Let’s Talk Semantics 4: Gay

February 22, 2011 § 12 Comments

I’ve been wanting to talk about this for a while. Apparently this ad campaign has been running for at least 2 years (at least, that’s when it was added to YouTube), but it hasn’t started making its rounds to this part of town until right around the Super Bowl.

Just in case you haven’t seen it (and, really, even if you have), take a gander:

I am sick to death of people, especially young people, using the word “gay” as an insult. I hear it at least once a day just by walking through the halls. More often than not, I hear it from the mouths of young men rather than from young women, but I am not foolish enough to believe that it’s just a male problem. In fact, before I left Facebook, I remember seeing young people attempt to “pretty it up” by spelling it differently. Surely, changing the spelling to “ghey,” for instance, entirely shifts the meaning away from a connotation to imply homosexuality and instead suggests that the meaning is entirely dependent upon spelling.

Of course.

So, to appease the Grande Wanda Sykes (who I utterly adore), perhaps the young men should have corrected her assumption and said, “No no, you thought we said G-A-Y. We actually said G-H-E-Y.” Yeah. That’s better.

When did this happen? I have no memory from high school of hearing people exclaim that something was “gay” when they thought it was stupid or weird or whatever. The scapegoat term then was “retarded,” which apparently has become so sinister in usage that I have even heard really young people (like…middle-school-aged) call it “the r-word.” It took me a while before I realized what word they meant. Obviously I would never condone the use of “retarded” to stand in to mean anything except in a medical sense preceded by the word “mentally” (although…is this no longer standard? I know the acceptable term is “developmentally delayed”…but as a former musician, I can’t help but be reminded of ritard to mean “slow” or ritardando for “slowing down”…”retarded” just has a different connotation to my ear, I suppose).

I suppose young people have likely always bastardized the meanings of other words to replace “stupid.”

There’s something rather despicable, of course, when the word derives original meaning from the description of a person or people. (Hell, even “gypped” is pretty disgusting, since it is derived from “gypsy.”) I suppose what makes the use of “gay” for this purpose topically offensive is that we are currently in a tumultuous, confused, and troubling argument in regards to gay rights. When young people use the word “gay” to mean “stupid,” they are not only insulting an entire portion of the world’s population (both past and present). Sadly, it’s not just about insults, Madame Sykes. Rather, the use of the word “gay” in this context degrades people while simultaneously shutting down the entire discourse before it has a chance to really get its legs beneath it. “That’s so gay [or ghey or whatever],” halts all discussion. Regardless if it’s said in a positive (which is rare) or negative (more common) context, that phrase at all generalizes, stereotypes, and ignores an entire group of people.

So, what do we do about it? We shut down the insulters. Like the ad campaign concludes, we tell them to “knock it off.” Even if it’s not our kid, not our conversation, not our battle, we make it known that that phrase is not appropriate.

Look, if you’re going to degrade something, really degrade it. And do it with class without dragging an entire group of people into it!

Methink’st thou art a general offence and every man should beat thee.
(from All’s Well That Ends Well)

That Shakespeare, he really knew how to zing ’em!

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§ 12 Responses to Let’s Talk Semantics 4: Gay

  • Well said. Maybe the next time I hear someone say “That’s so gay,” maybe I’ll correct them by saying something like, “Don’t you mean, ‘that’s so American’?” 🙂

  • Brillian post, Amanda. As a lesbian, I can’t thank you enough for this thoughtful look at a troubling semantic issue.

    By the way, I love this series! Can’t wait for more!

    Hugs from Haiti,

    • Mrs. H. says:

      I’m so glad you’re enjoying the series! 🙂 You know what’s funny? I think many of us fall into some oppressed group or other in at least one way (like, for instance, I’m of Irish-Sicilian ancestry, and I’m Roman Catholic. But I live in an area where growing up Roman Catholic was akin to being a member of a cult. It was horrible.) I think if we all remember the ways that we have been bullied, persecuted, or mocked, it will help us to be sensitive to the same hurt that others experience.

      What can I say? I’m a bit of an idealist when it comes to this sort of thing.

  • Lisa says:

    I know this veers a little off track from the corruption of words in this way, but I want to share a little story that just happened yesterday (because in its own way it relates).

    I completely lost it in class yesterday. We were talking about a video I had shown that followed the making of four Broadway musicals. I asked why they thought one of the musicals did not win. First response, “Because there were black people in it.” I shot that down. Second response, “Because there was nobody gay in it.” I exploded. During the video, when I was out sick, someone in the class was making continuous derogatory remarks. And, of course, when I ask for responses the overwhelming reaction was “They are all gay.” Of course, that is meant as an insult. And, of course, it is also a way of making the arts seem less valuable (which is disturbing on so many counts).

    My angry response to this room full of testosterone-filled athletes: “Not everyone who does theater is gay. The only reason you know more people are gay in theater is because it is safer for them to be out, because theater people are less judgmental. I guarantee you that there are more gay athletes than you know, and they are simply afraid to come out. There will be no gay bashing in my classroom.”

