Campaign to stop use of “gay” as pejorative probably won’t work.

If you spend any time around teenagers, or playing games online, you’ve probably heard someone use the phrase “That’s so gay.” Based on the context in most of the situations I’ve heard it used it’s meaning is one of “lame” or “stupid” rather than “homosexual.” I guess you could take that to mean that being a homosexual is akin to being lame or stupid, but I don’t think that’s what most of the people who use the phrase are actually trying to convey. Some of them, sure, but not most of them.

Still it’s irritated enough folks in the LGBT community that they’ve started a campaign called Think Before You Speak which aims to get people to stop using the word gay in that manner:

That’s so not going to work.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) teens experience homophobic remarks and harassment throughout the school day, creating an atmosphere where they feel disrespected, unwanted and unsafe. Homophobic remarks such as “that’s so gay” are the most commonly heard; these slurs are often unintentional and a common part of teens’ vernacular. Most do not recognize the consequences, but the casual use of this language often carries over into more overt harassment.

This campaign aims to raise awareness about the prevalence and consequences of anti-LGBT bias and behavior in America’s schools. Ultimately, the goal is to reduce and prevent the use of homophobic language in an effort to create a more positive environment for LGBT teens. The campaign also aims to reach adults, including

school personnel and parents; their support of this message is crucial to the success of efforts to change behavior.

In addition to the use of that particular phrase they also want to stomp out the words ‘faggot’ and ‘dyke.’ I’ve been thinking about this campaign since I first caught wind of it awhile ago and I think it’s an admirable goal, but I don’t feel it’s going to work. However I couldn’t articulate why I had that feeling. Then I saw this Penny Arcade comic strip and the accompanying blurb they wrote about it and it became clear:

Trying to regulate how people speak is a problematic endeavor.  People sometimes try to assert that Information Wants To Be Free, when that isn’t actually true, because information can’t want things.  It’s a false corollary of something that is true, though – namely, that Communication Cannot Be Contained.  A true corollary of this notion would be that People Will Say Things You Don’t Like, And May Even Hate, a shard of schoolyard wisdom I previously thought well distributed.

The incoherency springs from the fact that the spots themselves insult the target of their message, which might work to attract attention, but the actual payload of the spots isn’t savage enough to kindle any kind of genuine analysis.  They’re trying to regulate jerks by being jerks, but they’re not really jerks, so they can’t carry it off.  This is the danger of assuming that your opponent is anything like yourself.  They need to give their actual hatred of this practice a voice, every moment they were compressed into some subset of themselves, every brutal act, every misshapen poem they were forced to write, and concentrate this into a fragmentary lozenge of spoken power.

No-one responds to this kind of diffuse scolding, least of all young men, least of all from strangers who present themselves as archwizards of prim speech and perfect morality.  Bigots and stupid kids speak this way expressly to promulgate the root concepts or to provoke a reaction. Telling them to “knock it off,” as this campaign hilariously does, is like exposing your belly to these wolves.

The example image I’ve included from the campaign illustrates Tycho’s point perfectly. You say that to someone in Xbox Live that just said “that’s so gay” and they’ll just laugh at you. And then tell you how gay you are.

Part of the problem is that the people who use the phrase without the intent to demean homosexuals don’t see it as particularly pejorative. It’s like getting upset over the phrase “that sucks”, which most people would consider about as mild an epithet as any. While it’s true that that phrase has its origins in a sexual act, the usage of it almost always has nothing to do with sex and often sex is the furthest thing from the person’s mind who said it. The phrase “that’s so gay” is often seen as just as mild by those who use it.

If anything a campaign like this may end up backfiring and actually increase the usage of the phrase by those folks who enjoy winding others up. Especially on the Internet where anonymity provides many with the confidence to say whatever shocking thing they can think of for no other reason than to intentionally piss off the people who don’t like it. The truth is it’s yet another bit of slang that will probably fade out over time as new phrases come along. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with trying to discourage its usage, but this campaign is probably the wrong way to go about it.

15 thoughts on “Campaign to stop use of “gay” as pejorative probably won’t work.

  1. I tend to think that’s gay.  People pick the most stupid and unimportant things to get worked up over.  If it’s important to these people, they ought to be thankful that they don’t have bigger worries.  The word gay has more than one meaning, and all kinds of people are free to use it.  It isn’t owned by a particular group.

    I was rather gay at the beginning of the day, but now I’m getting grumpy.  Personally, I think the health care fiasco is an extremely big deal with serious implications, and it may be that pretty soon nobody will be able to ignore the consequences of people focusing on inconsequential matters at the expense of things that are critically important.

  2. Oh noes, fear the “consequences of anti-LGBT bias”…yes I need to fear the wrath of LGBT. Of all of the tripe, stupid, and unimportant things in life now I must fear consequences of anti-LGBT bias. What to do! The sky is falling. Of all of the stupid crap out there, this takes the crap sandwich of stupidity of the inane. What a waste of ones and zeros.

