I’m a bisexual male, and to be honest, I tend to skew towards the low end of the Kinsey scale (on the rare days when I give any credence to the scale at all). Nonetheless, when I hear or see “gay” or “fag” or “homo” used as a synonym for “bad” in speech or chat, I feel threatened. I see words that denote queerness used to connote badness, sliding all too easily between the two concepts and linking them quite efficiently. You might use those words around me, and you probably don’t mean any harm, but at the end of the day, I don’t really care about what you mean, I care about what you say, because what you say hurts me. This is not political correctness; this sort of language triggers real, visceral feelings of fear and anger within me. I’m just saying.

TerraNova’s Timothy Burke suggests the possibility that words like “gay,” when used within an online community (like an MMOG), have become “unmoored” from their real-world association with queerness and no longer need to be seen as indicative of homophobia, but can be interpreted simply as generic pejoratives.

I’m not a virtual worlds researcher, or a linguistic ethnographer, or an advanced semiotician, I’m just a half-assed hack of a critic. All I have is my own gut to go on when I react to this kind of thing, but my gut reacts like it’s just been kicked, so I’d have to say that I disagree with Burke’s assertion.

I understand that “language is a fluid social construction,” and that a virtual world is a “bounded cultural space” where ideas and identities are played with, but that doesn’t mean that signifiers can somehow be cleanly separated from and transferred between signifieds. If anything, the sliding of “gay” (or “ghey,” whatever that’s supposed to be about) between its meanings of “queer” and “bad” is only exacerbated by the boundedness of online spaces, and the more the meaning slips back and forth, the more the association between those meanings is engraved into the mind.

Burke points out that on game forums, posters who make overtly homophobic remarks “invariably come off the worse for it,” and are mocked and shamed by the majority of players, many of whom turn right around and go back to using “gay” as a pejorative. It’s good that homophobes are unwelcome in these worlds, but that doesn’t actually help me, because if the most open-minded members of an online community pepper their speech with implicitly hostile language, guess what? I still hear words that make me feel like a lesser person, and I still don’t feel especially welcome in their community.

It’s incredibly saddening to think there are whole servers full of people out there who honestly, innocently think that the words they use have no effect at all on those that hear them. Video games and the Internet are two of the things I hold dearest in this world, two things I can barely imagine doing without, and I’d like to think that there’s room for me in the places where they intersect. But it could be that MMOGs and other virtual worlds are simply not meant for people who don’t fit into a certain demographic, or whose skin isn’t thick enough to handle a constant stream of vituperative, demeaning language. If that’s the case, so be it; if that’s the case, I won’t go where I’m not welcome. I’ll stick to playing Bejeweled and posting to my little weblog, leaving those worlds alone, hoping they leave me alone.