I wanted to put a disclaimer here to clarify some terms and point out some simplifications I made, but it turned out that to properly do this would require entirely too much text. So if you are confused about or disagree with something, just comment and I will explain or better myself.
Someone sprayed „All Cops Are Gay“ on the Street near where I live and now I am thoroughly confused. First of all, I can’t help but wonder why the fuck I have never seen graffiti on Street surfaces before. Obviously it’s not gonna last very long in good condition, but otherwise the street seems like a perfect target for low-fi spraying and I wonder why it’s almost never done.
But of course, the more significant questions are posed by the content of the message.
„All Cops Are Bastards“, or A.C.A.B., is a very common graffiti sprayed primarily by punks, anarchists and leftist people (and any combinations thereof). Wikipedia also just now taught me that it’s also used by Ultras. Personally, I’m always delighted to see an ACAB somewhere, not necessarily because I actually believe the statement to be correct (I don’t think that literally all cops are figurative bastards), but because it is a standing sign of protest against police violence and unfairness. Besides, in case it wasn’t obvious, I really, really like acronyms. So now I’m wondering why someone would substitute the „Bastard“ for „Gay“. In my opinion, bastard as a derogatory term is fairly unproblematic nowadays. Many people probably don’t even know that it’s originally the term used for children born from unmarried parents (though it would be interesting to know weather GoT raised the number of people who know the original meaning). In any case, in 2012 about 30% of children born in Germany where technically bastards, but nobody (here) really uses bastard as a descriptive term any more (except in GoT and other works of fiction, of course) and it’s not really a big deal. So, like many other words who used to be descriptive (e.g. Idiot), it is now almost exclusively used as an insult.
„Gay“, however, is on a completely different level. The story of how this word evolved from a non-judgemental term for a certain kind of happiness to a derogatory term for male homosexual (and later pretty much all non-cisgender-heterosexual) people to a reclaimed word for homosexuals is certainly too long and complex to fit in the scope of this post, since it’s pretty much the story of the LGBTQ movement. So everyone is welcome to explore this story by themselves while I just focus on the usage of the word today and in Germany, or, more specifically, in this graffiti.
In German, as most readers of this post who probably are German will know, there is a very accurate translation for „gay“, the word „Schwul“, which has an equally interesting history (so, again, I’ll leave that out of this post). And just as „gay“ is used in English, by some people, as a synonym for lame, dumb, stupid, bad etc., Schwul is used in the same manner in German slang, probably by similar people. However, while it is widely accepted that this use of the term is not OK, many Germans infused with certain US-popculture use the term „gay“ in the mentioned way (while speaking German), and for many of those it is much less problematic than using „Schwul“. I know this for a fact because some of my friends whom I know not to be opposed to LGBTQ people use „gay“ as a slang word, but never use „Schwul“ in the same manner. For them, when used in German language, „gay“ simply has no other connotations than lame and the like. I always feel slightly uncomfortable when this happens and it is confusing to me. It might be interesting to explore the differences between me and my friends that lead to different perceptions of the offensiveness of using „gay“ as a derogatory term, but I’m afraid that I might not do my friends justice or make wrong assumptions about them, so I’ll discuss it with them on the next occasion (using this post as a reminder). In any case, those friends, why certainly not politically conservative (otherwise they’d hardly be my friends…), are by no means punks, anarchists or extremely left (nor Ultras).
So now that you (hopefully) understand some of the background and probably the source of my confusion, let’s think about who could have sprayed this. Was it a person who doesn’t like cops and uses „gay“ as a derogatory term while not intending to be homophobic? In that case, why not just use the tried and trusted ACAB phrase? Maybe they want to stand out or be more individual, but then that’d suggest a higher level of social awareness which would lower the chance of them using this problematic term. A „dumb punk“ who is not educated about this kind of stuff would just use ACAB, right?
Maybe it was a person who is opposed both to Cops and LGBTQ people? Do Nazis also spray ACAB? What about Skins, who come in many political flavours? Or maybe it was one of the Ultras, some of whom might be homophobic?
Or maybe it was a person who wanted to both protest the police and provoke by using the term gay, raising awareness about our use of potentially hateful language while at the same time playing with the stereotype of the „gay police stripper“?
I’d certainly like the last option to be true, since in that case the intended effect was achieved, at least partly, by inspiring me to write this article. However, it seems more likely that the graffiti came from a kid who thought it was cool to spray this, thought using „gay“ was cooler then using „bastards“ and did not reflect much about their actions.
In any case, regardless of who sprayed it, it made me think about how language is a mirror of society, question my preconceptions of the socially aware leftists and antifas, briefly wonder how homophobic football (soccer) fan culture still is, about the influence of popculture on language and society, and inspired me to discuss an issue with some of my friends of which I’ve only recently really become aware of.
So, regardless of what the intention and background of the graffiti’s author where, in this particular case I have to agree with Roland Barthes (both FAKE! and real):
„Once the Author is gone, the claim to ‚decipher‘ a text becomes quite useless.“ (source)