I don’t have a lot of time for people who excuse their bigotry, racism or prejudice with the feeble defence “Can’t you take a joke?”. Triple J presenter and singer Brendan Maclean knows exactly what this feels like. He writes..

I’m a slashy. Singer-slash-Presenter-slash-Whatever pays the bills this week. A slashy. It’s a path that requires a certain thickness of the skin. In the music world the phrase “Water off a duck’s back” involves more of a deluge, in the realm of Twitter the rain never stops and sometimes it leaks through.

My fondest memory of criticism was at my first sold out gig. The applause was hearty and units were shifted. As the room emptied I was delighted to find a young lady had left a letter on the merchandise desk. It read:

“You are a superficial, bland performer. That was more a tired cabaret than songwriting. You wasted my money and my time, quit while you’re ahead and go into children’s entertainment.”

Well I had been working as a clown at Luna Park and besides life is, after all, a cabaret.

My friends too, know how to hurl abuse. Being chums with comedians like Rhys Nicholson and Tom Ballard has its high points but there are days we treat each other like target practice for new material. This is where intention comes in. Growing up in the Sutherland Shire I endured the gamut of insults. I am indeed ‘a gay’ and my peers made sure to remind me of it everyday – which is lucky as I might have forgotten.

So with angry punters and adolescent twats in my past, it came as a surprise when one sentence from a middle-aged woman brought me to tears.

I was working in admin, when my boss decided to send in a little help to speed things up. Mrs. Helpful and me hadn’t spoken much in the past and she, being isolated to her desk, was desperate for conversation: Where I grew up, where I performed and who I was dating. The last question inevitably leading her to ask,

“So when did you come out?” A common question; sixteen is the answer.

“Wow. That is crazy.” Oh, I guess it is a bit…

“Your dad must have been so embarrassed!”

And there it was. Out fell my chest, up came my lunch. I could feel my skin glowing red but I tried to keep a straight face as she barreled onwards.

“What does he do?” He is a sales-rep and coached football for…

“Football?! Oh god, he would have been so embarrassed in front of his mates.”

I folded my envelopes quietly, nodding as she lamented that The Shire was at least a safe place for a child to grow up and that she would not know what to do if her child was gay – it would be too stressful for her.

It sat with me and then came tumbling forth like a wardrobe full of old beige cargo pants you thought you’d never see again. She had pierced my thickened skin and tore me apart.

The following day she greeted me with a picture,

“Do you think he’s gay?” I don’t know.

“But you guys ‘know’ don’t you?” No.

“Where do you live?” Inner-west.

“I thought you’d live in Potts Point with the rest of the poofters!” She cackled.

Later that day I made a complaint to my boss. He took it seriously but I already knew her response. It’s one I’ve experienced before. Of course she was not aware she had offended me, of course she hadn’t meant to offend me and, of course, at no point in the day could she remember me being even remotely offended. After all I had said nothing – just smiled and nodded.

Our curiosity about what other people do based on their sexuality is not an open invite to declare your assumptions in an “out loud” voice. I, for example, was suddenly keen to find out what her father thought of her being a fifty-something year old being paid to do the same job as a twenty-two year old, he must be embarrassed? And you must really like getting divorced, that’s what you breeders do right? But no – I did not ask. Someone might take it personally.

So where do you draw the line on a joke? Perhaps it’s the taxi-driver quipping about “damn Asian drivers.” or a grumpy old man blaming the price of petrol on “all them Boat People.” When do we stop awkwardly laughing along because it’s the easy option, even when it comes to ourselves? Sure, some people never learn but there are some that will – if only we have it in us to stop the snowball rolling down the hill.

**For the record, no, my father isn’t embarrassed. Considering my idea of coming out to him was being arrested for being underage in a gay bar – I’d say my dad is a bit of a hero when it comes to acceptance.

When do you draw the line? When does funny stop being funny and start being offensive or when should you just stop asking questions? Got any experiences you can share?



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