being declared equal but, when it comes to employment, not as equally protected as others. ®

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