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Don't Say It's So Gay
“That’s so gay.”
If you use this as an insult, then you are saying something that has the potential to deeply hurt people, whether that is your intention or not. You are implicitly describing an entire group of human beings (i.e. gay people) as less valuable than the rest. You are equating an aspect of their identity with inferiority. What you’re saying is offensive, so please, stop.
If, however, you already refrain from using the phrase in a derogatory sense, then I apologize for making you sit through a lesson you’ve already learned. If you yourself have tried to teach this lesson to someone less enlightened, or even just told someone to pick a different adjective, then kudos. You have overcome the natural reluctance to confront one’s peers and in doing so you have aligned yourself with the people whose worth your companion just denied. Depending on your situation, the social consequences of this decision may be as mild as an eye roll, or they may actually be quite serious. Either way, I congratulate you for taking a stand.
I’ve spoken up, too, but admittedly, not nearly often enough. I, personally, have no excuse. I know from experience how badly such a small comment can hurt.
I am straight, and I do not have any close friends or family members who are gay. The “small comment” that hurt me is one which I encountered in my middle school but which, thankfully, I’ve never heard used as an insult in my high school: the words, spoken in a casually derisive voice, “That’s so Jewish.”
As the only half-Jew (aside from my brother) in a school that had no Jews among either students or staff, I was quite hurt every time I heard that phrase. It wasn’t the only manifestation of anti-Semitism that I encountered in middle school, but it is among those that stand out the most in my memory, perhaps because it was among the most likely to pop up unexpected in an otherwise decent conversation. Whether a student used the words out of the desire to hurt me personally, actual anti-Semitism, or mere thoughtlessness, it stung me. I knew, rationally, that I shouldn’t “let” a bunch of ignorant, immature classmates bother me so much. I knew, rationally, that it was terrible, sinful even, that I felt creeping shame when telling people I was half-Jewish. I knew, rationally, that I should be proud of my ethnicity, and I knew that my actual feelings went against everything I believed in.
That knowledge, though, obviously wasn’t enough to change the way I felt. The dismissal so implicit, so inherent, so complete in the derogatory use of a word like Jewish or gay is strong – strong enough, in some cases, to overpower knowledge, thought, and the will to respect oneself and one’s identity. That’s why it’s so important to avoid saying such things.
There are those who argue that saying “That’s so gay” is equivalent to using phrases such as “What a jip” (in which jip comes from Gypsy, a term for the ethnic group now known as the Romani, who were stereotyped as being cheap and tricky). However, the insulting use of gay is clearly more similar to the insulting use of Jewish. While gay and Jewish are still used to identify groups in a non-offensive sense, no one could now refer to a person as a Gyp without appearing very, very insensitive. Because gay and Jewish are so tied to the communities they label, the derogatory use of these terms is tied to these communities as well. Further, most people probably don’t even recognize that jip has its roots in racism, while I think it’s fair to say that the homophobic origins of the derogatory use of gay are abundantly clear.
Anyway, I have been quite happy spending my high school days in an environment that gives me no grief for being half-Jewish; it’s been years, now, since the last time I caught myself averting my eyes when asked my ethnicity. Of course, I remember my less than lovely experience in middle school, especially when I hear someone say “That’s so gay.”
“You know, that’s really offensive. You shouldn’t say stuff like that,” I might begin.
The other person gives me a disgusted, suspicious look. “So?” he or she asks, and then, of course, “Why do you care?”
“’Cause it’s just offensive. Unlike you, I’m not a homophobe.” Unsurprisingly, calling someone who just denigrated all things gay a homophobe does not usually convince that person that denigrating all things gay is wrong. “And, like, when I was in middle school, kids would use the word Jewish that way. I’m half-Jewish. No one else in my grade was even half, and I remember how much that sort of thing would hurt me.”
Usually, telling people about my anti-Semitic ex-classmates makes them feel bad, so they shut up. Sometimes, I know, they’re just reacting to the personal nature of my disclosure, but sometimes I’m pretty sure they’re actually making the connection between my old classmates’ words and their own. They wouldn’t say that something was “so Jewish;” maybe – hopefully – they’ll see that saying something is “so gay” is no different.
Usually, though, telling people about my anti-Semitic ex-classmates makes me feel conflicted. On the one hand, I may have successfully shown someone the error of their ways, or at least planted the seeds for them to think about it again in the future. On the other hand there are a lot of problems. First of all, if I’m honest with myself, I know that part of the reason I bring up my own experiences to avoid accusations of homosexuality, which reveals both a fear of hostility and perhaps a form of homophobia on my part. This reminds me that once again, my thoughts and my feelings don’t always work in tandem; I need to put more effort into eradicating the unwanted homophobia and social insecurity lurking in my own brain. From this perspective, anything I say after “That phrase is offensive” really is just cowardly.
The second problem is that the fact that I frame my background as a reason why I care. This is a manifestation of the idea that you can’t just care about homophobia (or other forms of prejudice) because you’re a decent human being who is concerned for others – the only people who care about homophobia have some sort of personal connection to the issue. If you have no connection, it would follow, you have no reason to care.
I suppose it’s possible to view this objection as too idealistic – after all, when you see somebody addressing an issue, it’s fairly natural to assume that the person has a connection to the issue. Also, in all honesty, I probably wouldn’t be as sensitive to slurs if I’d never been the target of any. And my connection does help clinch my message, at least in some cases. Nevertheless, I do worry about sending the message that if you don’t know anyone hurt by an issue, then you can just ignore it.
The third problem, though, is arguably the biggest. It shouldn’t have to take a comparison of homophobic language to anti-Semitic language for people to see that the use of homophobic language is wrong. That my approach is effective indicates that even in an environment where anti-Semitism and other forms of racism are considered deplorable, homophobia can be alive and well; people who balk at the idea of using “That’s so Jewish” do not so much bat an eyelash at using “That’s so gay.” In a better world, it would not be OK to speak in a manner degrading any group or individual at all. Homophobia would be no more acceptable than anti-Semitism, and each would be far, far less acceptable than either one is now.