What's the harm in casually using the phrase 'that's so gay'? Nothing particularly sinister is meant by it and no offence is usually intended. 1,500,000 tweets give a different impression. Greg Dickson writes that homophobic language negatively affects gay people regardless of speaker's intentions:
I’ve been hoping it’s just a passing phase but apparently not. A mate of mine Facebooked recently that while leaving his gym he overheard a young woman on her phone casually use the phrase ‘that’s so gay’. Good on my mate for then chiding her for this unnecessary use of homophobic language but it’s unfortunate to know that hearing this stuff leaves enough emotional residue (yes, he’s gay) for him to have to vent his frustrations on Facebook and question, “Why is the term ‘that’s so gay’ socially acceptable?” (I’ll leave out the vulgarities that followed…)
Is it socially acceptable? I don’t think it is at all. But there is a decent-sized minority of people who don’t realise that language like this is inappropriate or might realise it but are too lazy to change their speech behaviour. (This linguistic research shows some young Australians think it’s fine while others realise it’s not good but “find it hard not to use it”). I think the use of ‘that’s so gay’ can be put down to ignorance. It’s clearly more prevalent among young people. I can only assume (and hope) that as people who use this phrase age and mature and gain some life experience (e.g. get to know some gay people) it will gradually be dropped from their vocabulary
I’ve seen this happen a few times myself, where people who know I’m gay suddenly reconsider their language use. I was once having dinner with old family friends and a 20-something I’ve known for years (but not that well) dropped the ‘gay = bad’ adjective. It took him a microsecond to realise that it was poor form to say that in my company and then said quietly with some embarrasment “I probably shouldn’t say that”. A similar thing happened with another friend. One of the first times we hung out together, a ‘so gay’ comment slipped out and, not knowing her too well but thinking she was nice, I let it slide. A few weeks later it happened again. By then I could make a joke out of it and we both had a laugh and I never heard her say it again. I can only assume that when people like this start having experiences where they are required to consider the impact of using such language then it will filter out into their general language use – that even when there are no gay people around, they now have an emotional trigger associated with the phrase that may limit its acceptability and use.
But what’s the harm? Most people who use this term use it innocently. They’re not bad people. It’s just something they say and obviously they’re not using it in direct reference to homosexuality. The harm is that it makes gay people feel like crap. Gay people hear homophobic language regularly and we’re well aware that it gets used all the time. We know most of it is used flippantly but nonetheless, it’s a constant reminder that we’re different, that many perceive us negatively, that we are made fun of, that we’re something that most people don’t want to be. And given that most people who say ‘that’s so gay’ are young people talking to other young people, it can be further claimed that it makes young gay people in particular feel like crap. Not a good thing for this more vulnerable group to have to put up with.
To get a sense of how homophobic language can affect you, check out NoHomophobesDotCom. The website was created by the University of Alberta to raise awareness of the issue. It features a live stream of tweets that use the terms ‘faggot’, ‘so gay’ ‘no homo’ and ‘dyke’. The tweets fly by, painting a picture of how it feels to be constantly aware that this sort of language is around you. ‘Faggot’ has been tweeted publicly over 4 million times since July and ‘so gay’ has just clocked 1.5 million tweets. Most heterosexual visitors to the site will find it thoroughly depressing and will hopefully make even more of an effort to avoid and discourage such language use. Then they’ll go to another website or back to their work. When gay visitors click off the site all we do is go back to the real world version of it.
Please do your bit to reduce the use of homophobic language. On behalf of all gay people, I think I can safely say: we hate it.
AKA: Greg Dickson. Postdoc guy at University of Queensland with Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language. Somewhere there, also a community linguist (Katherine region, NT) specialising in Aboriginal languages.