The fact that it’s possible to take someone to court if they call you gay — the idea that speculation about a person’s sexual orientation, founded or not, is so damaging, so grave an insult, that it amounts to defamation — has long been a blood-boiler for me. (Remember when Tom Cruise did it a decade ago?) It reinforces the subconscious homophobia that’s still very much a part of our society by implying that there’s something inherently subversive, scandalous, salacious, or shameful about having a non-heterosexual orientation.
So you can imagine how happy I was to read this report from the New York Times about a recent verdict in New York state court that, according to reporter Ginia Bellafante, “stripped the word ‘gay’ of any derogatory [legal] connotation:”
It is now no longer considered slanderous in the State of New York to falsely call someone gay. Gay has, in the eyes of the court, as it has in the minds of sane people, lost currency as an accusation. Say I chose to live my life as a telenovela and decided to break up my best friend’s wedding by announcing in a rehearsal dinner toast that her husband was gay. That husband would now have as little ground for a lawsuit against me as if I had described him as blond, pigeon-toed, happy or merely mediocre at Texas Hold ’Em.
In arriving at its decision, the court erased decades of rulings that treated inaccurate descriptions of sexual orientation as defamation. “These appellate division decisions are inconsistent with current public policy and should no longer be followed,” the unanimous decision, written by Justice Thomas Mercure, stated.
The Associated Press adds:
One by one, courts around the country are deciding it’s no longer slander to falsely call someone gay — a measure of how attitudes are changing in the era of same-sex marriage and gays in uniform.
While “gay” is still widely wielded as an insult, some judges have concluded that it is not damaging to anyone’s reputation, just as calling a white man black is no longer grounds for legal action as it was a generation ago. . .
The case involved a woman who was sued for allegedly spreading a rumor that an upstate New York man was gay in the hope of breaking up his relationship with another woman. In a 4-0 decision, the New York Appellate Division’s Third Department threw out the lawsuit before it went to trial, noting changing attitudes about homosexuality.
Reversing decades of legal precedents, the court said the defamation claim was “based on a false premise that it is shameful and disgraceful to be described as lesbian, gay or bisexual.”
The AP article does make one major error, though: it falsely labels employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as a thing of the past (“In the past, being called gay could cost people their jobs.”). Absent any LGBT-inclusive federal nondiscrimination legislation (i.e. ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act), the truth is much different — according to the Human Rights Campaign, it is still legal to fire someone for being gay or lesbian in 29 states, and employers in 34 states — including, sadly, New York State — can fire a worker solely for being transgender.