Australian English

Nov 30, 2012

That’s so gay

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.

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7 thoughts on “That’s so gay

  1. iggy648

    I find these comments really interesting. To connect “gay” to “bad “ via “gay” meaning homosexual , implies that you have to think of homosexuals as in some way bad. That simply didn’t occur to me. In fact now thinking about it, when I’ve heard the term used, it has usually been used to mean more like “boring” , ”insipid”, “lame” or suchlike rather than “bad”. And none of the gay people I’ve known, or known of, could be described as boring or insipid! I just assumed it was just part of a new slang, (like “cockney rhyming slang”, but this being “teenage opposite slang”). I assumed this because it seemed to appear at about the same time as other “opposite slang” (such as “bad”, “mad”, “insane”, “wicked”, “fully sick” etc.). Having said all that, I’ve just noticed that all the words in brackets are words that originally had “negative” connotations, and have changed to “positive” slang connotations, whereas “gay” is the only word I have been able to think of that originally had “positive” connotations and changed to “negative” slang connotations. Not sure what that implies.

  2. cyclone

    I often wonder how the homosexual members of society came to use the word ‘gay’ to describe themselves as a group. My first girlfriend was named Gay, but 35 years ago it was a rather nice ladies name or a term used to describe a happy time. What is really meant when the Flintstones will ‘have a gay old time’ when you are with them?

  3. mikeb

    Agreed re South Park (also responsible for the war against gingers). I have become used to using the term myself I suspect due to contact with teenagers who use it all the time. Their gay friends don’t seem to mind (or maybe they don’t show it). Maybe the term is becoming divorced from the subject? Anyhow – in the context I hear the term it refers to something that is lame or stupid and is certainly not homophobic (scared of homosexuals).

  4. Christian Kent

    Let’s clear this up: “That’s so gay” is prevalent among 20-somethings because of South Park.

    It took off 10-15 years ago with exactly the age group and demographic that usually works against this kind of prejudice. So now we’re left with a latent problem. In the same way that a Colbert sketch can resonate with conservatives, the joke took root and has become a weed.

  5. Aidan Wilson

    So it means “happy”, “homosexual” and “dumb”, in different contexts.

    I disagree. For the mostly younger people who use ‘gay’ in a pejorative sense, the original sense of ‘happy’ is all but unknown to them. What is known to them is gay meaning homosexual. So what they have been doing is applying semantic broadening, so that ‘gay’ to them means anything displeasing, which is possible only if homosexuality is displeasing.

    Now, they may be doing this subconsciously and not realise exactly what they’re connoting, but as a reformed ‘gay’-dropper, in my case I knew exactly what it meant, but I didn’t particularly care.

    I wouldn’t have called myself homophobic by any stretch, but I certainly never did what I could have to reduce the very real culture of rampant homophobia which allowed this semantic broadening to have occurred in the first place. And in that sense, by using ‘gay’ to mean stupid, I was unknowingly supporting homophobic culture.

    ‘Gay’ has been semantically divorced from ‘happy’ for so long that it’s practically irrelevant.

  6. Niamh225

    I was reading an article about the use of c–t the other day, and, as always, the comments made for even more interesting reading. One person argued that when they use this word as abuse they do not think of the female body part this word represents. They argue that the word and the referent have been successfully separated. I have heard this same defence used for ‘gay’ meaning ‘terrible’ or ‘bad’. I remain unconvinced by this type of argument, but sometimes have a hard time convincing others. As a high school teacher I have been challenging the ‘that’s so gay’ use of ‘gay’ for years and once I put explain my issues with it (same as this author’s) it’s not said (in my hearing at least) again. A Year 12 student tried to convince me that this person was right with regards to calling someone a c–t. So I asked him: if they’re right, then where is the shock value located? Swearing, and abusive swearing, only works because a social taboo has been violated. What will rile people as an insult is also culturally dependent. If these two words have been successfully separated from their denotation, what taboo is being violated? Where is the offence located, if not in the original meaning of the word? Some people will argue I’m comparing apples and oranges, and to some extent they’re right. C–t has a more widely perceived taboo, but the underlying argument remains the same. You are using a word that is used to describe something INHERENT to a human being(female genitalia or sexual orientation) and attributing negative connotations to it, ones that say ‘this thing/person is so awful/revolting/annoying/crappy etc.’. How can it NOT be homophobic (or sexist with reagrds to c–t)?

  7. iggy648

    I don’t think it is homophobic. Gay was a useful word before homosexuals decided to use it to describe themselves. I’ve heard kids use it for years, just as they use “wicked” to mean “good”. I think it’s just a 3rd use of the same word. So it means “happy”, “homosexual” and “dumb”, in different contexts.

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