I encounter this on an almost daily basis - hearing people (usually teenagers) use the word "gay" as a synonym for "stupid" or "lame", as in "this movie is so gay". Most heterosexuals who use it in this context don't mean it as a homophobic slur, but take it from me - to a homosexual hearing the word used like this, it's like a daily slap in the face.
Every generation of schoolchildren has them, the playground put-downs that can leave a pupil's reputation in tatters among their peers. For the current generation, "gay", "bitch" and "slag" are the most frequently used terms of abuse, according to a survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL). They are used by children of all ages, from nursery school upwards. But the worst offenders are secondary school pupils, says the teaching union.
"Every generation grows up with a whole lexicon of homosexual insults, in my day it was 'poofter' or 'bender'," says slang lexicographer Tony Thorne. "They were used much more because they were considered more offensive than 'gay', which is more neutral.
"It's only in the last four years that I've documented it being used so much by young people. It's what we call a 'vogue' word, which is a fashionable word."
One reason for this increase in use could be because "gay" has partly lost its sexual connotations among young people, he says. While still pejorative, for the majority of youngsters it has replaced words such as "lame".
"I have interviewed scores of school kids about this and they are always emphatic that it has nothing at all to do with hostility to homosexuals," says Mr Thorne, compiler of the Dictionary of Contemporary Slang. "It is nearly always used in contexts where sexual orientation and sexuality are completely irrelevant."
"The word has what we call multiple coinage and that's the problem," says Mr Thorne. "While teenagers are generally using it to mean 'lame' it can separately be used as a homophobic term of abuse."
It's this ambiguity that prevents some teachers from tackling pupils who use it in a negative sense, says ATL. They are afraid of "blowing trivial matters out of proportion".
It's tricky because it's often a casually throwaway remark and said without any obvious malice," says Deborah, a teaching assistant from Essex. "Terms such as 'batty boy' are clear homophobic insults and much more straightforward to deal with."
Every generation has abusive words. But while "gay" may have changed for some, it is still being used as a means of bullying, as are many other homophobic insults (see table, above). Last year, the Westminster government announced the first guidelines for schools on how to deal with homophobic bullying.
Gay lobby group Stonewall says 65% of young gay people experience homophobic bullying. And many who aren't gay also get labelled as such.
"It's a form of peer group control," says psychologist Helen Cowie. "Boys have to be masculine and macho and anyone who isn't must go along with it or face being bullied. It's a form of bullying that domineering people seek out vulnerable people and school age is a time of emergent sexuality which is itself a vulnerable time."
Fellow psychologist Ian Rivers says the potency of such words is in the fact they "go to the very core of who we are". Yet sexual orientation is also invisible. "It's not about your heritage or your race, it's not about things which someone can see." So it can't even be challenged, he says. "How can children demonstrate that they are heterosexual. There's no effective recourse and this is what makes it so effective as a bullying tactic."
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
"Gay" now the top schoolyard insult
A study of schools in the UK has revealed that "gay" is now the leading term of abuse, with 83% of teachers reporting hearing it used regularly, compared to it's nearest rival, "bitch" at 59%. According to the BBC :