Just because certain words make you wince, it doesn't make them illegal

Rebeka Rice is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in California. One day, back when she was a high school freshman, some of her classmates, being high school students, started giving her the business, asking her if she had 10 mothers. Exasperated, she responded, "That's so gay." Guess which one of the kids ended up in the principal's office, charged with hate speech?

The girl got a warning and a notation in her permanent file. Her parents sued the school district, claiming that her First Amendment rights were violated when she got disciplined for using a phrase that "enjoys widespread currency in youth culture."

It certainly does; I hear it all the time. And the odd thing is that when you check a kid on it, they'll say, "I don't mean 'gay' gay. I just mean it's kinda gay."

Well, thanks for clearing that up.

Actually, today's young people are, for the most part, quite open and accepting of lifestyles and sexual orientations other than their own. It's not a perfect world, by any means, but it's getting better.

I have to be careful here lest I receive yet another e-mail from a guy who has threatened legal action if I ever mention his name again. He's like the Voldemort of gay people. I'm tempted to do so just so he can waste his time and money on a lawyer. Every time I mention anything even remotely related to homosexuality, he calls me a bigot. As a matter of fact, he came up with some b.s. phrase and called me a heterosexist bigot.

Does that mean that because I want to have sex with women--not that they necessarily want to have sex with me--I'm a bigot? How does that work, exactly? I told him I tried to look up that phrase, but couldn't find it anywhere. He directed me to a Web site called heterosexistbigot.com or something like that. What am I, stupid? If you believe stuff you read online, you're a moron. I'll bet if I looked hard enough, I could find a turdstastegreat.com Web site. Just because some hater puts something on the Web doesn't make it real.

Anyway, testifying in the case, Rice said that when she originally spoke that phrase, she wasn't referring to anyone's sexual orientation. Rather, she claims that the phrase meant, "That's so stupid; that's so silly; that's so dumb."

Certainly, that's the common usage, at least today. Words often have multiple meanings, especially slang words, which "gay" for homosexual started out as. When I was a kid, gay meant happy and carefree. Today, many of my gay friends are indeed happy and carefree (sorry, Chicken Little/Voldemort), but I don't think I'd refer to them as gay gay. Just doesn't sound right.

Recently, as the news of this case was coming out (if you'll pardon my phrasing), nobody's favorite political skank, Ann Coulter, in a speech at a Republican dinner, caused a stir by using the word "fag" to refer to Democratic Presidential hopeful John Edwards. As Robert Wuhl said in Good Morning, Vietnam, not much gray area there. Coulter, whom I despise, refused to apologize, but even so, I don't think she committed a crime.

Words evolve over time. Anybody who has read Tom Sawyer to his kid during the past quarter-century no doubt winced when they got to the part where they say that Tom and Becky were gay. You just have to explain to kids that the word used to have a different meaning. And that means that it could very well have a different meaning in the future.

What would happen if, in 20 years or so, the word gay came to mean baby boomers who are too old to drive safely but refuse to give up their car keys? There'll be a whole lot more of them than there will be homosexuals, so would the word transfer over? And who gets to make that call?

What if Asians (who 10 years ago were called "Orientals") took a vote and decided that they wanted to be called "Diet Pepsi"? What beverage would I then order at fast-food places: a nonspecific, carbonated, cola-based, calorie-free drink?

A couple of things bother me about the "gay" case. For one thing, kids use that phrase with little or no malice. Should they use that phrase? No. Should we put them in jail for doing so? Again, no.

The other thing is that the other kids didn't get in trouble for (incorrectly) making fun of Rebeka's religion. Polygamy is practiced by breakaway sects and is rejected by the "real" Mormon Church. That's not to say that we all haven't blurred that line from time to time in the pursuit of a cheap laugh. Why, heck, my Catholic God enjoys a good polygamy joke as much as the next deity, but that doesn't make it right.

If she was being popped for hate speech, those other kids should have been charged with religious persecution. Or maybe an adult could've just told all of them to shut the hell up and get back to work and freed up some court time for something more important. Like where to bury what's-her-name.

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