One of the most popular insults for Miramonte students, and for youths across the country, is the word “gay.” You know it well. You can hear it in a dozen conversations a day, from the classroom to the locker room. It’s used interchangeably for words like “lame” and “stupid” on a regular basis, as in the phrases “this homework assignment is gay” and “my parents are being gay and won’t let me go out this weekend.” This use of the word has been cemented into popular culture, but does that justify using “gay” so negatively? It does not. Abuse of the word “gay” is homophobic, regardless of the intended meaning.
“Gay” has very specific definitions. In the 19th Century it was used to describe a prostitute, and in the early to mid-20th Century it was used as a synonym for “happy” and “carefree.” Beginning in the 1970s, the homosexual community adopted it, and gave it the definition we have today. In the 1980s, however, “gay” took on its slang definition. Stemming from general homophobia and youth culture’s desire for easy-to-use putdowns, “gay” grew from its roots as a homophobic accusation into a catchall phrase for anything disagreeable.
In 2006, the BBC, after fielding many complaints about a BBC Radio 1 DJ using “gay” negatively, conducted a study of the slang term’s usage. 83% of English schoolteachers admitted to hearing it used regularly, even from children in nursery school. The BBC then defended their DJ, stating that its popularity among youths justified the use of “gay” in a negative fashion. I entirely disagree, as does Miramonte senior and lesbian Lauren Kimble.
“I have this conversation a lot,” she says. “I ask people, ‘what do you mean, that’s gay?’ and they say, ‘oh, I mean that’s stupid.’ But then you’re connecting being gay with being stupid. I understand that it’s part of our culture, but realize what you’re saying.”
Words have certain definitions for a reason. Without them language would disintegrate. So why would someone call something “gay” when they mean to say “stupid?” It’s not for lack of a better word: there are thousands of different ways to express discontent that don’t involve using the word “gay.” The answer, though Miramonte students will be slow to admit it, is the very same reason “gay” developed a negative connotation in the first place. If you use “gay” in a negative fashion, then you are being homophobic. End of story.
Unfortunately however, being called “homophobic” doesn’t quite have the clout of being called “racist” or “anti-Semitic,” so I’ll spell it out for you. If you are homophobic, then you are exhibiting fear of and prejudice for homosexuality. You are afraid of homosexuality because it is different, something beyond your realm of comprehension, and you feel threatened by it, like a three-year-old is afraid of the dark. It forces you to question your own sexuality, which makes you uncomfortable. This is especially true for men, who compensate for their sexual insecurity with super-masculine posturing and attacks on anything remotely feminine in nature.
It is this fear of the different that drives the abuse of the word “gay.” To eliminate such ignorance from our culture is a difficult task, but I believe that it is a step that we must take. Sexuality is not something to be discriminated against: it simply is. We have as much choice over our sexuality as we do the color of our skin, or the type of the blood in our veins. If you abuse the word “gay” because it’s the hip thing to do, not because you mean to insinuate that homosexuality is lesser than heterosexuality, then simply remove such negative usage from your vocabulary. But if you, in your heart of hearts, believe that to be gay is to be worthy of contempt, then I think some serious soul-searching should be in order.