When I was in high school, people didn’t say “That’s so gay” instead of “I think that is stupid.” Maybe because back then, the issue of being gay wasn’t something that was talked about all that much. Being gay was more something you hid about yourself, or that you were hidden from, especially as a teenager.
Homosexuality was far from the political forefront and could hardly be found on TV or in music. There was no out Ellen, only k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge. There was no “Glee” or Adam Lambert, only Elton John. It seemed there were about four homosexuals in the world, and none of them were my age or looked anything like me. I was so hungry for anything gay back then that if I had heard someone say “That is so gay,” I probably would have run to the library to research whatever it was (we didn’t have Wikipedia yet, either) in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, I had found something that was, in fact, gay.
I don’t know how the phrase “That’s so gay” first came into being, but I do know that over the years, it has become an increasingly popular derogatory phrase, especially in middle and high schools. In fact, a recent survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network showed that nearly nine out of 10 students reported hearing or saying “That’s so gay” at school. And every single one of my teacher friends, gay or straight, has told me about instances when they have heard kids saying it. I’ve even heard gay people say it about day-to-day stuff, like a traffic light that takes too long to change.
So, what’s the big deal? It’s just a phrase. They are only words, right?
Well, of course not.
Last year, the media shed light on a rash of anti-gay bullying incidents that resulted in teen suicides, showing us that words can mean everything, especially to kids.
I’ve found that the best way to deal with the derogatory phrase is to get straight to the point, without trying to argue or get aggressive. You fight ignorance with knowledge and hate with love, right? I usually just say, “That’s not gay at all.” As a lesbian and a writer, what offends me most is the complete inaccuracy of the phrase. If a pop quiz that your teacher springs on you is gay, or if the sweater your grandma got you for Christmas is gay, then I am going to have to go find another word that describes my love for the ladies. And I’ve already worked far too hard for the right to call myself gay.
I recently asked around in an effort to get some ideas for creative ways to respond to the phrase, and, out of about 50 people, ages 18-65, here is what we came up with:
“Hey, I’m so gay.” Because being gay is a people thing, not an actual thing. “They usually fall over themselves trying to explain why their word choice was justified,” said one young woman. This also works for straight people, too, if you really want to shake things up.
“You say that like it is a bad thing …” Because most of the time, yes, they are saying it like it’s a bad thing. This is a polite way of saying, “I don’t agree with you.”
My teacher friends like to use their teacher voice: “Derogatory language will not be tolerated.” As one teacher friend put it, “I can only hope that by showing them that words hurt, and at times, harmful words have lead to harmful actions, that young people will learn to think about the weight and power that can come from their words.”
Point out the obvious, without getting personal. Instead of saying, “You are homophobic,” simply say, “That statement is homophobic.” (The same goes for racist, sexist or other phobic statements. Rather than saying, “You are a racist,” say, “That is racism.” Rather than exclaim, “You are an asshole,” use the term, “That is assholism.”)
Depending on my mood, I have been known to take the phrase and turn it back around: “Yeah, that is so straight.”
Or ask the question, “What’s so gay about it? Are there two dudes kissing?” Because that is gay.