That's So Gay
I know you've said it. I've heard you say it. Who hasn't? You heard or saw something that you thought was stupid or ridiculous, and you blurted out, "Oh, that's so gay." That phrase is typically used to identify something as negative, and it's been in our vocabularies since about the third grade.
When you get older, you might figure out that degrading gay people isn't exactly a sign of sophistication and intelligence. You'll keep using the phrase, but you'll follow it with a disclaimer if you're challenged: "But I'm not homophobic. I don't actually mean anything against gay people. I have gay friends." It's the intentions of the speaker that count, not the word choice, you'll argue. Then you might complain about how "everyone's too PC" and how we should all just lighten up.
Consider it for a second, though: how could the phrase NOT perpetuate negative feelings about and stereotypes of gays and lesbians? When you say that something bad is "gay," you are in effect saying that being gay is bad. Imagine yourself as a teen struggling with your sexuality. Every day you hear "That's just so gay" from a dozen different places, including your friends. It becomes apparent that being gay is not a label you would want to have. Is there any wonder that gay youth have the highest suicide rate among teens?
Every time you say "that's so gay" -- even if you don't consider yourself homophobic -- it's like an endorsement for someone else to say it and really mean "I hate gay people." And no matter what you really mean, it still sounds like "I hate gay people" to a gay person, and how are you to know who is gay and who is not?
Believe me, it's hard for me to figure out how to talk to you about this, but some people have come up with effective ways to address the issue. A BRAT staffer had a class with a kid who could not seem to control himself from saying that everything he didn't like was "gay." The staff member asked him why he behaved that way, and the kid just blew him off and said, "I'm not really homophobic." The kid happened to be Jewish, so the staff member began remarking, "That's so Jewish" in front of the kid. "Hey!" the kid complained, "that's my religion!" The staff member said, "Now you get it," and the kid did.
What if, instead of using the word "gay" for things I don't like, I used it to describe things that are cool and interesting? Would you get it then? After all, some of the most creative and interesting people in history have been gay or bisexual. Then again, maybe that usage of the phrase would confuse you, but that's OK. Your current usage of the phrase confuses me, especially when you insist that you're not really homophobic. In fact, you kind of remind me of my friend's uncle, who would spout "nigger this" and "nigger that" at every opportunity, yet insist that he was not racist. I didn't believe him, and frankly, I don't believe you.
I guess I'll have to be creative when I talk to you or other people about the issue. "That's not very nice" usually doesn't cut it as a reason to change behavior, so I suppose I have to draw parallels to your life and to other explicit examples of prejudice. I need to make you more aware of how people perceive you, even if you don't truly mean any harm. It's inevitable that I'll encounter people who think it's too inconvenient to change their language or behavior, and people who can never seem to admit it's wrong, but I still have hope. You'd be surprised at the number of people I've talked to who have realized that it's better to be part of the solution than part of the problem.
This article originally appeared on Brat Online (www.brat.org).