Since the 1960’s, the term “gay” has been synonymous with “homosexual” and, when used derogatorily, has carried the prejudices of previous generations. Due to a lack of education about homosexuality, children use “gay” and other related slang to degrade and bully one another regardless of sexual orientation. Despite sexual slurs being used by young people irrespective of their sexual orientation, children perceived to be non-heterosexual are bullied more than others, leading to increased likelihood of self-harm and suicide. Throughout my childhood, my teachers tried to protect students from sexuality-targeted bullying by punishing those who use the word “gay” negatively. Due to this action, use of the word “gay” was silenced. I have since learned that silencing those who use the word negatively can do as much harm as being bullied with the word. Instead, as social acceptance of homosexuality increases, the derogatory use of the word “gay” by children and teens could be stopped by educating children on the meaning and appropriate uses of the word, encouraging appropriate use, and discouraging inappropriate use.
As I’ve grown up, my understanding of the word “gay” has changed – as has the context within which it is used. In elementary and middle school, “gay” was an insult. When one student got into a fight with a friend, his or her trump card would be to call them “gay.” For most of my younger schooling, my fellow students and I had no concept of what “gay” meant; we simply knew that it was bad. The meaning was not important to us; instead, its ability to hurt someone else made it powerful and useful. We reserved it as the final shot with which to destroy someone else. My adolescent experiences and observations were not unique. According to a study conducted by Jane Riese, a social worker and prevention educator at Clemson University, 93% of teenagers nationwide hear derogatory words associated with sexual orientation every day, and 12% are specifically targeted by these derogatory hate words (Riese). Despite the common perception that teenagers are targeted based on their sexuality, Riese’s study found that 75% of hate-related words are used irrespective of the target’s sexual orientation (Riese). Sexually derogatory words are simply used to hurt, and because of this usage, no one in my school wanted to be called “gay” or to identify as gay.
By the end of middle school, my friends and I had looked up the definition of “gay” online and found that it meant something along the lines of “a boy who likes another boy.” After scrolling down the page we found a second definition, “light-hearted, care free…cheerful, merry” (OED). We reverted to the old meaning of the word to keep the insults from hurting. If someone called you “gay,” the comeback became, “Yeah, I’m so happy!” It helped a little, but the word still hurt because of the hateful intensity with which it was often uttered.
To keep us from fighting, our teachers restrained us from using the word “gay” by giving out lunch detentions to anyone that used it within earshot. They tried to make the word taboo in the hopes that it would de-stigmatize it. Like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound, however, this did not help and, in the long run, made things worse. Teachers in classrooms nationwide have started banning the use of the word “gay.” In fact, Tennessee’s House of Representatives has been actively pursuing a bill since 2012 that will forbid the use of the word “gay” (and any other homosexual-related words) within schools altogether (Wong). This legislation, supposedly meant to protect children from harm, is in fact harming them by denying those kids who are homosexual the language with which to discuss themselves. What began as an effort to help students now hurts them. If Tennessee’s bill passes, they will institutionally propagate this suppression of homosexuality by silencing all conversation on sexuality. By not providing countermeasures, such as teaching students to accept and treat non-heterosexual students equally, they are perpetuating the notion that homosexuality is taboo.
In high school, “gay” took on a different usage. The high school I attended was an all-boys boarding school. In boarding school environments, living with others can create incredibly close friendships. At my high school, “brotherhood” was a core value. There was little bullying based on alternative sexualities, because there was a school rule that any hazing or hate crimes would result in expulsion. Still, no one in our school openly identified as non-heterosexual. Similar to the way teachers addressed “gay” in middle school, calling someone else “gay” was considered bullying. Therefore, the term was commonly used to slander nearly everything else. Under these circumstances, “gay” became the slang for things boys thought were annoying, uncool, or weird. Assemblies, homework assignments, and viral YouTube videos were commonly described as “gay.” According to the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang, “gay” in contemporary usage has become synonymous with stupid, foolish, and lame (ODMS). The source of this usage is derived from “gay adjective [for] homosexual” (ODMS). The connotation from my childhood hadn’t changed.
Through diffusion, the negative connotation of “gay” still hurt others and forced homosexual students into strict heterosexual stereotypes to avoid being viewed as gay. Guys were so concerned with their sexualities that they followed up their actions with a habitual utterance: “no homo,” meaning “not meant in a homosexually romantic way.” Giving another guy a hug, showing any affection towards one another, or complimenting each other was followed by this phrase so that no one would get the wrong impression. Boys used this phrase needlessly, often after actions that were clearly not homosexual in nature, without realizing the negative implications of their word choice. In response to a public interview of athlete Roy Hibbert, during which he used the phrase “no homo,” Nic Subtirelu, a PhD student at Georgia State University studying sociological linguistics, reported, “The use of ‘no homo’ in this context and in others propagates an ideology that positions homosexuality and gay men as inferior to heterosexuality or heterosexual men. Specifically, it represents homosexuality as socially undesirable” (Subtirelu). My schoolmates were not alone in using this phrase inappropriately. During the week of December 3rd to December 9th, 2014, 36,651 people tweeted the phrase “no homo.” Another 40,010 tweeted the phrase “[that’s] so gay” (NoHomoPhobes). As recently as last week, thousands of people used homosexual-related terms derogatorily on social media.
