We've been told quite often that the way we use words matters more than the words we use, and it's true that many people don't consider origin when they speak; they focus more on the speaker's tone of voice and body language, and on the context of the words and how those words apply to them and other people. In context, the phrase "That's so gay" takes on new meaning for students - most use it as a generic insult to describe something bad, not pausing to think about the significance of those words. However, the word gay should not be used as a substitute for negative words, because doing so is blatantly offensive, demonstrates a lack of articulation, and promotes homophobia.
So why is it important to stop using gay as an insult? Many students see no problem with the phrase; don't the first words bequeathed to us by our ever-knowledgeable guardians as we enter grade school somehow always echo the old adage 'Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me'? Yet we have all discovered in one way or another that this saying is not true at all...that words sometimes cause more damage than physical wounds if they are given enough weight. Some teenagers don't understand how the phrase can be offensive to gay people if it's not intended that way. They claim it's "just a saying." Well, saying or not, I would certainly be offended if someone used my name as an insult, or if my name was also used to mean something bad - like if rapists or murderers were called 'Amies.'
Eliza Byard understands the impact words can have on the people who hear them. "As odd or funny as the phrase sounds, imagine what it feels like to be in a setting where you consistently hear it used to describe something undesirable or stupid, and it also applies to you" (qtd. in Leff). Byard is deputy executive director of an alliance organization that provides comprehensive survey information on the harmful effects of bullying and the reasons students might be singled out - race, gender, and sexual orientation. Some argue that in the broad scope of prejudiced insults, how can the phrase "that's so gay" really be considered a problem? Joseph Kosciw and Elizabeth Diaz of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network asked over fourteen thousand lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students this same question. The answer is made obvious by their findings:
Respondents to the 2005 NSCS National School Climate Survey reported that homophobic remarks were the most common type of biased language heard at school, with three-quarters of the students (75.4 percent) hearing remarks such as "faggot" or "dyke" frequently or often at school. Even more pervasive was the use of the expression "that's so gay" or "you're so gay," often used to indicate that something or someone is stupid or worthless. Nearly nine out of ten (89.2 percent) students reported hearing these comments frequetly or often at school. (13-14)
The way we use words - and symbols and names - affects the connotation we assign them, and can distort their original meanings. The swastika, for example, is a religious symbol of good fortune used in Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism; it is also a symbol of purity and life for the Navajo. By adorning their uniforms with the swastika, the Nazis gave it a stigma that still exists today (Badlani). This has also happened with words, most notably the name for a female dog that is now often used as a profanity. How plausible is it that the people who first invented this insult didn't mean to imply that being an animal was distasteful?
Nowhere in its history has the term gay ever been officially defined as stupid or bad, although its definition has shifted slightly through the ages. Originally meaning joyful or exuberant, in the nineteenth century it was also used to describe a man or woman of licentious nature - possibly because of the enthusiasm in their endeavors; then, after the Stonewall riots, gay became the common adjective to replace the too-clinical 'homosexual' (Wikholm). Its original meaning can still be found used in songs such as the Flintstone's theme song, which ends with the words "We'll have a gay old time," and a song from West Side Story with the lyrics "I feel pretty and witty and gay." This is how the word should be used: positively.
Some state that it's not the words - it's how they are used. That statement is only half true, because it's the implied meaning behind the words that makes the phrase so ridiculous. Rebekah Rice, a teenager who was punished by her high school for saying "That's so gay," said she didn't mean it in a homophobic way, just to mean that's silly or stupid (qtd. in Leff). The fact that Rice didn't realize the offensiveness of her words is itself alarming, because it brings to light the biggest problem with the phrase - intentionally or not, it promotes homophobia. By using the phrase "That's so gay," we are sending the message that it is acceptable to use slurs in our everyday speech. Because of the ambiguity of the statement, the subtle idea that homosexuality is wrong is being passed on to our children and younger siblings, because they hear "That's so gay" whenever they do something wrong, and they grow up to associate the word gay with everything unpleasant. One anonymous eleven-year-old published an essay about the commonality of the phrase at his school. He said, "When people use the words "You're gay," it makes it seem like there's something wrong with being gay" ("Fed up"). Sadly, many students who say it, like Rebekah Rice, don't understand that it is offensive, and they unknowingly pass along this message of intolerance to everyone who hears it.
So what can be done? The answer is simple: stop saying "That's so gay." Replace gay with a more appropriate word, one that actually applies to the subject in question. However, this by itself is not enough. As that eleven-year-old so aptly stated, "Sometimes you should speak out when you think something's wrong" ("Fed up"). Teenagers who hear their friends and families say "That's so gay" should politely remind them that gay is not an insult. If they are met with resistance - if others argue it's "just a saying" - they should explain why the word, when used inappropriately, is hurtful and derogatory. If we can reduce the number of people who use "That's so gay," maybe this ridiculous phrase will disappear altogether. That would be wonderful. That would be truly gay.
Badlani, Chirag. "Nazi Swastika or Ancient Symbol? Time to Learn the Difference." An End to Itolerance 5 (June 1995). 13 Dec. 2007 http//www. iearn. org/hgp/aeti/aeti-1997/swastika. html .
"Fed up with gay-bashing: how one students responds." Philadelphia Public School Notebook 7.3 (2000). 15 Dec. 2007 http//www. thenotebook. org/editions/2004/summer/fedup. htm .
Kosciw, Joseph G., and Elizabeth M. Diaz. "The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth in Our Nation." The 2005 National School Climate Survey (2006): 13-14. 13 Dec. 2007 http//www. glsen. org/binary-data/GLSENATTACHMENTS/file/585-1. pdf .
Leff, Lisa. "Student lawsuit in California hinges on whether 'That's so gay' is an anti-gay putdown." Associated Press Archive 28 Feb. 2007. 13 Dec. 2007 http//www. msnbc. msn. com/id/17388702 .
Wikholm, Andrew. "Word: gay." (2000). 14 Dec. 2007 http//www. gayhistory. com/index. htm .
AN: This was my AP persuasive research paper. Fictionpress doesn't allow me to get the MLA format exact, but I tried. FP also doesn't allow internet links in stories, so I added spaces after the periods in each address. I hope it shows up, though of course I won't know until I post. Please don't steal this and use this as your own...mainly because you'll be embarrassed and royally screwed when it comes up in a search by your teacher. :)
Also, please take the words to heart. Gay is not an insult.