I still remember the first time I ever heard the odious expression “that’s so gay.”
I was in journalism school in Halifax, getting ready to go on-air with a couple of younger classmates. We were just putting the finishing touches on our script when Ryan made some suggestion and James scoffed and said, “That’s so gay!”
I was completely taken aback.
“Excuse me?” I asked, convinced I must have misheard.
It was 1999, I was out to the entire program, my partner was invited everywhere, nobody seemed to care about my sexual orientation.
They just used it as an insult.
James looked startled. A guilty look flitted briefly across his face, quickly replaced by a look of defiance.
“You mean you never heard that term before?” he asked me. It’s not, like, a gay thing, he said. It just means, you know, stupid. It’s like saying that’s so dumb, he explained, gaining confidence as he went.
He wasn’t being discriminatory or anything. I was just out of touch with the trends.
It’s just an expression, he repeated.
One I’d never heard before.
Seems all those years I was proudly discovering and flexing my gay wings in university, the next generation was learning to equate my sexuality with stupidity.
And nobody stopped them.
James squirmed ever so slightly. “You really never heard that term before?”
I shook my head.
Ten minutes to airtime.
Everyone uses it, he informed me, walking back to his post.
I can’t remember what I replied, if anything. I’d like to think I offered a scathing rebuke of everyone and their choice of demeaning terminology, but I think I just stared, still in shock.
He shrugged and got back to work.
Now, six years later, the expression is just as common if not more so. If anything, it’s become even more acceptable to causally equate gay with stupid.
From what I gather, the expression is rampant among teens and even children across North America, uttered unchecked in classrooms, on playgrounds, on streets and in buses.
“It would be nice to not hear gay used as an equivalent of stupid. It sort of degrades you, wears you down,” 16-year-old Jacob Schweda told me two weeks ago when I attended Salt Spring Island’s first-ever Pride celebrations.
The kids who use it “don’t necessarily make the connection to me,” he noted. “But it can’t be good to use gay as an insult like that.”
Bill Turner agrees. He sponsors the Gulf Islands Secondary School’s gay-straight alliance (GSA) that Schweda co-founded last year. The kids who use that expression say it has nothing to do with sexuality, Turner says, “and that very well may be, but my heart goes out to those kids who are so ashamed, questioning their sexuality.
“They hear it day after day. They internalize that gay means dumb or stupid or less than others. And it’s that internalization of inadequacy that really gets to me. It damages people.”
Granted, we’re not talking about physical attacks here. Violence is almost unheard of on Salt Spring, Schweda says. “But more subtle forms of homophobia do exist.”
Subtle yet significant.
In addition to hurting the queers within hearing range, these casual utterances of dismissal reflect a mindset, an assumption that it’s okay to degrade us, to use gay as a shorthand for stupid, to equate gay with something worthy of ridicule.
Aren’t these the very roots of homophobia we should be striving to address, to rip out, to replace with a new respect for gays and lesbians and sexual liberation in general?
As a substitute teacher at the high school, Turner says he strives to call students on it whenever he hears “that’s so gay.” But it’s “very hit or miss” with other teachers, he laments.
What would our world be like if more teachers were like Turner? If more kids were called on their choice of terminology and introduced to the idea that gay is neither a threat nor a synonym for stupid? If more kids were encouraged to explore their sexuality, free from the condemnation of their straight-striving peers?
I don’t know, but I’m ready to find out.