Thursday, December 9, 2010

That's So Gay, Don't Be Such a Fag

It's something I hear every so often, and up until recently it has only caused mild annoyance. I was caught completely off guard when I heard it recently and had to pick my jaw off the floor before I could respond. I was stunned, hurt and then angry. My guard was down, I was totally focused on a task, it just rolled out in casual conversation, and it felt like someone had just punched me in the gut. It's not something I'm used to hearing anymore since my departure from high school and entering a workplace where people are so kind, caring and understanding (I find health care workers to be curious, but not rude, and I'm always happy to answer their questions).

My initial reaction (in my head) was "people still use this? Educated, smart and really nice people whom I like a lot? People who KNOW that I'm gay and don't seem put off or even phased by it".

Then I felt the hot flush of anger and frustration, the distortion of my vision (the world literally turns sideways when my adrenal glands get going).

The words that came out of my mouth, after I had managed to shut it and get my jaw working again, were "did you REALLY just say that? Really???". Perhaps not the most eloquent, but it did provoke a particularly awkward discussion about homophobia and racism.

I saw the immediate look of panic in their face, and then I felt my stomach drop. This wasn't intentional, it was habitual.

It's taken me a long time to understand the full consequence of using "that's so gay" instead of "that's stupid" or "that's lame". We, as decent citizens, understand the ties between a racial slur and the existence of racism, but the line between a homophobic slur and homophobia is not as well understood. We accept that screaming "CHINK" out of a car window, pulling your eyes back to mock Chinese people, or making the "duhhh" while hitting your chest is rude, cruel and tasteless. We understand that this is a form of violence, and adults, school officials and parents a quick to chastise children for this behaviour. The first time those words ever left my mouth I was 11 and sitting in the gym at school. My friend turned to me and said "that's not a nice thing to say about gay people", and she was very very upset with me. The last time I uttered "that's so gay" was later that year and my mother was driving and I was sitting in the back seat. We were on a side street, so she slammed on the breaks, turned to me and said "don't you ever say that again". That expression has never graced my lips in a derogatory manner since.

My experience in high school was that "that's so gay" and "you are a/don't be such a fag/got" were acceptable insults. A friend's locker was spray painted with "faggot" and was trashed on several occasions, and the Christian club was allowed to "pray for the souls of the lost (aka the GSA)".

Using these terms REINFORCES the idea that being gay is abnormal, that there's something wrong, that it's a bad thing. It's deeper than that though, because insults aimed at a person's sexuality are also aimed at their gender identity. When "you are a fag" is used, it's usually used by a male person directed at another male person and is meant to point out things that are considered "feminine". If you are a man, having any feminine qualities is considered a weakness. I've found this to be true especially amongst teenage boys as they desperately grapple for a sense of identity (like we all do as teenagers). The idea that is reinforced is that if you are a fag, you are not a "real" man. Homophobic bullying IS gender bullying. It's bullying centered around gender roles and stereotypes. If a man knits, he MUST be gay, and therefore knitting when you're a man is considered pretty "faggy". The reverse is true, if a woman has short hair, wears mens pants and drives heavy machinery for a living, it's not "typical" women's work, and therefore pretty "dykey".

What should be done? Zero tolerance for this kind of language and bullying. In schools, at home, at work. I am pleased that this is an expression I hear rarely (although it should be taken into account that I'm now an adult who surrounds herself with people who think and behave like I do, that I have the luxury of living in Vancouver proper, and that I am a white middle class woman with an undergraduate degree and a career).

I hope that I continue to hear less and less of this incredibly derogatory slur as people become more aware and understand the implications when it's used. If it's OK to condone violence against a group of people for PERCEIVED sexual orientation and gender identity, then everyone becomes a potential target, from the 2 year old son who adores and grovels at his 5 year old sister's feet, to the 7 year old girl who would much rather cut her hair short, wear "boy clothing" and climb trees, to a 16 year old boy who cries when someone he loves passes away, to the 26 year old woman who speaks up against sexual harassment at work.

Sticks and stones do break bones, but words cause irrevocable psychological damage.


  1. I would not recommend "that's lame" instead of "that's gay". You don't really mean it's disabled. It's become so familiar that it's lost the meaning- it's just a sound to express how you disagree with or aren't happy with something, but it's just as incorrect as "that's gay".

    I used to say it a lot. It's a hard habit to break. But I'm sure we can be more creative.

  2. My general strategy for my kids at work when they misuse a term or say something derogatory is to put them on the spot and ask them what exactly the term means. It often makes them really uncomfortable and they refuse to answer. I let them be uncomfortable, and then I say something along the lines of "if it makes you so uncomfortable to say it, then I know you know it is wrong."

    When it comes to the "That's so gay", I purposely make it really personal. For a lot of young kids, they don't have (or don't know they have) meaningful connections with people that are queer. My standard response is "esveral of my best friends are gay. When you use that word like that, you are being hurtful to people that are really important to me."

  3. @Marissa: This is a slippery slope. All words used to substitute "stupid" (including the word "stupid" itself) come from a description of people with varying degrees of mental illness or disability. In France, "stupid" "idiot" and something else were medical terms used to describe the level of mental disability and corresponding IQ. I don't know if they still do that, but I have thought about completely eliminating all of those terminologies from my vocabulary, and instead using "I see your point of view, but I don't agree with it". "That's stupid", or "you're stupid" or "I think that's a stupid idea" is not respectful language. Thank you for making this point, it's an incredibly important aspect to remember!!!

    @Dani: You know I love you, right? ;)

  4. @Marissa & Allison - instead of 'Gay' or 'lame' or whatever thing you may want to insert there, try: 'unfortunate', 'ridiculous... and not in a good way'. I did laugh when someone said 'unfortunate' the first time, but it doesn't seem so bad anymore, give it a try! ;-)

    @Allison - someone say this line to me earlier this week and had me almost falling off my chair, with my jaw to the ground, and i challenged them, and said, 'what do you mean?', and he replied, 'really cool, flamboyant, colourful, and not typical', and what he was describing really was just that! I appreciated him using it in a positive way! (And this from a heterosexual, white man!) ;-) [He was talking about some online cooperative (not competitive) game with rainbow unicorns and Erasure music playing in the background, that he loves to play - completely appropriate use of the phrase, as far as I am concerned!] ;-)

  5. @Michelle: I say "that's so gay!" in the same context!! :D Although I try to keep it to circles of people who know what I'm talking about so I don't have to explain myself 5000000 times. :)