A friend of mine recently told me about a story from the second grade class she teaches. A little boy misspoke, saying he didn’t have a boyfriend, then corrected himself, that he meant girlfriend. He added that if he had a boyfriend, that would make him gay. Another student called over my friend and tattled on the boy for using a “bad word.”
Hearing this story, I felt my heart in my throat. This is a second grade classroom, and already this student heard the word “gay” to mean bad things— probably things like stupid, wrong, uncool, or lesser. This is a young person who is still learning much of her vocabulary, and her first connotations were negative ones.
When I was growing up, I learned the word “gay” to mean homosexual first, which is no surprise, because my aunt is gay. At the time of learning, my parents treated it with a carefulness that most other words weren’t given, but that was only a subtlety that flavored the overall positive connotation. Gay was someone who liked the same gender, but it was a term to be used thoughtfully.
As I got older, I found out that gay sometimes means “happy.” This probably came sometime during middle school when I first watched West Side Story and heard the line “I feel pretty, and witty, and gay.” This made me laugh at first, because of how one word could imply very different things. The girl singing the song was not gay, but she was gay. This definition added to what I knew of the word.
Some of my friends came out during high school, and at least among my other friends, all received warm support (though some did have difficulty at home). This word was meaningful and called for a greater emotional intimacy between friends. It was a great word.
But then, I started hearing some people using the word gay in negative ways.
“That’s so gay.”
“You’re so gay.”
It was almost surreal. I remember commercials on our morning announcements designed to teach kids why saying those things were harmful, and not understanding why they were used that way in the first place. What made these kids start using the word “gay” to mean something which, to me, was so contrary to its natural connotations?
But of course, it comes from a history of homophobia in our culture. It wasn’t as if I had never been exposed to this. When I was in fourth grade, after telling a friend at a sleepover that I really liked a certain song, she told me the singer was a lesbian, and the way she said it made me feel ashamed without understanding why.
When I was in Jr. High, after writing a loving note to a female friend of mine (and accidentally sending it through a confusion about how instant messenger programs worked), I had a lot of friends find reasons to stop talking to me all at once. I found out later people had said I was a lesbian, and that this may have been the start of my series of broken connections.
At that point in my life, I understood that “lesbian” might have something in the word that made people uncomfortable, but “gay”? Gay was paired with “pretty and witty.” Gay was joyous. Why were people using gay to mean “bad and stupid”?
This is what’s called “semantic derogation.” It’s when a word changes connotation in a negative way due to having new, more negative definitions of the word in use at the same time. A good example of this is the word “mistress.” Originally, Master and Mistress were equally formal titles. It’s where we get Mr. and Mrs. from. But, over time, Mistress was also used to refer to a woman with whom a married man was having an affair. And now, even if we try to use “Mistress” to mean something respectful, we feel the tinge of the other definition on our tongues.
It’s frustrating to me, because “gay” is such a great word. I feel like someone is trash talking a friend of mine when they use it to mean bad things. Even if they’re joking, the jokes are mean and unnecessary. It’s not okay to make people who identify with the word “gay” (or “lesbian” or any other word that should be worn with pride) feel that sting. All bullies claim “it was just a joke,” but it’s never just a joke to the people hurt by it. And this use of the word is a form of bullying. Who wants a word our culture uses as their label of identity to remind them of things bad, lesser, uncool, or stupid? “Just joking around” is not a good enough excuse.
As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post (“They”— A Controversy), language is a living thing that is hard to control. If a word becomes commonly used in a certain way, that becomes the definition. Sometimes that reality thrills me, but in this instance, it leaves me unsettled. Even right now, this new, negative definition is included in my computer’s dictionary.
gay |gā| adjective (gayer, gayest)
1 (of a person, esp. a man) homosexual: that friend of yours, is he gay?
• relating to or used by homosexuals:feminist, black, and gay perspectives.
2 lighthearted and carefree: Nan had a gay disposition and a very pretty face.
• brightly colored; showy; brilliant: a gay profusion of purple and pink sweet peas.
3 (informal, offensive) foolish, stupid, or unimpressive: making students wait for the light is kind of a gay rule.
I know I don’t have any control over whether hypothetical teenagers I haven’t met say “That book was gay,” but I don’t think that means that there’s no way to get people to understand the harm in what they’re doing. I do think though, that if we just scold children when they first start using “gay” in these ways, we will end up with the situation my friend faced— a child knowing a word for how it’s used harmfully, but not how it’s used positively.
But we can approach this issue— it’s not beyond our abilities. Parents can teach kids the way mine taught me: early on, and with no lingering discomfort in the word. Friends can challenge friends. Teachers can assign literature written by gay people, so that maybe we can change “That book was gay” to “That book was written by a gay author, and I learned a lot.”
Or teachers, like my friend, can sit down with a young girl and open up this complicated issue of language, where using the word “gay” to mean lesser, uncool, or stupid is a “bad word” and its use should be reported, but using the word to mean a boy who likes boys or a girl who likes girls is fine and appropriate.
And then we can see more and more of the little boy in her class, who knows the meaning of the word gay, and can say it, unembarrassed, like just another word. We can see classrooms where little boys can say “boyfriend” instead of “girlfriend” and not be teased.
We can get there, because for a lot of bright, young people, we’ve already made this world.