Last week I was cruising through a Facebook friend's wall postings and came across a friend of his wearing the tackiest of holiday sweaters: a bright red schmata adorned with embroidered snowflakes and a quartet of Frosty the Snowmen. To boot, the poor fellow also wore a turtleneck emblazoned with a ring of snowflakes. "Absolutely hideous," I said to myself.
I then noticed the caption that my Facebook friend had written about this Yuletide fashion victim: "What can you say? Really, this may be the GAYest thing I've ever seen. WTF!!!" I paused and read some of the other comments: "tacky," "so manly!!!" and the like.
If you're like me, long out of high school, perhaps you didn't know that the word "gay" and the phrase "that's so gay" are now used synonymously for anything stupid, dumb, effeminate, flamboyant and, yes, hideous. In fact, "that's so gay" is one of the most prevalent homophobic slurs around these days.
What's the big deal? According to a recent Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) survey, "anti-LGBT bullying and harassment remain commonplace in America's schools" and that remarks like "that's so gay" foster a homophobic environment and worse. The GLSEN findings showed that 75 percent of high school students reported hearing remarks such as "faggot" or "dyke" frequently, with nine out of 10 often hearing "that's so gay" or "you're so gay" (meaning stupid or worthless).
I decided to ask my friend some questions. First, was his Facebook friend gay? "Of course not," he replied. I asked him if he meant to disparage gays and lesbians. "No," he replied. "Why, then, did you use that phrase?" I asked. "Because the sweater was ugly, tacky and hideous. That's so gay," was his response.
Honestly, he used the word "hideous," and while I tried to explain that gay is not a synonym for any of those words, he had had enough. Although I could see that he didn't consciously use it as an insult against LGBT people, the phrase had become a part of his generation's daily parlance, used and accepted in schools, Facebook and just about everywhere else.
Last fall, largely in response to the rising use of the slur in everyday argot, GLSEN and The Advertising Council launched a new public service announcement aimed at young people to halt the use of the expression. The campaign features actors Hilary Duff and Wanda Sykes calling out teenagers for using "gay" to mean someone is stupid. In one of the spots, Sykes says, "Don't say that something is gay when you mean that something is dumb or stupid."
Not surprisingly, the problem goes deeper than language. The GLSEN survey also found that more than a third of all LGBT students experienced physical harassment at school based on their sexual orientation and nearly a fifth had been physically assaulted at school for the same reason. LGBT high school students who experience physical harassment are twice as likely not to pursue college, and their average grade-point averages were half a grade lower than gay and lesbian students not facing the same level of hostility, no doubt because the teens who felt themselves to be at risk were five times more likely to skip school due to "safety concerns."
What to do? Even if you think it's funny or a hip turn of phrase, don't forget that "That's so gay" is hurtful. Just because it doesn't have the same bite as "fag" or "dyke" doesn't mean it's not harmful or hateful. It is. We need to stop using the word "gay" to mean dumb, stupid and worthless and to think before we speak (or post on Facebook). As Shannon Gilreath, a law professor at Wake Forest, explained to me last year, "Physical violence begins with bullying, name-calling and homophobic remarks. When nothing happens to someone [for making slurs], it escalates to violence." So, as teens say today: Don't go there.
Visit Steven Petrow on the Web at www.gayandlesbianmanners.com