  3. Some good points, Les. If they really wanna kill it they would encourage everyone to use it and make it old hat.

  4. LOL Stormin!

    I agree, I think this is the wrong way to fight such an issue. This won’t put out any flames… no pun intended.

  5. I am reminded of the urinal strainers that proclaimed, “Just Say No.” I’m sure THAT stopped many junkies from snorting or injecting.  rolleyes

  6. I’m confused as to how someone can feel insulted if it’s known that the person speaking has no ill will toward them.

    If your homosexual and someone says “That’s so gay.” and you know that person is neither talking about you or has any dislike of gays, how can you be insulted?  Are you upset because they used a word they don’t fully understand, or are you mad that the teen world has co-opted yet another word and used it to mean something it was never intended to mean (eg tool, fat, down, shit, killer, etc)?  What exactly is the complaint here?

    Also, does this person know that gay used to mean happy and carefree.  Should I be upset when a homosexual uses it to refer to themselves?

    We need to spend less time on censoring what people say and spend more time worrying about what they do.  It is painfully obvious if someone is a homophobe, or a bigot, or just a run-of-the-mill jerk no matter what words they use, even if they use no offensive language whatsoever.

  7. “Also, does this person know that gay used to mean happy and carefree.  Should I be upset when a homosexual uses it to refer to themselves?”

    That what i think.  Also, i would like to say that an advertisement wanting to end hatred but using hatred in it only furthers hatred.  That’s like using guns and wars to spread freedom throughout the world.

    words are words.  meanings change.  it is the intent the person is trying to convey that is the problem.  we live in america.  we can say what we want.  I’m Lebanese.  people call me a terrorist all the time.  I think it’s always funny.  we have much more dangerous things to fight.  Why fight a word?  Embrace them all.  one day or children may not have the first amendment and all words will be dangerous to say.  We spend too much time and money fighting petty things.  How much money did this campaign cost?  I wonder how many illiterate lesbian, gay, bisexuals, or straights they could have taught to read with that money?  That is changing the world.

  8. You think it’s fine to use gay so lightly just because it’s a “new meaning” but what if kids started saying “that’s so nigger” or “that’s so black”?

  9. 1. A person’s intention is not all a word communicates, and the intention may not EVEN be communicated. Think green and say red. Words convey all their most common public meanings at once. “That’s so gay”, as disdain for objects or situations, therefore says “This is as weak and lame as homosexuality is”. It says that because of the words two most common public meanings.

    2. Nobody with any awareness of the suffering the Christian Talibans have inflicted with their stupid sexual taboos (since the middle ages) would ever have thought of re-using “gay” or worse “fag” to mean something ELSE undesireable. It was those who led the witch hunts and the Inquisition that desided originally it was undesireable. You REALLY agree ?

    3. Watered down soft gutless campaigns are indeed worse then useless. Thats why healthy, normal, non-stereotypical gays who looked just like you and me and evry gamer there is fought the police PHYSICALLY in so many places since the 60’s.

    4. If the people that misuse this word had some courage and undertood what’s really going on underneath, they ought to be outspoken, outraged, and on our side as people who want to be free of all kinds of cultural bullshit. If you want to reuse a word as heavy as this REVERSE its meaning. Since the Iranian government has tried to humiliate rebel Iranian male youth by making them wear feminine headress, many are wearing it voluntarily as a symbol of defiance !

  10. @someone, please do your research before saying that using ‘gay’ is the same as using ‘black’ or ‘nigger’ ….Gay is not a new pejorative , it had implications of ‘immorality’ from the 17th century itself (Read Wikipedia)…if gays didn’t want to be offended , then they shouldn’t have chosen a word , which was already used as an alternative for ‘immoral’ some two centuries before they started using it, to describe themselves.And people behave as if homosexuals own the word ‘gay’ …By behaving as if they own that word , they are kind of implying that other people are not ‘gay’ or lively or merry. It can also imply that other people are not gay because they are ‘inhibited by moral constraints’ ….In other words, do homosexuals mean that other people are heterosexual because they are bound by moral constraints only and not because they’re naturally born like that ? There can be so many things I ,as a heterosexual, can claim to hold offense to ….just because they claim to own the word ‘gay’. Yet, nobody hears of such offense

  11. I’ve known people who used the n-word the same way. It does need to be challenged. People need to think about what they are saying.

  12. So just because something is worse in the world means we shouldn’t be against this issue? Seriously people, these are people’s lifestyles being referred in a negative connotation, they have to live with being called stupid, lame and negative. Imagine if the world was dominated by women and “manly” meant stupid and brawny. (I realize the Irony in my example)

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