This use is beginning to decline. While my high school was advertised as accepting due to its strict policies, it was essentially an anti-gay community because it silently condoned the usage of the word “gay” to mean “undesirable” and “uncool.” However, during my junior year of school, the faculty and administration rethought their treatment of sexuality and bullying. Sparked by the growing national awareness for bullied Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Questioning (LGBTQ) students, the faculty brought in speakers to address our school as a whole on topics of sexuality and acceptance. Teachers showed videos at assemblies from the “It Gets Better” campaign, which aims to provide comfort to teens of the LGBTQ community and provide support to those that don’t have openly gay mentors or role models in their lives. Their slogan, “It Gets Better,” is found in their mission statement: “The It Gets Better Project wants to remind teenagers in the LGBT community that they are not alone — and it WILL get better” (It Gets Better). That same year, students were encouraged to participate in the “National Day of Silence,” a campaign that aims to increase understanding by having “students across the country vow to take a form of silence to call attention to the silencing effect of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools” (National Day of Silence). This campaign also raises sympathy by having non-LGBTQ members experience what it’s like to live a day without being able to speak and thereby better understand what silenced LGBTQ members go through every day by not being able to express their sexuality.
One video that particularly relates to my high school experience is Ignite Cardiff’s recording of Dean Lloyd’s talk “Things I’ve Heard Called ‘Gay’ That Really Aren’t.” A mix of comedic lines and photographs, as well as stark commentary and statistics, his speech addresses homophobia. He specifically draws attention to the inaccurate use of “gay” to refer to things that are not homosexual. To contextualize his point, Lloyd projects a pair of furry, pink shoes that have wings and teddy bear heads attached to them onto the screen and describes them: “This pair of trainers. So they’re outrageous, they’re over the top, they’re overpriced, they’re definitely pink, but they’re really not gay” (EbbwMedia). Highlighting a rampant problem in my high school, Lloyd also discusses the need to reintroduce the use of the word “gay” in schools as a term of empowerment, not degradation. Just as my school took action to reframe the discussion about the term, teachers need to be trained, or given a proper method for addressing gay bullying, rather than acting as passive bystanders or silencing the term outright.
These campaigns and others work to end nationwide problems and stigmas affecting LGBTQ youth, including youth suicide caused by bullying and homelessness, which stems from a lack of parental support for kids who know or even think they might fall into the LGBTQ category. LGBTQ youth are two to four times more likely than other children to commit suicide, think about harming themselves, or think of committing suicide, and they comprise roughly 30% of the victims of youth suicides (Cody, Riese). Roughly 40% of homeless children are LGBTQ (“Homeless LGBT Youth”). It is believed that these high statistics are due to a lack of parental support for LGBTQ children. Younger people are generally accepting of homosexuality, but older generations are statistically less tolerant. According to research conducted by Pew Research Center, 74% of people under the age of 30 believe in equal rights for homosexuals (Growing Support for Gay Marriage: Changed Minds and Changing Demographics). This percentage drops steadily as age increases. Currently, only 46% of adults between the ages of 49 and 67 believe in equal rights for homosexuals; that’s the age range of most parents (“Growing Support”). Negative parental attitudes about homosexuality contribute to the many LGBTQ children living on the streets and to the word “gay” being used negatively by young children.
Over my junior and senior years in high school, people’s mentalities changed. “No homo” and other negative uses of “gay” and associated slang gradually stopped being incorporated incorrectly into students’ vocabularies once they learned the negative effects that their words could inadvertently have on their friends. Presentations and active conversations promoted by the Gay-Straight Alliance raised awareness on these issues, and conversations about the appropriate use of the word “gay” were encouraged. This activism challenged anti-gay mentalities. By the end of my senior year, numerous friends whom I had always assumed were straight made public their true sexualities. My high school had the standard percentages of LGBT populations: roughly 5 to 9 percent (Riese). All it took for my friends to be comfortable with themselves was to hear that being gay, or any other sexuality, was not wrong, but natural and healthy.
Due to my personal experiences and the documented experiences of youth nationwide, I believe that the taboo should be lifted off of the word “gay.” Instead of teaching kids that the word is bad, its appropriate usage should be taught to children and teens. Teachers should take an active role in building homosexually tolerant environments by promoting LGBTQ awareness events, showing clips of or inviting guest speakers on the subject, and educating students on the detrimental effects of using “gay” in a negative context. As seen by LGBTQ movements aimed at providing support and increasing understanding, the word “gay” should be used to describe a particular demographic – homosexual males – rather than as a slur. “Gay” should be used to show the gay community that they have as much right to be heard, acknowledged, and loved as anybody else.
Ayto, John, and J. A. Simpson. Stone the Crows: Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
Cody, Paul, PhD. “Bullying and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning Suicide.” University of New Hampshire Counseling Center. Safe Zone, University of New Hampshire, 2014. Web.
EbbwMedia. “Things I’ve Heard Called ‘Gay’ That Really Aren’t (Ignite Cardiff 18 – Episode 5 – Dean Lloyd).” Online video clip. YouTube, 25 Jul. 2014. Web.
“Gay.” Oxford English Dictionary. Web.
“Growing Support for Gay Marriage: Changed Minds and Changing Demographics.” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Pew Research, 20 Mar. 2014. Web.
“Homeless LGBT Youth Represent Up To 40 Percent Of Those On The Streets.” Huffington Post, 4 Jan. 2013. Web.
“Info + Resources.” Day of Silence. Web.
“NoHomophobes.com.” Institute for Sexual Minority Suicides and Services. Web.
Riese, Jane, LSW. “Bullying & Sexual Orientation: Violence Prevention Works.” OWLEUS Bullying Prevention Program. Web.
Subtirelu, Nic. “Why ‘no Homo’ Is Homophobic (in Case You Somehow Missed It).” Linguistic Pulse. Linguistic Pulse, 4 June 2013. Web.
“What Is the It Gets Better Project?” It Gets Better. Web.
Wong, Curtis M. “Tennessee’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill Advances In House Despite Protests.” Huffington Post, 16 Feb. 2012. Web.