It’s 2016, there are still people using ‘gay’ as an insult – and they really need to stop

‘I heard a group of blokes saying it on the train last week’

On the train this week, a group of boozed-up lads, dressed in suits, got onto my carriage. One was texting his girlfriend. The others clocked this, and started ripping into him.

It was the usual, pretty unfunny stuff. But one insult stood out. “Mate, that’s so gay,” said one of them, sneering. And it reminded me of an ugly, archaic truth: some people in their twenties, in 2016, still use “gay” as an insult.

Would you ever describe something as “straight”? Imagine someone saying: “that’s so straight, mate” as an insult. It just doesn’t make sense. It would take centuries of cultural, social and physical persecution of straight people for the term to even begin to carry the same discriminative weight as calling someone “gay”. Which, I’m willing to wager, won’t happen anytime soon.

It’s a playground term. When you were at school, Double French was “gay”. If someone hid your textbooks they were being “gay”. It was a synonym for “bad” or “shit”. Though today’s children are far more enlightened: a Teach First graduate recently told me, “kids don’t really say ‘gay’ anymore. They’re far more self-aware, and being gay is accepted among more intelligent groups of students”.

However, some adults haven’t grown up – as that incident proves. And as a gay friend put it to me, “it’s still a big problem. People who have been to uni and have jobs still use it to describe something as lame or embarrassing.”

The generation who grew up hurling the term across classrooms feel uneasy. Most know they shouldn’t say it, but some instinctively slip it into conversation when searching for a negative word, a pernicious hangover from adolescence. But pull these people up on it and they will object frantically to being labelled homophobes. They protest that they don’t mean any harm; maybe they’re right. But, whether or not they mean it, calling something “gay” remains insulting and offensive.

Of course everyone is different, and we should be incredibly wary of calling anything “normal”. Gay people have a whole culture, history and struggle that is completely not normal. To bypass these differences is to dismiss gay music, art, literature, film and every similar cultural touchstones. And we must always take intent into consideration. But there remains an uncomfortable habit among some straight people to dismiss things as “gay” without critical reflection. This isn’t to say we should completely ban the word; it’s more a call to use it in a less intellectually lazy way.

It’s pointing out the bleeding obvious to say that it undermines the confidence of gay people, chipping away at their psyche and reinforcing the nonsense that they are “different” in an inferior, unnatural way. It makes them feel like outsiders. And until people stop repurposing the word as an insult, then this will persist.