I admit it, I don’t know how to respond to people using the phrase, “That’s so gay.” For years now it seems that people have been using this to mean “That’s stupid” or “That’s ridiculous,” and to me it’s so freakin’ obvious that such a use came from seeing gay people as stupid or ridiculous that I can’t even see how people can say it without being aware that they’re being insulting. It’s just so glaringly mean!
My feeling offended by the phrase has been met with “Well, language evolves,” and “I don’t mean homosexual, I mean stupid.” I can’t argue with those. They’re true statements. They simply don’t get to the root of why that phrase is so very fucked up.
The fact that language evolves doesn’t excuse us from looking at the forces pushing the evolution. Most slang develops to provide a signifier that the people using it belong to the same class. Often it’s a way that non-dominant groups create power, by molding the language to their culture. It’s a way of defining against, of building a shorthand that says “This person is like me.” One of the most obvious examples is among teenagers, for whom defining themselves against their parents and their parents’ culture is of supreme importance. Building slang, changing the meanings of words, these are ways that they say “I’m not you. I’m me.” As part of a person’s development, this stage is necessary.
Another part of the evolution of language is seen in reclaiming words that were once slurs, taking the power-over away from the words and using them as power-with the group that they slurred. Gay men referring to themselves as “fags” can be an example of this (though such usage can also be derisive). Claiming the words “dyke” and “butch” as part of a self-defined identity is another example. Words that were used to hurt can be appropriated by the people attacked with them and redefined.
“That’s so gay,” isn’t a reclamation. It’s use doesn’t come from a group whose oppression was evidenced in it’s previous usage. “That’s so gay” comes from the oppression itself. Being gay or appearing gay is so derided that it becomes a synonym for stupid or ridiculous. The driving force behind this evolution in language is homophobia. By participating in this evolution of meaning, we take part in furthering institutionalized homophobia. That’s not to say people using the phrase are homophobic, but they are participating in cultural homophobia, equating “gay” with “stupid.” The meaning the individual puts into the phrase doesn’t take away from that homophobia. The intended meaning being “That’s stupid” doesn’t remove the link made between “stupid” and “homosexual.” “I didn’t mean it like that,” doesn’t remove the force behind the words used.
But I’m left wondering how to confront the usage of such a hurtful phrase. Pointing out the roots of homophobia in the words seems to result in defensiveness and walls being throw up so that communication stops. Saying “I find that phrase hurtful, please don’t use it around me,” just means that at best I’m not going to hear it, not that I’ve actually been able to communicate what’s so hurtful about the phrase. So how do I say, “I’m not calling you a homophobe, but your language is homophobic and hurtful regardless of your intent,” in a way that people will hear it and understand and not feel defensive or insulted themselves. How do I set aside my own incredulity at people not seeing the insult in their words long enough for me to lovingly explain the insult?
That’s where I’m left stumbling. I just don’t know how to do that, or if it’s worth trying when people just don’t want to hear it.