Saturday, November 9, 2013

That's So Gay

"That's so gay."  

Really? Is that the best you can do? You're dissatisfied; you're disgusted; you're irritated, and all you can come up with is that pathetic, over-used line? When we give no thought to the words we use, it's easy for our catch-phrases to become habit. That's all it is, really, a habit. A bad habit that needs some work. Can't we do better than this?

First off, let's define our terms. Gay, according to Merriam-Webster, means "attracted to someone who is of the same sex." 

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, in my opinion, is a reference only a step above your uncle's best friend's college roommate. Setting my prejudicial feeling aside, Wikipedia admits that "among younger speakers," the word has a derisive meaning, "similar to rubbish or stupid."  

Let's raise the bar for ourselves, shall we?  Let's use good old Merriam-Webster for the sake of argument, and agree that these days, gay has more to do with sexual attraction than anything else.

That stated, let's agree that the negative connotation of the word has gotten out of hand.  Overuse of any word makes our language dull and lifeless, and makes the speaker seem less educated and uninformed.       

How hard would it be to take a moment and think about what we really mean? When a teacher hands out a lengthy assignment, you may feel overwhelmed. It's not really a time to complain out loud anyway, says this retired teacher, but how do you FEEL?  Anxious or worried, perhaps, but guess what? The assignment is not gay. Assignments have no gender preference.   

Your parents, or your dorm, or your companion expect you to be in by curfew, or at the agreed upon time. It may seem strict, or you may not agree on the time, or it may seem unreasonable to you. Again, that's not gay. Rules have no sexual orientation.  

While watching sports, it is easy for fans to become emotional about the outcome of any given call. Just because we disagree with the judgment of the referee does not mean that the ruling is gay. Official's calls don't take into account who someone loves.

I heard the phrase, "That's so gay" more times than I care to count. As an elementary teacher and a mom, I heard it plenty. My eyebrows would arch, I would stare at the child with the low-level language skills, a moment of uncomfortable silence would linger, and life would resume. 

At school, that's how it would usually go. From time to time, I stood on my soapbox trying to instill some notion of integrity and higher level thinking.  At home, talks turned serious.

Inanimate objects are not gay. Ah, but what if we're talking about people? What if someone IS gay? Some people are, you know. Is it appropriate then to use our high and mighty gay label?

Lately, Bridger and I have had some good heart to heart talks about a wide range of topics. 

There are two times that conditions are just right for these mother-son discussions: during our thirty minute drive through the canyon to school, and after dinner in the evening when Bridge is playing his guitar in the living room.

Just this last week, Bridger was learning some new fingering for a Jack Johnson song. The talk flowed easily when he gave his fingers a break from the strings.

"I feel so sorry for the gays at school," my 16-year-old said. He had been playing his guitar while
I was coloring with markers.  He had stopped strumming, and started talking about how the kids treat each other.  He has noticed that people are so insensitive.  Kids talk, the way kids do, and feel it necessary to pass judgment. 

"They will say, 'He's gay, you know.'"  

"How do you respond to that?" I was curious.

"I just say, 'So?'" He says the conversation usually ends there. "They never come up with any argument to that one word question." What does it matter? He said some of the kids probably are gay, but his point is whether they are or not, it just doesn't have any bearing on anything. We agree; what difference does it make?

"I've stopped saying those words, Mom." Bridger looked down at the floor. "Queer. Fag. Gay.I quit using them." I smiled.  

Our discussions over the summer had been sinking in for both of us. I found my own self easing up in the judgment department. We had both admitted to using words in a negative way to describe people outside of our circle. Somehow I think we confuse ourselves, thinking if we label everyone, and compartmentalize them according to how we've identified them, we will feel more secure about ourselves. Perhaps our labels make us feel somehow superior.

It is hard to ignore our prejudicial feelings when we observe something to which we have a visceral reaction, but there is no need to identify people with any labels, in most instances. It may take some practice, but I think all of us could do with an evaluation our speech, and how we communicate our thoughts.

We have come to the conclusion that labels aren't necessary. If I'm telling you a tender story about a mother who cannot afford to buy food for her children, it is immaterial to what race she belongs, or with whom she sleeps at night. If we are discussing a situation regarding someone not in our group, unless we're talking medical records, we probably could dispense with labels regarding height, weight, or anything else to be found in a medical history. If we notice someone who looks or acts differently than we do, it just doesn't matter with whom they prefer to spend their intimate moments.

I've struggled with this labeling thing in my writing. I've come to the conclusion that I shouldn't have to tell you what someone is or isn't. My writing should let you draw your own conclusions about the characters. "Show, don't tell" is one of my favorite borrowed phrases. Show me your character is sad, don't tell me. Show me your character's physical traits by the way they move, and the way the talk; don't tell me outright the things I can decipher for myself if you write well enough. Telling is the lazy person's way of talking. Showing is the artist's method of communicating. 

Labeling everyone we meet, before we even know them, is not only lazy, it's hurtful. Once we have talked with someone, and gotten to know him or her, most of our preconceived notions dissipate. We need to take the time to get to know people.

Specificity is one of the blessings of language. We can mean what we say, and say what we mean. I don't want to come off as all "holier than thou." Don't get me wrong. I've been lazy with my speech before, too. There are a couple of pet curse words that I let fly, when, if I thought about it, what I really meant is, "That startled me," or "My jacket is torn," or "That really hurt!"

All I'm really asking you to do is think before you speak. What words could replace your lazy phrasing? Tell me how you feel without using a worn-out phrase with all of the meaning wrung out of it.

"I'm so discouraged."  

"That is so inappropriate."

"I'm shocked by that behavior."

"I feel threatened."

We just need to take a little time to investigate what it is we're feeling, and get specific with our description. Step it up a notch. Don't rely on old, over-used phrases that have actually lost their original significance. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Everybody wins that way.


  1. Thank you for writing this. Kudos to your sensitive son! My brother was gay. It was not an easy path. I forbid the phrase "that's gay" in my high school classroom for 20+ years. Like to hope I enlightened a few kids along the way!

    1. Carol, no doubt your influence has a ripple effect with your students. They are experiencing a loss in your not being at the high school any more. You must miss your brother so terribly. He is lucky to have had such a fierce protector, and champion in his corner.

  2. I appreciated your post. I agree that people choose the easy way in taking overused words and throwing them out there. I also think at times kids join in so they are not the next target.

    1. Anne, thank you for your input. You are right, of course. I just wish more of us would challenge each other to increase our vocabulary so we can be more specific, without resorting to thoughtlessness.


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