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.