The offensive “lesbian” on mainstream radio


Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” is a hit radio single, and yet it uses some language that some people could see as “offensive”:

No matter gay, straight, or bi / Lesbian, transgendered life / I’m on the right track baby / I was born to survive

”Lesbian” is one of the least objectionable terms in song. Some minority groups have taken issue with the pop star’s use of “Chola” and “Orient,” but “lesbian” hasn’t ruffled any feathers. When it comes to songs on mainstream radio, however, that isn’t always the case.

The use of “lesbian” has had an interesting history in popular music. It has been bleeped (read: edited from being heard) in several songs, including Eminem’s “We Made You.” In the radio edit, “lesbian” is taken out of this rhyme:

He does not mean to lesbian offend / But Lindsay please come back to seeing men

Still from the “We Made You” music video

It was also censored in Bobby Brackins “143” (“I don’t even care if you a lesbian / That just means we got some common interests”) and Wiz Kalifa’s “Black and Yellow” (“Not a lesbian but she a freak though”). While these uses of the word aren’t necessarily in the interest of positive gay imagery (especially in the Eminem tune), it does beg the question: Is the word lesbian offensive to radio listeners?

Still from “Black and Yellow” music video

Hip-hop appears to be the major offender when it comes to mentions of gay women. While it’s understandable that Kanye West’s use of the word “dyke” would be edited out of “Stronger,” the word “lesbian,” no matter what the context, seems to be treated as a kind of swear word. However, it doesn’t appear to extend to any mention of lesbianish content. In 50 Cent’s verse on The Game’s “Hate It or Love It,” he raps:

Coming up I was confused / My mama kissing a girl

Or in Young Money’s “Every Girl in the World”:

Are any y’all into girls like I am / Lez be honest

The Federal Communications Commission does not have a list of words that aren’t allowed to be spoken or sung on the radio, but there are still a number of expressions that are considered to be obscene at certain times, just like on network television, which is also monitored by the FCC. The organization’s website explains that the issue is context, “Depending on the context presented, use of the ‘F-Word’ or other words as highly offensive as the ‘F-Word’ may be both indecent and profane, if aired between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.”

When asked for a statement, an FCC representative confirmed that no “list of specific words that cannot be said over radio” exists. So when it comes to who is censoring the word lesbian in radio-ready songs, it is the artists, labels and radio broadcast stations themselves. However, this means that the boundaries are constantly pushed. The aforementioned MC, Eminem, is one such pusher. In 2001, his song “The Real Slim Shady” was taken to task for “unmistakable offensive sexual references.” The FCC concluded that lyrics used to “pander and shock” were unnecessary under the Supreme Court’s definition of what is fit for the airwaves. That means it has to pass the test of three factors:

(1) an average person, applying contemporary community standards, must find that the material, as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest (i.e., material having a tendency to excite lustful thoughts); (2) the material must depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable law; and (3) the material, taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

With this in mind, and context certainly being key, perhaps the use of lesbian could be deemed offensive in songs like the ones listed above. “Lesbian” is censored when it is used by straight men in hypersexualizing terms that border on mocking. But it also sends a message to listeners that lesbian is a dirty word. Last year, iTunes censored gay and lesbian titled songs and podcasts. Later the music distributor said it was a glitch and it was quickly corrected.

This issue isn’t just specific to hip-hop or sexually explicit lyrics, however. In the 2009 tune “Cha-Ching” from Canadian rock group Hedley, contained the line “Pretending to be lesbians / but Tila’s playing all of them.” The reference, however, was not removed from their music video, much like in the case of Eminem’s video.

Still from “Cha-Ching”

In 2004, Green Day used the word “faggot” in a non-derogatory reference in their song “American Idiot” and the FCC said they weren’t at fault — that it was Clear Channel who censored the song on their stations. From The Advocate article about the censorship:

”Bleeping a word like ‘faggot’ in this instance is not because the FCC has ever ruled on a case like this, but because people are afraid,” explains Elliot Mincberg, vice president and legal director of People for the American Way. “It’s, unfortunately, one of many examples of the chilling effect the FCC has had in causing many broadcasters to go far beyond the definition of indecency to block artistic works.”

Of course, it’s not only “lesbian,” “faggot,” “dyke” and the like that are censored in radio edits. Mentions of war, drugs, obesity and other terminology that could be deemed offensive by listeners are also bleeped (or the songs are simply not played) by some stations, in fear of fines the FCC might impose if someone were to complain.

So when it comes to hearing “lesbian” on the radio, are stations really worried about offending people with the context in which “lesbians” are placed or are they worried about using the word at all? It appears to be on a case-by-case basis, with Lady Gaga leading the way of what is OK in her newest gay anthem. She hasn’t always been so lucky, though: In 2009, the line “Bluffin’ with my muffin’” was censored out of her single “Poker Face.”

Is it more offensive to hear Eminem asking a queer woman to stop being a lesbian or to hear him attempt to ask her but be censored by a bleep? We all know what he’s really saying, but when the key word is removed, it can makes it seem as if the “lesbian” reference what’s considered to be offensive.

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