    Let’s just say the class took an interesting turn after that.

    Thanks for your post. As usual, it got me thinking.

    • Mrs. H. says:

      Oh my god. I just…there are no words…. Except: Good for you! I’m glad you said something because you never know who’s sitting in your classroom wishing that someone would stand up for him or her. I’m curious about how your athletes took the rest of class and whether or not you were able to recover to finish lecture.

      I do these blogs for part of my students’ daily grades. And one day last semester, we were discussing the animosity many early Protestants felt toward Roman Catholics in Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. I’m a Catholic, but my students don’t know that. Well, our discussion got out of hand, and one of my guys just kept going on and on about how nobody should trust their kids around a priest and how if he were a Catholic dad, there’s no way in hell he’d let his son serve as an altar boy. That really hurt me because I understand just how deeply special it is to serve behind the altar, what that means for our faith. I tried to challenge him and say things like, “You’re generalizing an entire group of people based on the perverse sickness of a few. There are pedophiles in every profession.” Well, he wouldn’t hear it, and he got a great deal of support from his classmates. I lost control of the discussion. Fortunately for me, we ran out of class time, so I dismissed everyone.

      Then I went home for the weekend and read their assigned blogs. And I read something that broke my heart. One of my girls in the room is Catholic. And she kept her mouth shut because she was afraid to say something. She wrote a blog about how deeply insulted she was and how hurt and how discussions like those continually reinforce for her that she should just keep her mouth shut no matter what, that she should endure the slings and arrows (to put Hamlet’s words in her mouth). I felt horrible. It was my responsibility as her teacher to stand up for her, no matter what. So, the next class meeting, I pulled her aside after lecture and apologized profusely to her. I explained that I’m Catholic as well, and that I’ve lived in this part of the world for my entire life, and that I have suffered in just the same way as she suffered. I promised her that as Catholicism would continue to come up in class discussions (it’s unavoidable in Renaissance texts), I would be extra careful to make sure the Catholic side of the issue would be represented. She apologized to me because she didn’t want to hurt my feelings! Hurt MY feelings??

      That memory will live with me forever because that was a day that I utterly failed a student who needed me in that moment to stand up for her.

      • Lisa says:

        First of all, you did not fail her. That’s a tough situation, and yes you let it slide that day. But opening up and apologizing you showed her that, as teachers, we also struggle with these kinds of issues. Remember that.

        This particular class has been horribly challenging all semester. Yesterday was just kind of the peak. It was ugly for a little while but then I twisted the tension to my advantage. I wanted to explore Theater for Social Change. I had them brainstorm issues that concerned people today. I made them break up in small groups and create an image (using their bodies) with words and phrases that represented their issue. The group that was most vocal backing me up when I lost it decided to do Gay Marriage. Amen! We were able to have a little actual discussion about it. Then I did a kind of values thing, where one side of the room was Yes, one No, and the middle somewhere in between. I started easy, “I like dogs”, “I like mint chocolate chip ice-cream” then I got more challenging “I believe in God” “I support Gay marriage”. The one that caused a huge (but actually amusing) discussion was “I’d rather be rich than happy.” The hardest part was controlling these LOUD basketball players and football players to actually listen to each other. I had to stand on a chair and pound on a desk. But, ultimately it was successful.

        Because I teach so many types of classes (from Theater to Writing and everywhere in between) I’ve usually confronted prejudice head-on, using different techniques. (Yesterday was my failure, because usually anger is not a technique I embrace). I try not to blatantly state my opinion on the really touch issues (like abortion or politics) but, if people say things that offend me, I call them out. I’ve noticed lately that I have the tendency, early on in the semester, to label myself as a means of protection. At the appropriate moment they learn that I am Jewish, that I married and Asian, that I am very liberal, etc. However, that has been a huge challenge this year, in my first experience teaching in a truly conservative Christian community. I don’t know if I handle it correctly, but I don’t feel that I should hide from my students. If they are going to be anti-semitic, so be it, but they have to realize that there is a Jew standing right in front of them. A Jew who also happens to control their grades.

        Sorry again for the long response. This is such a huge issue.

  • Tori Nelson says:

    GO WANDA!!! I haven’t seen this before, but I am glad it is getting some publicity. I went to school with a whole class of “gay”, “retarded”, and “Jew” misusers- They literally substituted those words for any and every other word in their dumb little sentences. I have never understood why that hateful misuse became a trend. What’s the thrill in insulting an ENTIRE WORLD OF PEOPLE rather than simply stating that something or someone is silly, dumb, etc. So glad you shared this with us & what a perfect use for Shakespeare’s quote!

  • Jack says:

    Ugh – I can’t stand the use of the word “gay” or “retarded” to mean something negative. It’s one of my BIGGEST pet peeves.

  • […] that hit me close to home.  A little over a week ago she wowed me with a discussion about the semantics of the word “gay” . In today’s post she reveals with utter honesty her feelings about competition and fears as […]

  • I remember when the word used to mean happy. Maybe we should go back to that. A lot of my best friends are just happy.

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