It’s OK to call things “gay”: Let’s stop worrying about words
I’m gay, and I’m fine with people saying “gay” when they mean “bad”, says Hugh Bassett
When I was fifteen I walked into Chemistry late. I’d missed the teacher telling us about our homework and so I asked my friend Emily what we’d been given. She told me we had extra work than usual.
“That’s so gay!” I said loudly, as teenagers often do, before returning to the sheets of paper in front of me.
“Excuse me?!” Came a reply that I wasn’t expecting, not from Emily, but from our teacher. He’d practically shouted it, and the whole class had gone quiet. I was entirely on the spot.
“Ummm, I just meant it was..bad.” I managed to mumble.
Our teacher looked at me furiously.
“Oh. So it’s bad now is it?” He said. “Get out!”
I got my things and left the room. I sat outside for the whole lesson, and at the end I came back in, and the teacher, who I think was gay, told me I should never use such offensive language.
Of course, he didn’t know then that six months later I would come out to the entire school. And by ‘come out’ I mean explain why I’d snogged a bloke right in front of everyone at a party over half term. It might have changed our conversation somewhat. I never meant to offend anyone by saying “gay” instead of something that annoyed me, and I still don’t, but that’s because I don’t really think there was anything wrong with me saying it.
This week Stonewall launched a poster campaign in order to try and stamp out that use of the word in schools. Their research shows that 84% of gay teenagers find the word insulting. For a variety of reasons I was, and still am, in the other sixteen percent.
Using gay as an “insult” has lost all its power. The negative connotations associated with it had already disappeared back when I said it in Chemistry in 2005. When I used the word in that lesson there was no meaning behind it, apart that it was something that crept into my lexicon, in the same way that I can’t help but say “like” every other sentence, or, annoyingly, how you currently can’t open a newspaper without seeing the word “twerk.”
There is a large difference between what we say and what we do. I often say that this weekend I’m going to finally go to the gym or stop eating mini rolls and watching re-runs of Friends all day, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. Saying something is gay doesn’t mean you’re about to start some homophobic crusade, otherwise I would’ve punched myself in the face long ago. People who use gay in place of bad aren’t saying they don’t believe gays don’t have the right to live as well as everyone else.
Sometimes when I meet a new group of people, and they find out I’m gay, they retroactively apologise for saying “gay” in normal conversation, in case I was offended. While the sentiment itself is nice, the general feeling is of the old stereotype that we’re all such precious little flowers we aren’t able to deal with a word, especially one that no one uses homophobically anyway.
Trying to change its usage now, specifically in schools, is the sort of thing that’s going to make it regain some of its power, become once again taboo. If you tell children they can’t use a word in a certain way, it only becomes more potent. By attempting to negate it at this stage, it will only serve to rekindle the thought process that initially made people associate “gay” with “bad”. Surely it’s better just to let it fizzle out of its own accord, along with “wicked,” “chillax” and all the other words that have seen better days?
When I was at school, what would’ve actually helped me would’ve been decent sex education for gay pupils, advice on how to deal with real homophobia when it occurred, what to do when you fancy a straight guy and a whole host of other things before I cared about what words people say. There are a lot more constructive ways we can help kids to be accepted at school, and we let gay children down by forcing them to figure out everything alone, not by failing to make sure no one’s ever going to offend them.
If you think I’m trying to be needlessly controversial, I’m not. If Stonewall’s statistics are correct, perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe school kids will be better off without anyone saying gay like I once did. This is simply my opinion, formed from what I’ve learnt.
Because you do learn certain things growing up feeling so different to everyone else. When the other parents at school bully your mum because she let you wear girls’ clothes and you were bad at sport, you learn to just go read a book rather than hang out with their children. When you realise that not everyone in society may like you, you learn to get up every day and try just as hard as the people who it does, as there’s really no other choice. And when the other kids use certain words, you eventually realize that that’s all they will ever be. The more you let yourself be affected by them the more they have power over you.
After all that’s what they always tell you when you’re little, isn’t it? Sticks and stones may break my bones….
Hugh Bassett is the editor of The Tab at UCL. If you’d like to write a response (or about anything else), email [email protected]