How Language Bullies, But When It Might Be OK To Say “That’s So Gay”

“Say Something” seems to be Australia’s equivalent of the “It Gets Better” Project, a youtube campaign that was started Dan Savage, a Seattle columnist, after the rash of gay teen suicides last year.  “Say Something” has been set up as part of the 2011 Sydney Mardi Gras, one of the largest gay events anywhere in the world.

Matthew Mitcham, an out, gold medal diving champion in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, has created his video, short though it is, for the Say Something project.  In it he advocates for eliminating the use of the phrase “It’s so gay” in a negative way.

Fortunately, I don’t think I’ve ever heard this phrase used, except maybe on TV.  I’m not much around the age group, teens or younger, that probably uses this phrase.  However, I know I wouldn’t like it if I were a gay kid in middle or high school and had to hear it all the time.  Frankly, there are far worse words as derogatory syn0nyms for gay people, when they are trying to demean either gay people or even others that are not gay.

For the most part, kids use these stronger perjoratives because they got them from hearing adults say them.  When I was a kid, the “n”-word was the harshest, but  most often used, word that we called each other on the playground.  Strange though it sounds, we could use that word without admonishment, but knew better than to use “real” swear words, which today are commonplace in movies and the music on the radio.  There’s nothing surprising thses days about hearing them in so many rap and hip-hop songs, where they sort of get bleeped out.  But when I hear them come in songs like Enrique Iglesias’ latest hit, I get uncomfortable.

We used the “n”-word, not because we had ever met even one Black person, but because we heard the word at home.  “That’s so gay” seems to be somewhat like that.  The kids that use the phrase aren’t directly trying to be offensive to gay people because they are just saying something like “That’s so lame,” which was used not so long ago, and I expect, still is used by some kids.

And speaking of “lame”, what if the phrase being used were “That’s so disabled” or “That’s so physically challenged”?  Most people probably would find that more offensive than “That’s so gay.”  However, when”That’s retarded” was so popular, there weren’t too many negative ripples.

When it comes to being politically correct (though really I think it has more to do with civility than politics), it’s hard to keep up.  I seem to remember Lyndon Johnson using nigras (which doesn’t sound that different from the “n” word), and he was the President who signed the major civil rights laws in the mid-1960s.  Colored People was once OK; there’s still the NAACP.  Then there’s still the question of African-American (or Afro-American) or Black.

There’s a similar problem with people and newspapers using the term homosexual.  In fact, it has a very specific, somewhat clinical or academic meaning, but most of the time when used outside of certain fields of study, homosexual come with a negative connotation for labeling people, in a way that “colored” was once used by whites, when they knew that there was a more appropriate word.

Just like many use homosexual as a way of emphasizing the “sexual” aspect, as if that the only quality that characterizes us, they also employ the word to hit other people’s buttons that its the “same” sex.  And, “you know, doing with the same sex, well, that’s something so bad, because, you know, the preacher said it in church, and it’s in the Bible, you know.”

So it’s not are far stretch to the same negativity inherent in “That’s so gay.”  The negative connotation from homosexual is carried over to the word “gay.”

It’s really not much different than expressions that have applied to other groups.  I grew up with people using the expression of “jewing someone down,” not having any idea that it came from the negative stereotype of Jewish people.  I’m sure there are kids out there who, when comparing the sizes of dips on their ice cream cones, are screaming, “I got gypped (or jipped),” having no idea that the word came from negative stereotype of gypsies cheating or robbing people.

There are two sides to these pejoratives.  On the one hand, they make the language colorful and precise.  With the internet and other forms of technology, the English language is already being “dummied down” with all its LOLs and other shortcuts.   (Oops, can I say “dummied down”?)  On the other hand, words can hurt, and we know it.  People, especially adults, who use these words to belittle others know what they are doing. 

Newspapers, politicians, and preachers who use the word homosexual know that gay people don’t like to be called that, but they do it anyway.  In reality, it’s just a subtle way to bully.  Isn’t there a verse in the Bible that says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”?  Doesn’t that mean civility and respect?

It all comes back to civility, doesn’t it?

If people want to use the line “That’s so gay,” they should really use it with the meaning “That’s so creative” because that’s a positive stereotype of gay people.  Think of all creativity put out by hair stylists (let’s go with those straight-thinking stereotypes), artists, playwrights, and composers.  Let’s don’t forget to mention Michalangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Alexander the Great or some current creative gay people like Elton John, Ricky Martin, or Ellen Degeneres.

So maybe when (or if) you read something on here that makes you think a bit, you’ll say, “That’s so gay.”  But, hey, you gotta put the right tone in your voice or it won’t work.

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